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Is this the end of Syrian-Kurdish aspirations? Open in fullscreen

Thomas Essel

Is this the end of Syrian-Kurdish aspirations?

Turkish Armed Forces patrol Syria's Manbij, aiming to rid the area of the YPG/PKK [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 1 August, 2018

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Comment: Facing geopolitical chaos in Syria, the US will likely quietly withdraw its support for Kurdish militants in the country's north, writes Thomas Essel.
With every day that Syria's civil war drags on, Assad appears to inch a step closer to cementing his deadly grip on power. But the conflict is far from over, and instead is moving into a new phase in which regional heavy weights are jockeying to tip the new balance of power in their favour.

The Kurdish dream of autonomy is likely to be one casualty of this grand strategic maneuvering.

Once a strategic ally against Islamic State group (IS), the Kurdish YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are now a strategic liability for the United States.

The linchpin in this is Turkey. The Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, control much of the region along Turkey's border with Syria. It has deep ties with the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (the PKK) in southeastern Turkey, which the Turkish government views as terrorists.

Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria is likely to embolden and strengthen the PKK in Turkey, which Turkey views as a threat to its internal security. It was for this reason that Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch earlier this year, first targeting the YPG-held Afrin region and then Manbij.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wrote in Foreign Policy that the intervention was "above all an act of self-defense against a build-up of terrorists who have already proved aggressive against our population centres". For a time, there was a standoff between Turkish forces, including the Free Syrian Army and American/YPG forces in Manbij.

Why is the US so rapidly abandoning its year-long ally in Syria? The answer is simple: Russia and Iran

Turkish forces demanded that the YPG withdraw from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates river, but the YPG held fast so long as their American allies refused to budge under Turkish demands.

This ended in June, when an 
agreement was reached between the US and Turkey in which the two NATO allies agreed to share security responsibilities. Having lost US support, the YPG withdrew from Manbij, losing more hard-won territory to the Turks.

The US has previously shown other signs that it favours Turkish security concerns over its YPG allies. In November 2017, President Trump gave Turkish president Erdogan assurances that America would no longer provide weapons to the YPG.

In March of this year, the US 
froze $200 million in recovery funds destined for YPG-held areas of Syria, which Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu praised as being "the right decision". Furthermore, the US has long maintained that its support for the YPG is a marriage of convenience for the purpose of fighting IS.

Why is the US so rapidly abandoning its year-long ally in Syria? The answer is simple: Russia and Iran.

Should the Assad regime emerge on top, this would be a victory for Russia and Iran, too, both of which have greatly expanded their influence in the Middle East.

America's primary interest in Syria is no longer defeating IS or removing Assad from power but rather in maintaining a favourable balance of power

Assad has called for Russian forces to remain in Syria even after the last of the rebels lay down their arms, stating, "Russian armed forces are needed for balance in our region, at least in the Middle East, until the global political balance changes."

Russia, which has for decades sought to expand its global prestige, is likely to oblige. It has long-term lease agreements with the Syrian government for the use of the naval base at Tartus and the Khmeimim air base.

Read more: The logic of Syrian rebel support for Turkey's Afrin operation

Iran has a significant military presence in Syria aimed at threatening Israel and gives the Assad government around $6 billion in aid every year. Also seeking expanded influence in the region, the Iranians are unlikely to simply abandon their investment in Syria, especially after a similar investment paid off so handsomely in Iraq.

Russia has also been seeking to drive a wedge between Turkey and its other NATO allies. Warming Russo-Turkish relations threaten NATO's strategic coherence against Russian expansionism, the most recent row being Turkey's agreement to purchase Russian S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems.

These systems are incompatible with NATO defensive networks and could unwittingly provide Russia with information about NATO defensive capabilities. This has led the United States to consider blocking the delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to the Turkish air force. Turkey is also home to the strategically important Incirlik air base and NATO ballistic missile early warning radar systems.

The Kurdish YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are now a strategic liability for the United States

Additionally, the YPG's own politics are likely to lead to its undoing.

As well as being ideologically and materially linked to the ever-vexing PKK, the YPG - and by extension the entire SDF - has never fully abandoned its ties with the Assad government nor has it ever officially joined the Syrian resistance.

The Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the YPG-dominated SDF, recently began talks with the Assad regime with the aim of consolidating some of their territorial and political gains.

Assad has threatened to use military force to recapture YPG-held areas if they refuse to negotiate. With American support rapidly waning and the Turks itching to destroy the YPG while it has the chance, the Kurds have very little time and very little leverage with which to negotiate.

Unlike the YPG, the Turks have called for the removal of Bashar al-Assad since the conflict began in 2011. This shared vision gives the US even more impetus to abandon the YPG. Not only would this warm relations with Turkey, but it would also sow discord between the Turks and the pro-Assad Russians.

Russia will likely intervene on behalf of both Turkey and Syria against the Kurds in the hopes of further luring Turkey away from the US and NATO and encouraging rapprochement between Assad and Erdogan.

Once America no longer provides military cover for the YPG, either Turkish or a combined Russo-Syrian force will move in and destroy it

Russia already signaled its willingness to do this when it removed its forces from Afrin so that the Turkish military could attack during Operation Olive Branch. Once America no longer provides military cover for the YPG, either Turkish or a combined Russo-Syrian force will move in and destroy it.

The balance of power in the Middle East is in a state of flux and the intentions of a key NATO ally are uncertain.

America's primary interest in Syria is no longer defeating IS or removing Assad from power but rather in maintaining a favourable balance of power.

This will mean continuing efforts to strengthen Israeli and Saudi military capabilities while trying to woo Turkey away from its increasingly friendly relations with Russia and Iran.

With such grand strategic issues at stake, the US will abandon the YPG/SDF to its fate at its earliest convenience with the aim of warming relations with Turkey in efforts to counterbalance against Russia and Iran.

There is no reason for any of the major players in Syria to back the YPG militarily or diplomatically. They serve the interests of the various players better as either enemies or as water under the bridge. Rojava is dead.


Thomas Essel is a political activist and writer based in San Diego currently finishing his MA in International Security. He has been published by The Springfield News-Leader and Danthropology, among others, discussing politics, religion and history. 

Join the conversation: @The_NewArab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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