Will Syria’s Kurds survive under Assad?

10/18/2019 7:12:15 PM

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Christopher Solomon
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Watching events over the last week, I keep recalling a moment from when I was a student studying Arabic in my home state of Pennsylvania in the mid-2000s. I stepped outside with my Arabic teacher, a Syrian Kurd, during a break in class. He related how, as a young man, he had been jailed and beaten by the Ba’ath Party; but, what he said next has always stuck with me. Lighting a cigarette, he exhaled and stared thoughtfully off into the distance: “The Turks are even worse. With the Syrians, they will only hurt the Kurds in Syria. The Turks will hurt the Kurds anywhere in the world.”

The reaction to President Trump’s decision to pull back US military forces in northern Syria, which paved the way for a Turkish invasion supported by Syrian Arab rebel fighters, has shocked much of the world. However, this has been a long time coming. President Trump had repeatedly made clear his intention to withdraw the US forces from the Syrian conflict. Fears abound about the future of the Kurds in the northeastern of the country and what this means for Assad’s ability to recover political control over all of Syria’s territory.

Assad is a war criminal and has successfully used brutal tactics to regain much of the ground his regime lost at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. With the support of Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias, Assad isolated his enemies and knocked them off one at a time. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died under his repression and from regime and Russian airstrikes. How can the Kurds trust promises of benevolence under his rule? Perhaps it is the “devil they know” that will offer them an escape from Turkish onslaught. The Kurds will have some options now that they are returning back to the regime’s ecosystem.

So far, what we know is that the hasty agreement struck between the SDF and the regime is that it is military, not political, in nature. It appears that there is still time for the two sides to hammer out the politics of reintegrating the SDF-ruled territories back into Assad’s Syria. But, it will not be easy by any means. The Kurds already understand life under the Syrian Ba’ath Party and its brutal Arabization policies, which predates the late President Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar. They have previously risen up against its oppression, most notably during the 2004 riots in Qamishli. The party’s ideology is largely based on Arab nationalism, a platform that was also wielded with genocidal effect by its Iraqi branch under Saddam Hussein. It will be a giant step backwards from their aspirations of forging an autonomous region in northeastern Syria and perhaps eventually creating an independent Kurdish state. Notwithstanding this history, in light of the current developments, an understanding between the SDF and the Ba’ath is the least bad option for the Kurds.

There is some common ground and opportunities that the Kurds can use to their relative advantage. Just as the SDF is ideologically secular, so is the Syrian regime, although the latter is heavily invested in keeping their Alawite sectarian base in power. In addition, Assad has been militarily victorious in much of Syria, but despite this, he is rather politically weak. The government is highly dependent on Russia and is still under intense international sanctions. As far as the West is concerned, the Syrian government will be radioactive until Assad steps down or is replaced. The Kurds on the other hand, are widely admired and respected in the West and international organizations. Despite going back under the regime, they will likely retain strong personal and informal links with these key international partners, something that will be critical for Syria’s reconstruction after the war.

The SDF also has significant military experience with years of US military training, weapons, and hardened fighters from its campaign against ISIS. The Kurds should use these military and international strengths to their advantage. Although a deal with Assad will likely see the return of the Syrian Arab Army to the border areas, along with the dreaded Mukhabarat (secret police), the Kurds will know how to maneuver and survive in this repressive environment. They can form underground cells, push the boundaries, and organize protests.

The real danger for the Kurds will be the time that passes each year they are under the regime with Assad still in power. As the Syrian government reasserts control over the SDF areas, it will do what it can to undermine Rojava’s political and administrative institutions by removing, threating, or jailing key figures that are not sufficiently aligned with the regime. It is important to bear in mind that the SDF is a coalition, composed of not only Kurds, but Sunni Arabs, Assyrians, and other sectarian minorities. Each of its member factions will have varying degrees of comfort for returning to regime rule and this will have to be managed. Other political figures may find themselves forced into exile in the Kurdistan Region or to the West. The regime will also be highly suspicious of the SDF leadership, regarding them as Western stooges or US agents. These figures will likely be purged if the regime gains an upper-hand during the political negotiations. Furthermore, the Kurds will be forced to some degree to adopt an anti-Western line that the rest of Ba’athist Syria must follow. This includes vocal support to Assad, Russia, and Iran and staunch criticism of the United States and Israel.

The West will be tempted to distance itself from the anti-imperialist rhetoric that emerges its former SDF allies during this period. The Kurds and the world must also brace themselves for future handshakes and photo ops with a jubilant President Assad in Rojava. However, future US administrations should still do everything possible to funnel training, funds, and arms to the Kurds, even if they are under Assad’s tutelage. In this sense, just as the SDF might become Assad’s link to the West, they might also become a conduit for future Western engagement with regime Syria, which both sides will use to their advantage. To help navigate this, the Syrian Kurds will lean on external powers with influence over the regime, such as Russia, China, and Iran. These players may be able to offer some pressure on the government, but the buck will ultimately stop with Assad. In addition, the influence of Arab countries will be essential. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq, in particular can offer lifelines if the Kurds are able to build and leverage relationships between these neighbors and Assad, who desires a return to the Arab League. Most important will be the SDF’s ability to retain ties to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, which can provide a refuge for those fleeing political persecution.

What most observers of the Syrian conflict fail to recognize is that the future of Assad’s rule is far from certain. For now, the primary goal for the West and the Kurds should be to reverse Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The United States must leverage diplomatic and economic support and humanitarian aid to Kurds and Syrian refugees in the region to help midwife a managed political outcome. This will not be easy and there will likely be many setbacks. However, the Kurds must ward off a Turkish incursion into Syria since it will bring about an entirely new phase to the conflict. With thousands of hardline Islamist-inspired Arab fighters redeployed into northeastern Syria, we will see a new Idlib situation emerge there. The government has been trying to recapture Idlib province for years and progress has been slow. This is where interests align between the Kurds and the government since Assad has vowed to recapture every part of Syria. Allowing an Idlib situation to take root across the entire northern border will forestall his vision of reconquering Syria by many years.

The intervention has also breathed life into the idea of a Turkish-controlled security zone, which would be similar in many ways to the security zone in southern Lebanon created by the Israelis in 1982. The Lebanese Civil War’s latter phase saw the emergence of new terrorist groups and guerilla operations against the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. Groups like the Lebanese Communist Party, the SSNP, and later on Hezbollah, carried out waves of suicide attacks until the Israelis pulled the plug on the security zone in 2000. A similar situation would not be in anyone’s interest.

The SDF can help prevent this by allowing Russia to orchestrate a deal with the devil. The SDF flags will likely be replaced with the Syrian government flag and political aspirations will be largely curtailed. But the Kurds will live to fight another day. They will need to be on their guard and trust with the Syrian government forces will be nonexistent. However, if they are able to withstand these challenges, Syria’s Kurds and the other groups living in the northeastern part of the country will have a chance of forging some autonomy and retaining the political openness it felt the last few years. In this view, time might be on their side. US Presidents come and go and geopolitical fortunes change. Assad could hang on for decades, end up exiled in Russia, or on trial in the Hague: only time will tell. The Kurds have a chance of maximizing their gains under a weak Syrian government. It will not be easy and they will face many perils, from the government, ISIS, and Turkey, but as Rojava merges back to “Useful Syria,” they will utilize every avenue to safeguard their most prized possession: their unconquerable spirit.


Christopher Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the DC area. He covers Iraq as a weekly contributor for the Economist Intelligence Unit and his writing on Syrian history is featured on Syria Comment. You can reach him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and or those quoted and do not necessarily reflect those of NRT.