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What choice do the Kurds have?

  • Published at 12:01 am October 19th, 2019
Syria-Kurds-Turkey
The Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa, on the sixth day of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish forces on October 14, 2019 AFP

The Turkish invasion has pushed them into a corner

When the Syrian military withdrew from the Kurdish populated regions of Syria in July 2012, they left the Kurds in charge of their homeland. 

Despite the odds stacked against them, the Kurdish forces managed to push back the attacks by IS and other jihadist militias and emerged as the most effective ground force against IS in Syria. 

The support received from the US and the anti-IS coalition allowed them to expand the areas under their control and build a coalition with other ethnic groups in northeast Syria. That momentum was lost when US President Donald Trump abruptly declared his intention to withdraw American soldiers from Syria in December 2018. 

Although that withdrawal was delayed, since then, the long-term fate of the entity the Kurds call the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (NES) has been left without a clear future strategy.

The ongoing Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria has now pushed the Kurds into a corner. They have been left to choose between accepting the authority of Bashar al-Assad or facing a full-scale invasion by Turkey of the territory they control. They chose a deal with Assad.

The ground battle

The Turkish army, supported by its Syrian proxies, the Turkish-backed Free Syria Army (TFSA), started a large-scale air and ground military operation on October 9 against the NES. So far, airstrikes and artillery fire followed by a ground invasion have targeted the border cities of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. 

Civilian casualties have been mounting since the operation began and several civilians were reportedly executed on October 12 by the TFSA groups, including a Kurdish politician, secretary-general of the Future Syria Party, Hevrin Khalaf.

Rapprochement with Assad

The US decision to withdraw all its military forces prompted a military agreement between the Syrian regime and the SDF. Russia, a key ally of Assad which has forces on the ground in Syria, said it would try to prevent clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops.

Kurdish sources said the agreement with the Syrian government would see the Syrian military stationed along the border with Turkey to deter a wider Turkish invasion. According to officials of the Autonomous Administration, institutions such as the local councils, educational institutions and police force that the Kurds have built up since 2012, will continue to operate for the time being, but they are expected to be incorporated into Syrian state structures in the longer term.

The finer details of the agreement are yet to be worked out, but some level of Kurdish autonomy is expected to be retained as part of the post-conflict political settlement. 

Despite the SDF’s success on the battlefields against IS, the Kurdish-led autonomous administration was not included in the international diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict, such as the Geneva peace talks organized by the UN in 2017. 

This continues today: The Syrian constitutional committee was set up by the UN in September 2019 to rewrite the Syrian constitution, excluding Kurdish representatives.

Russia and the Assad government knew that rather than make a deal with the Kurdish-led administration, they could wait until favourable conditions forced it to settle for far less than it would if it had US support. The US withdrawal from Syria leaves Russia as the main power broker. With a Turkish invasion in full swing, the Kurds were left with little choice but to accept the terms offered by Russia. 

Cengiz Gunes is Associate Lecturer, Faculty of Social Science, The Open University. A version of this article originally appeared on The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement.