Damascus (GPA) – The Kurds refusing to give up demands for autonomy could end up costing them big in the Syria negotiations.
Many supporters of the Kurdish forces in northern Syria have been celebrating recently upon hearing of the leadership of the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) entering into negotiations with Damascus. However, what they have failed to realize about the Syria negotiations is the fact that the Kurds are not negotiating from a position of strength.
Despite what some in the west may think about Kurdish territorial gains over the last 6+ years, most of these gains were made after the addition of US air support to their arsenal. Now, the US, due to their own conflicts with NATO ally Turkey, is planning to possibly pull out of Syria and leave the Kurds on their own.
This potential doomsday scenario of the US leaving northern Syria would immediately place the Kurdish forces between a rock and a hard place with their long-time enemy Turkey on one side, and the country they betrayed, Syria, on the other.
Syria negotiations hit roadblock over autonomy
The negotiations for the future of northern Syria began in early July following a declaration by Syrian President Bashar Assad that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would need to negotiate or fight. The SDF’s political wing, Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), sent negotiators to Damascus shortly after this and expressed a willingness to work with Assad on a settlement for “Kurdistan.”
The SDC has now run into problems though, in that there is a lot of disagreement between the Syrian government and the Kurdish authorities on what will happen of the institutions built by the Kurds after they had opportunistically thrown out the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
As of now, it seems the Kurdish leadership is most interested in holding onto the power they have built for themselves over the past few years. The SDC and Damascus have established sub-committees as part of the Syria negotiations to tackle some specific issues such as local governance, school administration, maintenance of public utilities, security, and control of the country’s border with Turkey but some of these areas seem like they could be red lines for the Kurdish administration.
As far as schools go, the Kurds want Kurdish-language schools teaching a curriculum set by the local authorities. This could cause a problem with the Syrian government as this area of northern Syria has been heavily infiltrated by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which will likely use these schools to teach their radical “Marxist” ideology and cause problems later down the line. This is an issue that could be resolved if there is some oversight by Damascus allowed, but if the PKK has their way, they won’t give in.
There is also the issue that much of these areas were not majority-Kurdish before the war. Damascus does not want to see areas like Manbij keep their new Kurdish schools and administrations.
Control of the Syrian-Turkish border is also important because if Syria were to allow the Kurds to control the border, this leaves the door open for future problems. Not only would this be an affront to Syrian sovereignty and give the Kurds undue influence over border crossings into Syria, the PKK also pose a problem. If the PKK were to have too much control over the border and be able to use northern Syria as a base of operations, there are likely to be future conflicts with Turkey.
Turkey has made it incredibly clear that they will not accept a Kurdish-run enclave on their southern border and would likely continue to interfere in the area if the PKK holds their ground. Damascus clearly understands this threat since they already watched the US allow Turkey to roll over Afrin and are planning to ditch the SDF. Without the blessing of Presidents Assad and Putin, the Kurds won’t be able to fend off more Turkish involvement in Syria.
It is unclear if the Kurdish leadership has come to terms with this yet, but allowing the SAA back into northern Syria will play a major role in negotiations. The Kurds have prioritized the liberation of the city of Afrin from a Turkish occupation, and the leadership of the YPG knows they will need the backing of the SAA and Russia in order to scare the Turks back across the border.
There is also the matter of the administration of local infrastructure. While this sounds pretty tame, what it really means is: Who controls the oil. During the war, the Kurds took control of some of the most oil-rich regions of Syria and there is no reason to believe Damascus is going to allow this to continue.
A similar thing happened in Iraq when the Kurds controlled oil fields in the region of Kirkuk, which was clearly a source of tension when they attempted to hold a referendum on autonomy. The control of Kirkuk’s oil wealth is still being disputed in Iraq which illustrates how tricky this kind of negotiation can be.
Regardless of what the Kurds want, they need an ally with an air force. The YPG is currently engaged in a war with a NATO power while the de-facto leader of NATO is promising to leave them to their fate. Some may not believe this, but all recent history demonstrates the Kurds aren’t the shining stars they’re portrayed as without air-support and they’re going to need a power comparative to the US backing them if they want the Turks out. The only power operating in Syria that can do that besides the US is Russia and if the Kurds think they’re going to dictate to Moscow and Damascus while they’re backed into a corner, they’ve got another thing coming.