Analysis

With Nowhere Else to Turn, Syrian Kurds Will Have to Embrace Assad's Army

Erdogan has no reason to risk a direct confrontation with Russia, its only powerful ally now that relations with the U.S. have reached the edge of the abyss. But will he have a choice?

Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters in Syria's Afrin region, on February 19, 2018
OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP

With the understanding that they don’t really have anyone to rely on in their struggle against the Turkish forces that invaded northern Syria’s Afrin district in January, the Syrian Kurds will have to do a back flip and embrace the Syrian military. The army forces and those Syrian militias that have been helping President Bashar Assad’s regime are prepared to go into the Afrin district and even into the city itself to restore the regime’s control over the area, erect a defensive wall against the Turkish forces and perhaps later even expand Assad’s control over the other Kurdish districts in northern Syria.

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The leadership of the Afrin district, one of the three autonomous Kurdish districts, denies it has reached any agreement with the regime, but judging by the movements of the regime’s army and the vague responses of the Kurds, this will be the next move. If indeed the Syrian military takes control of the district and positions military outposts along the Turkish border, it would be an important achievement for Assad that could have crucial consequences for the diplomatic process aiming to resolve the Syrian crisis.

The participation of the Kurds in the process has become a major bone of contention, first between Turkey and the United States, which hastened to yield to the Turks back in the Obama days and agreed not to include them in the international conferences at Geneva, and later between Turkey and Russia, which was more determined and agreed to invite Kurdish representatives to the Sochi conference last month.

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If the Kurdish districts go over to Assad’s control with the Kurds’ consent, one can assume they will join the process as representatives who support the regime, and in response they’ll be able to realize some of their diplomatic ambitions. For example, in contrast to the Kurdish leadership in Iraq, the Syrian Kurds aren’t looking to establish an independent district that is separate from the Syrian state, but an autonomous area that would be part of the Syrian federation and subject to the future Syrian constitution.

The Syrian Kurds indeed have had a bloody relationship with the Syrian regime, particularly during the era of Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, but during the recent rebellion the Syrian regime decided not to quarrel with the Kurds, and in return the younger Assad got relative quiet and even cooperation from them. The Kurdish militias, defined by Turkey as terrorist groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), led by Abdullah Ocalan, who is in a Turkish prison, did not join the anti-regime militias, their cities have not been under siege, and many of them won the Syrian citizenship that was denied them under the elder Assad.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Bashar Assad has become the loving ally of the Kurds. He still hasn’t clarified his position regarding their demands and it isn’t known that the Kurds have gotten any promise from him to recognize their autonomous districts. But at this stage Assad has at least two reasons to help the Kurds against the Turks. The first and most important one is to realize his demand to remove foreign forces from Syria, and the second, to portray the United States as a country that cannot even assist its allies that fought so impressively against the Islamic State.

On the other hand, there isn’t any guarantee that the Turkish forces will leave Syria if Assad controls the Kurdish districts. Turkey has an agreed-upon status as one of the sponsors of the low-escalation zones under agreements that were signed with Russia and Iran. This gives Turkey the authority to establish military outposts in these areas to oversee the cease-fire in them. Turkey is also seeking to “cleanse” other Syrian areas from Kurdish control, particularly the city of Manbij and its environs, to block Kurdish territorial contiguity along its border.

But these ambitions may now be blocked by both Syria and Russia, whose very presence in the Kurdish areas poses a dangerous dilemma for Turkey: To continue the war against the Kurds in Syrian territory and risk a direct confrontation with Syrian forces, or to allow the Syrians and Russians to maintain control along the Turkish border. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made it clear this week that Turkey doesn’t object to the Syrian army entering Afrin “If the purpose is to clear the area of terrorists [meaning the Turkish militias], but [Turkey] will continue to operate in the area if this is not the Syrian objective.”

Because Syria’s entrance into Afrin would be with in coordination with the Kurds, it cannot be expected that Syria will act against the Kurdish militias. Turkey is thus liable to find that it has painted itself into a corner, because the operation of the Syrian army in the Kurdish region, as in any part of Syria, is coordinated and supported by Russia. From the Russians’ perspective, Syrian control over the Kurdish districts with the Kurds’ consent is the ultimate solution, both to entrench Assad’s regime in one of Syria’s most important areas and to neutralize the Kurds as a reason for the United States to justify its presence in Syria.

One assumes that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won’t want a direct confrontation with Russia, its only powerful ally now that its relations with the United States have reached the edge of the abyss.