President Trump’s shock announcement late Sunday that the US is to withdraw its forces from the Syrian-Turkish borders, to allow Turkish forces to move into Syria, has left Kurds feeling betrayed. But the real winner is Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
This is not news. Assad has been winning for some time, thanks to generous Russian support and the many thousands of foreign militias fighting on ground for him – and the seeming inability of the international community to act to put an end to his crimes.
However, this time it is different. He is winning without fighting. His enemies are going to hand him victory.
Let’s recapture what happened. Inspired by the Arab Spring protests elsewhere, the Syrian people took to the streets in 2011. The peaceful protests lasted a year, and Assad’s forces cracked down on them with escalating brutality.
After a year, driven by the growing feeling among protesters that they needed to defend themselves, the Syrian revolution was militarised. It soon became the battlefield for a civil war that sucked in many regional and international players, and would eventually give birth to ISIS.
Meanwhile, an ethnic minority in Syria were living in relative peace and calm. Kurds, who come from a region covering parts of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, and southern Syria are the world’s largest stateless group. Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, has been autonomous and self-governing since 1991, but its independence has never been formally recognised by the international community.
The Syrian Kurds were denied all rights under the Assad regime. They had been the first to revolt against Assad in a previous uprising in 2004, only to be brutally suppressed. As the revolution intensified, some Syrian Kurds were sympathetic towards the rebel cause, but most of them kept a neutral stand.
The strongest proponents of neutrality were the pro-PKK Syrian Kurds. The PKK is a Kurdish militant organisation in Turkey that is deemed by Turkey, the EU, and the US as a terrorist organisation. Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of PKK, had based himself in Syria for many years, launching its operations against Turkey from there until the threat of war with Turkey led the Syrian regime to force Ocalan out.
Prior to the Syrian revolution, as a testimony to the growing ties between Erdogan and Assad, many PKK sympathizers were jailed by Assad. But to their good fortune, Turkey became the sponsor of the anti-Assad forces Turkey’s decision to support the anti-Assad opposition was out of a belief that the fall of the Assad regime was inevitable. This meant an automatic reconciliation between Assad and the pro-PKK Syrian Kurds, which had organised themselves as the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Assad was losing town after town to opposition forces, and did not have the capacity to fight for control of the Kurdish towns too. So he turned a blind eye when the PYD forces captured most of the Syrian Kurdish towns in 2012. The unnamed mutual tolerance between PYD and Assad continued; except for small skirmishes, the PYD managed to keep neutral and didn’t face any major clashes against the Assad or opposition forces.
But this was not the only reason for the PYD’s good luck. Turkey, which would have normally been against any form of Kurdish empowerment in Syria, had also turned a blind eye to them. In fact, Turkey was having its own peace process with the PKK even as the PYD was taking control of Syrian Kurdish towns. If they had concerns at the time, Turkish officials did not voice them, and did not make any threats. Salih Muslim, the former PYD leader, was spotted several times in Istanbul in 2013.
But the rosy picture above, at least for the PYD, ended because of two major changes in the political dynamics after 2014. In Syria, ISIS appeared, with the stated agenda of sweeping across all Syria and Iraq. In Turkey, the two-year long ceasefire between Turkey and PKK came to an end the. Turkey’s ruling AKP had lost the elections in June 2015 after it had lost many nationalist Turkish votes due to its peace process meanwhile the pro-Kurdish HDP who are accused by Turkey of supporting PKK was making gains. It took the mysterious killing of two police officers in July 2015 for the peace process to fall.
While several Iraqi and Syrian towns fell to ISIS in a very short time, the Syrian Kurdish fighters organised under the banner of the YPG – considered the military wing of the PYD – and managed to defend their hometowns. The battle for Kobani, in September 2014, became the first major fight in which ISIS was prevented from victory.
The US-led coalition which was formed to fight ISIS was not looking to engage ISIS on the ground – they were looking for local partners. The Kurds in Syria and Iraq proved to be the most suitable for the job. While the US provided them with much-needed air support, the Kurds did the groundwork. The eventual defeat of ISIS would not have been possible without them.
Emboldened by the territorial gains made during the fight against ISIS, with support from the international coalition, made Kurds in Iraq and Syria believe that it was the right time to get more ambitious politically. In Iraq, they pushed for full independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, while in Syria, Kurdish regions in the north pushed for greater autonomy. In Iraq, the Kurds were disappointed to see the total Western and American rejection of their dream as international support for independence failed to materialise.
The Syrian Kurds fought on multiple fronts in order to ensure a safe exit from the Syrian crisis. What made it impossible was the total rejection of any Kurdish entity by Assad and his backers, coupled with an even stronger Turkish opposition to any such entity. While Turkey enjoys reasonable ties with the Iraqi Kurdish parties, they deem the PYD to be the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.
As the PYD and the its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) became stronger, the number one priority for Turkey in Syria changed from defeating Assad to ending the quest for Syrian Kurdish autonomy.
Assad and Turkey are not yet on good terms. However, both sides have understood that any long term Kurdish entity in Syria would be bad for both sides. Assad cannot attack Syrian Kurds as long as they enjoy American protection as part of the coalition fighting ISIS – but Turkey is in a different position. Trump appears to have given the green light for a Turkish incursion into Kurdish parts of Syria, and may even have opened the door for a genocide.
Assad has won back most of the Syrian territory he lost to the opposition forces, even while the SDF did the job of recapturing the areas controlled by ISIS. (The Syrian opposition now holds only a very small part of Syria on the border with Turkey.)
The Syrian crisis has come close to an end – and Assad comes out a winner in all possible scenarios. If the PYD agree to a total surrender to Assad to avoid the Turkish invasion, Assad will have won. If Turkey manages to capture the PYD areas – a process which would likely be bloody – Assad will still have, essentially, won.
Turkey has no interest in prolonging the Syrian crisis on its own. The millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey have become a liability for Erdogan, who is now thinking of forcing them back to the areas that are going to be taken from the PYD. If such a resettlement takes place, it will lead to a permanent change of Syrian demographics which favours Assad’s sectarian ambitions. It will change the ethnic composition of the Kurdish areas and the sectarian composition of many predominantly Sunni Arab towns.
The winner of today’s American withdrawal and any future war between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds will be Assad. And that will be a sad end to a revolution.
Dana Nawzar Jaf is a researcher in Islam and Middle Eastern studies and a Chevening Scholar at Durham University. He tweets @DanaNawzar.