Will Trump’s Ultimate Deal Resolve the Conflict?
December 20, 2018
KSA 2019 Perspectives
December 28, 2018

The Prospects for Autonomy in Rojava

Introduction

After eight years of war, the forces of President Bashar al-Asad seem on the verge of winning the conflict in Syria. While Damascus has been able to regain control of almost 70% of the Syrian territory , mainly thanks to the support received by Russia and Iran over the years, there still is a big chunk of land (around 27%) in the north-east of the country under the rule of the US-sponsored Kurds, belonging to the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The PYD’s armed wing, known as People’s Protection Units (YPG), has played a crucial role in the fight against ISIS, which they have helped defeat almost entirely with aerial support from the US. During the course of the civil war, the PYD has also managed to establish a proto-democratic form of government in the area that they call Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) or Rojava.
These two aspects, and the cordial relations the Syrian Kurds have had with the US during the war, led them to hope for a more autonomous Kurdish region in Post-war Syria. Nevertheless, regional as well as international actors are either extremely sceptical or entirely opposed to the prospect of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan.
Among these actors, the United States themselves have started to show some signs of reluctance in supporting an autonomous Kurdish Rojava, mainly because they have no interest in further jeopardising their relationship with Turkey, a long-term NATO ally. The latter, in fact, has been very outspoken about its rejection of any forms of autonomy given to the Kurds in north-eastern Syria. Syria’s most important ally, Russia, after having cultivated good relations with the Kurds of Rojava over the years, might become the ideal broker of a deal between Damascus or Ankara and the PYD. As for the regime in Damascus, Bashar al-Asad has vowed to regain “every inch” of Syrian territory, but the status quo on the ground does not allow for such a thing at the moment, even though recent developments might change the Syrian President’s stance. Although the scope of the article does not allow for an analysis of the positions of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran with regard to Syrian Kurdistan, it is worth mentioning that, now that an American withdrawal from Syria is becoming more likely, the north-eastern part of the country might serve Iran’s purposes by expanding its influence in the region to the detriment of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The aim of the article is to identify the prospects for autonomy of Rojava in Post-war Syria, by analysing the role and intentions of regional and global players toward the YPG/PYD, as well as by taking into consideration the internal and practical challenges posed by the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region. And it is from this last aspect that the analysis begins.

The Kurds of Syria

There are approximately 2.5 million Kurds in Syria, most of whom live scattered around the north-eastern regions of the country bordering Turkey and Iraq. Over the years, this minority group has faced fierce persecutions at the hands of the government, which, after a census conducted in 1962, stripped many Kurds of their Syrian nationality and classified them as “foreigners”. As soon as the civil war in Syria broke out in 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Asad immediately tried to befriend the Kurdish populace of northern Syria and neutralise their uprising by granting the Syrian nationality that many of them (300,000) had been waiting for. While it is unclear whether the incentives offered by al-Asad represented the main reason behind Kurdish neutrality in the Syrian Civil War, it is undeniable that, so far, the Kurds of Rojava and the forces of the president have not clashed.
On the other hand, the Syrian Kurds decided to focus on the Jihadist threat posed by the Islamic State. Being the most effective force on the ground in the fight against ISIS, the YPG was able to gain trust and, more importantly, military support from the US, which helped the armed wing of the PYD to regain most of the territory previously occupied by the Islamic State and expand beyond the historical borders of Rojava. Washington also helped establish an umbrella organisation under the aegis of the YPG, comprised mainly of Kurdish militia groups, called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which now controls almost a third of the entire country. Over the years, the region occupied by the SDF became increasingly more autonomous from the central government and in 2016 the political body of the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), issued a declaration proclaiming the establishment of a federal system in north-eastern Syria. Despite the fact that the declaration stressed that the intention behind it was not secession and that the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria considers itself as part and parcel of Syria, Damascus immediately condemned such initiative, and Turkey and the US followed suit.
Although it might seem as a first step toward independence in the eyes of regional and global actors, the declaration issued by the SDC is unlikely to turn into such a thing. In fact, the PYD (backbone of the SDC) is committed to realise the concept of “democratic confederalism” , developed by Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), close ally of the PYD; according to this notion, Syrian Kurds would only seek a high level of self-rule from Damascus. Furthermore, in an attempt to defuse an escalation of tensions between the YPG/PYD and the regime, from 2018, the PYD have started to replace the term “federalism” with the less worrisome “decentralisation”.
One first major point of concern that lies at the basis of the concept of “democratic confederalism” is the extent of self-rule contemplated by the Kurds, not only in Syria, but by all those Kurds that follow the ideology of Ocalan. This self-rule, in fact, would also include the right to self-defence in those territories that would become part of the confederate Kurdistan. Regardless of how much the Kurds of Syria try to persuade al-Asad that they are not interested in any forms of independence for Rojava from Damascus, the Syrian dictator will never accept the possibility of being divested of its military control of that area of the country, if and when he will regain access to it.
Another intrinsic aspect that renders the prospect of an autonomous Rojava in Post-war Syria questionable is represented by the territory itself under the direct rule of the SDF and its ethnic composition. During the fight against ISIS, the SDF expanded its area of control to regions with an Arab majority, such as Raqqah, Deir ez-Zor and the al-Hasakah, areas that do not belong to “historical Rojava”. As a result, nowadays, the Kurds in north-eastern Syria represent only 55% of the overall population of the area they have established and ruled east of the Euphrates. Besides the concerns of the Arab tribes living in these areas of a possible “re-Kurdification” taking place in Rojava any time soon , ethnic tensions have started to arise also around the issue of who will be in charge of the various resources north-eastern Syria possesses, ranging from wheat and cotton to the most contentious one, oil. In fact, predominantly Arab regions under SDF rule, such as Raqqah and al-Hasakah used to provide around two-thirds of Syria’s overall oil extraction before the civil war started. These tensions might provide fertile ground for sponsoring sectarian strife between Arabs and Kurds, both for Islamist militants and regional players (i.e. Turkey and Syria), who have no interest in witnessing the creation of an autonomous and economically self-sufficient Syrian Kurdistan.

The US and the SDF

As anticipated, after demonstrating to be the most reliable ground force fighting ISIS in Syria, the SDF managed to acquire political as well as military support from the United States. Thanks to the air support granted by Washington, the YPG-dominated SDF have been able to make important gains in north-eastern Syria at the expense of the Islamic State , which is now relegated to a small enclave close to the Iraqi border. However, as the war in Syria dragged on, and the Jihadists were gradually being defeated, the US soon came to realise that the unconditional support given to the Kurds could endanger the relations with Turkey, one of Washington’s most strategic allies in the region. As a result, the US, more eager to maintain a good long-time relationship with Ankara rather than with the Kurds in Syria, started to distance themselves from the YPG, and the Battle of Afrin represents the perfect example of this American change of strategy.
In fact, when in January 2018 Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” against the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin, with the aim of driving the YPG out of the city, the SDF’s calls for US support fell on deaf ears and they were forced to retreat. As a result, the Syrian Kurds, feeling betrayed by Washington, have recently started a rapprochement with the government in Damascus, with whom they have maintained a somehow stable truce over the years of war. In insight, the YPG/PYD could have realised that the US have a quasi-disposable consideration of Kurdish interests in the region by observing the State Department’s reaction to the referendum for independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, called for by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in 2017. In fact, after questioning the timing and the constitutionality of the referendum long advocated by Kurdish leader Mas’ud Barzani , former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that “[t]he vote and the results lack legitimacy and [the US] continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”
Another contentious issue concerning the maintenance of good relations between Washington and the YPG, and the consequential support the latter might receive in their quest for increased autonomy once the war in Syria is over, is the close ties the Kurdish militia has with the PKK. With both the US and Turkey considering the party founded by Abdullah Ocalan as a terrorist organisation, Washington is struggling to justify its alliance with an offshoot of the PKK, and find itself in a contradictory situation in the eyes of its NATO ally.
With the war in Syria seemingly coming to a close, many have started to wonder what will the US do with their troops in Rojava, now that al-Asad is tasting victory and is committed to reconquering the entirety of the country. The Trump administration’s “Syrian policy” has proved to be extremely unpredictable ever since the 45th President of the United States was sworn in. In April 2018, President Trump allegedly stopped short from delineating a precise timeline for the withdrawal of US troops from Syrian soil, which, according to the president, must occur as soon as ISIS is completely defeated. U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey, on the other hand, declared that defeating ISIS represents a “parallel objective” for Washington, whose troops’ permanence in Syria also depends on whether Damascus will allow Iranian forces to remain in the country once the war is over. Nevertheless, on December 19, President Trump announced that, since ISIS has been defeated, there is no reason for the US troops to remain in Syria and hence they should be prepared to step out.
No matter how little interest the US have in cultivating cordial relations with the YPG in Syria and supporting their demands for autonomy, a sudden withdrawal of American troops from north-eastern Syria will be extremely ill-advised. First of all, if the YPG/PYD were to be left without their American support, they would most likely look to Russia, with which the Kurds of Syria maintain close ties, for their much-needed external ally; this could serve a major blow to Washington, which might lose ground to its regional and global rival. Secondly, if the US decide to leave Syria, the territory under SDF’s rule could become breeding ground for new Islamists or the resurface of ISIS. Ultimately, the possible departure of US troops from north-eastern Syria could transform Rojava in the new front of the Syrian war, as such an event would remove the military umbrella that has so far prevented either Turkey or al-Asad’s forces from taking over the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and crushing the YPG resistance. As for the Kurds, in case of an American withdrawal, they would be left in a much weaker position in future negotiations with the government, and their aspirations for a more autonomous Rojava would crumble in no time.

Al-Asad’s Plans for Rojava

While the entire world has currently its eyes set on Idlib and the possible humanitarian disaster an attack by the regime forces could cause if they decide to adopt a military solution to resolve the impasse, President al-Asad is also equally interested in the future of north-eastern Syria. Although, as previously noted, Damascus and the YPG have been able to avoid confrontation during the war, Bashar al-Asad has vowed to crush the Kurdish militia in the north in case they refuse to surrender, so that he can fulfil his promise of regaining control of “every inch” of Syria. Not only is Bashar committed to avoiding the fragmentation of Syria after the war, but he is also well aware of the economic importance of the territory controlled by the SDF for the whole country. However, it must be pointed out that, if President Trump can be convinced at the last minute to allow US troops to remain in Rojava as long as Iranian forces do not withdraw from Syria, any attempts by al-Asad to take over the north-east by force would be extremely detrimental, not only because moving war to the most-advanced army in the world might lead the regime forces to crumble, but also because Russia will surely not be ready to openly fight the Americans in Syria, and hence, would not support such an initiative by Bashar.
Nevertheless, as it has been highlighted in the previous paragraphs, the US are not so convinced of maintaining their alliance with the Kurds of Syria, not so much to avoid confrontation with al-Asad as to restore their relations with Turkey. As a result of this American volte-face, the Kurds have started to meet with government officials in Damascus in order to discuss a possible roadmap for the future of north-eastern Syria, hoping that they will be granted the autonomy they have fought for. Unfortunately for the Kurds, there seems to be very little common ground between the two parties regarding the future of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. In fact, while the SDF is aiming for a “decentralised, democratic Syria”, which would allow them to realise the aforementioned “democratic confederalism” hoped for by Ocalan, the regime of Bashar al-Asad will probably not accept full autonomy for Rojava, let alone the right to self-defence of the areas under Kurdish control , as the president will most likely try to incorporate the SDF into the Syrian Army.
Furthermore, the defeat suffered by the YPG in Afrin, and the prospects of a Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria looming in the distance, put the Kurds in a very weak position in the face of the regime. This might force them to compromise even further with al-Asad in the hope that Damascus, along with Russian support, will prevent a military action by Ankara against the YPG. In the unlikely event that the US do not leave Syria in the foreseeable future, al-Asad might be interested in striking a deal with the SDF in order to weaken his regional rival: Erdogan. In fact, regardless of the level of autonomy granted to the Kurds in Syria, it will certainly reinforce the separatist demands of their Turkish counterparts. Syria has a history of supporting pro-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey in order to diminish Ankara’s role as a regional hegemon; in fact, Damascus offered safe haven to Abdullah Ocalan up until 1998.
On the other hand, in the event that President Trump decides to withdraw the 2000 US troops stationed in Syria, as it is being speculated, the Kurds would become a very tempting prey for either Turkey or Damascus. If the negotiations between the SDF and the regime do not yield any satisfactory results, al-Asad is committed to crush the Kurds, as he asserted in an interview with Russia Today on May 2018. The YPG, for their part, have vowed to fight anyone who attacks them (be it Ankara or Damascus), if the US failed to come to their rescue. As a result, the fight for Rojava might become the next front of the Syrian war and, despite the military prowess of the Kurds, their chances of succeeding against al-Asad are minimal, especially since both Bashar’s allies (Russia and Iran) and his arch-rival (Turkey) would look the other way if the president’s forces decide to move into north-eastern Syria.

Russia: Between the YPG and Ankara

Another external actor who has demonstrated to have a very ambiguous relationship with the YPG/PYD and their quest for autonomy is Russia. Despite the fact that Moscow has been an ally of the Kurds of Syria since the end of the 20th Century , and that the PYD opened a political representation office in Moscow in 2016 , Russian support for the Kurds has been unreliable and, at times, contradictory. It is now well-known that Moscow played a very important role in the demise of the YPG in the battle of Afrin. In fact, before Turkey could launch its military operation against the Kurdish city near the border, Russia offered one last chance to the Kurds in order to save the city from Turkish encroachment. Moscow, who controlled the airspace over Afrin, told the YPG that the only way to avoid an attack from Ankara was to hand over the city to the regime and allow the army and the security service to regain access to it. The leaders of the PYD, in the aftermath of their defeat in Afrin, accused Russia of giving the green light to Turkey to carry out the operation and went as far as considering Moscow and Ankara equally responsible for what had happened in Afrin.
Behind President Putin’s decision to allow Turkish-backed forces to attack Afrin lies Russia’s intentions of further damaging the already precarious alliance that exists between Ankara and Washington. In fact, over the past two years, Putin has been able to establish a strategic understanding, albeit a fragile one, between Russia, Turkey and Iran in order to manage the conflict in war-torn Syria. By turning a blind eye to “Operation Olive Branch”, Russia aimed at deepening the wedge between the two NATO allies and exposing Washington’s difficulties in maintaining a balanced stance between Turkey and the YPG. It is by keeping in mind this move by Russia that the reaction, or non-reaction, from Washington to Turkey’s attack against Afrin can be explained. Had the US decided to back the YPG in their defence of the city, Turkey could have fallen into Putin’s hands very quickly and Washington would have lost one of the most strategic allies it has within NATO.
Even though the Kurds were enraged after Moscow gave the green light to Turkey in January 2018, Putin might try to regain the YPG’s trust in an attempt to bring them closer to the Russian camp, especially now that the US seem committed to leave north-eastern Syria. President Putin, even though Turkey is clearly more important of an ally to acquire than the Kurds, is also well aware that, by maintaining good relations with the PYD, he could turn them into a powerful bargaining chip when it comes to negotiations for the future of Syria. Russia, in fact, is probably the only actor involved in the war in Syria who has taken a number of initiatives aimed at granting some sort of autonomy to Rojava. In 2017, Moscow put forth a draft constitution for Post-war Syria that contemplated the respect for minority rights and some provisions regarding the autonomy of north-eastern Syria. In addition, Moscow had also invited the YPG-backed opposition to take part in the Russian-sponsored talks held in Sochi in January 2018, even though the YPG decided to boycott the conference in the aftermath of the events in Afrin.
It is undeniable that Russia has been trying not to let go of the Kurds, which still represent a useful tool when it comes to international negotiations involving Turkey. With all this in mind, while the Kurds of Rojava should be wary of Russia’s long-term objective in Middle Eastern politics, it is likely that Moscow can become a much more reliable broker than the US, for Ankara, Damascus and the YPG.

For Turkey, an Independent Rojava is not an Option

As soon as the civil war broke out in Syria, and the YPG started drawing American attention by fighting fiercely against the Islamic State, President Erdogan grew increasingly worried in front of the military capabilities of the Kurdish militia. The Turkish leader also made it very clear to the US that he had two red lines with regard to the YPG and the support they could receive from Washington: firstly, Erdogan was adamant in his request that the US would not provide weapons to the YPG, and second, he wanted the Kurds to remain east of the Euphrates. However, both these two red lines were overlooked by the US and the YPG, as Washington proceeded to arm the Kurds in preparation for their fight to retake Raqqah and the YPG-led SDF crossed the Euphrates and went as far as controlling Afrin (now lost) and Manbij.
Because of the position the US adopted with regard to the Kurds in Syria, the relations between Washington and Ankara had been extremely damaged for a while during the Syrian Civil War. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the US have been trying to make up for its “wrongdoings” recently, in response to Turkey’s intolerant stance toward an autonomous Rojava. Ankara’s view on Iraqi Kurdistan is rather emblematic of how the Turks would feel about the creation of an independent Kurdistan in Syria. Although over the years Turkey has come to terms with the KRG, Ankara has threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan if it declared independence from Baghdad. The reaction of the international community, which rejected KRG independence with one voice, might be the only reason Turkey did not become more aggressive toward the Kurds of Iraq.
Yet another aspect that hint to Turkish intransigence in front of an autonomous Rojava, is represented by the efforts Ankara has made to prevent such a thing from happening, often at the expense of fighting ISIS. With the second largest army among NATO members, Turkey could have crippled the Islamic State much more quickly than it took the YPG militias (albeit with US aerial support). Instead, Erdogan has been much more focussed on the Kurds and their military gains in Syria, so much so that, in a speech given in Ankara, he is quoted as saying that “[Turkey’s] mission is to strangle it [(the YPG)] before it’s even born” ; and strangle he did. With the alleged green light received from Moscow and by gambling on Washington’s reluctance to continue its support for the Kurds in north-eastern Syria, Erdogan attacked Afrin and managed to kick the YPG out of the city on 18 March. Only US intervention could prevent Turkey from attacking also the city of Manbij, which still remains a main target for Ankara. Sensing that the US have started to back-paddle on their alliance with the SDF, Erdogan stepped up his game and claimed that the Turkish offensive will not stop at Manbij, but will proceed to “destroy the terror structure east of the Euphrates River.”
Behind the inflammatory rhetoric adopted by President Erdogan lies also the chance of a deal between the regime in Damascus and the Kurdish militias in north-eastern Syria. First of all, the prospects of a rapprochement between al-Asad and the YPG concern Ankara because of the possible resurgence of friendly relations between the Syrian state and the PKK, which might be exploited by Damascus to weaken Turkey’s position in the region. On the other hand, if al-Asad decides to intervene in north-eastern Syria, Turkey will be faced with Iranian-backed militias patrolling the border between the two countries, which will inevitably contribute to further expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and, possibly, in Turkey.
As a result, Turkey is trying to beat Damascus to the punch in the race for Rojava. The Kurds of the YPG for their part, would most probably consider Damascus to be the lesser of two evils, not only because SDF officials have already started negotiations with the regime, but also because al-Asad, contrary to Erdogan, does not consider either the YPG or the PKK as terrorist organisations, and might be more prone to make some concessions, especially if Russia is willing to mediate.

Rojava’s Autonomy, a Final Account

After reviewing what the situation on the ground is for the YPG/PYD and the actors involved in the Syrian Civil War, it is worth putting into perspective the feasibility of an autonomous Rojava in Post-war Syria. As anticipated, the worst-case scenario for the Kurds in north-eastern Syria might be the withdrawal of US troops from the region. The Americans have so far acted as a deterrence force in front of both Turkey and the regime in Damascus, and as a result, if Washington decided to pull out its troops from Syria, the Kurds would be left at either Erdogan or al-Asad’s mercy. The YPG have already declared that they would fight in such an event and, although the loss of American aerial support could impinge their military prowess, the tens of thousands of militiamen they could count on would certainly allow them to put up a remarkable resistance. Nevertheless, as mighty as their military capabilities could be, the YPG-led SDF is unlikely to come out victorious from such a battle, be it against the regime forces or Turkey, and their dreams for an autonomous Rojava would be shattered.
In the unlikely event that the US remain in north-eastern Syria, either because they want to have a say in the negotiations for the future of the country or because they aim at preventing Iranian and Russian influence from expanding into Rojava, Washington does not seem ready to accept a more autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, also because it is no longer willing to further damage its relations with Ankara. The administration’s prompt rejection of the independence referendum held in Iraqi Kurdistan, with which Turkey has developed good ties over the years, stands as an omen in front of the PKK-allied PYD and their ambitions. Furthermore, the US , as well as all the other parties involved in the negotiations over the future of Syria, have so far reiterated their support for territorial integrity of the country.
As soon as they realised that their main Western backer became more and more concerned with the support it has been giving the YPG, SDF officials started to meet regularly with Damascus in an attempt to strike a deal with the regime to allow an increased level of autonomy in Rojava to take shape and, at the same time, to avoid Turkish encroachment east of the Euphrates. After their defeat in Afrin, however, the Kurds have lost some leverage in front of President al-Asad, who has also promised he would regain control of “every inch” of the country. In this scenario, the PYD should try and mend their relations with Moscow, which have been damaged after the latter allowed Turkey to attack the Kurds in “Operation Olive Branch” in January 2018. If the Kurds manage to regain Russian support, they might be able to make some gains at the expense of Damascus and be granted some sort of autonomy.
With all this in mind, and provided that the YPG really wants to mend their relations with Russia, the most likely scenario for Post-war Rojava, as suggested by Cagaptay, is that of a Transnistria-like region, which will not be recognised by any foreign government, but will have close ties with Moscow and can act as an agent provocateur against Turkey. On the other hand, the SDF might reach an agreement via direct negotiations with Damascus, but this is unlikely to bear the expected results for Rojava as President al-Asad will hardly accept a Syrian Kurdistan similar to the KRG in Iraq or contemplate a federal state, and could always resort to military means if he is not satisfied with the terms of the deal. To conclude, despite the efforts the SDF have made to fight against ISIS and organise a quasi-democratic government in the so-called Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, in the face of regional as well as global players’ reluctance to support Kurdish hopes for autonomy, the prospects for an autonomous Rojava look grim.

Emanuele Mainetti
Emanuele Mainetti
Emanuele Mainetti is a MA student of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. He has written his MA thesis on Lebanon, titled “Democracy in Lebanon After Ta’if: A Comparative Analysis of Lebanon’s Democratic Features Before and After 2005.” For the purpose of the dissertation, he conducted fieldwork in Lebanon in July 2018, interviewing civil society members, activists, academics, journalists and politicians. He holds a BA in Languages and International Relations from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy. After studying Arabic for three years as part of his bachelor’s, he attended an intensive course in Modern Standard Arabic and Jordanian Colloquial Arabic in a language centre in Amman, Jordan. He is also planning to continue his academic career by undertaking a PhD. He is currently an intern at the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS).