The Kurdish YPG and the future of northeastern Syria

Assad smiles from the sidelines

In northeastern Syria, the U.S. and Turkey are wrangling over how to deal with the Kurdish militias. The regime could score points from this – and gain control with Russian support. An analysis by Kristin Helberg

He’s playing his part well: Bashar al-Assad, the "lesser evil" personified. For years now, the Syrian president has celebrated a series of successes. After all with him in power, at least you know what you’re getting.

The Syrians are ruled by a mafia-like organisation that governs using fear and systematic torture – but one that is nevertheless better than a hostile caliphate. The Israelis have managed well with Assad as the calculable opponent next door – ideologised hardliners would be worse. Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has gone back to thinking that Iran’s ayatollahs are "more evil" than the despots in Damascus. And Europe, while it is appalled at Assad’s war crimes, is more fearful of chaos, state collapse and further refugees. Moreover, the regime’s henchmen are only killing Syrians and not Europeans, which makes it all half as bad.

Assad’s status as the "lesser evil" has therefore brought him a long way. With Russian and Iranian support, he destroyed any genuine alternative to his rule. All actors in the conflict have come to terms with his remaining in power. His security and propaganda apparatus has split society: Alawites and Sunnis despite each other, moderates and radicals are at loggerheads, Arabs and Kurds remain locked in a hostility driven by blind nationalism. Leaving Assad on the sidelines, the onlooker with a smile on his face.

Not a democratic model, but tolerable

Anyone wanting to follow a live re-run of this particular storyline should observe developments in the northeast of the country. It is here that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – sister party of the PKK – governs a largely autonomous region. A one-party regime that hounds critics but promotes women – not a democratic model, but from the point of view of many Syrian Kurds, tolerable in comparison to the situation in the rest of the country and elsewhere in the region.

YPG units in Rojava (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
A thorn in the side: Turkey sees the Kurdish militia YPG as a terrorist organisation and has announced that it will crush it. Since the announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, there has been concern about a resulting security vacuum in northern and eastern Syria. The Kurds fear an offensive by Turkey on Syrian territory after a U.S. withdrawal

The PYD’s armed forces are the People’s Protection Units (YPG) who have led the ground war against "Islamic State" (IS) – supported by the U.S., but also by France, Britain and Germany from the air. The PYD assumed power in almost every location where IS has been driven out since 2014 – in some places with local partners. This is why the Kurdish party’s area of influence now encompasses a quarter of the country, also including Arab cities such as Raqqa. Since March 2016, the region has been calling itself the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, in Kurdish "Rojava".

For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rojava is a "terror state" that threatens the security of Turkey due to its close ties to the PKK. For this reason, he wants to drive the PYD out of the region. What the Turkish authorities succeeded in doing in the Kurdish canton of Afrin in early 2018, should be repeated to the east of the Euphrates. There, the Turkish military is ready to launch an attack – aided by Syrian rebels who have degenerated from revolutionaries to vassals in recent years. For Erdogan, they are useful mercenaries in the battle against the public enemy YPG. The allies of the West are Ankara’s terrorists.

No U.S. attempt at a strategy

Recent talks between U.S. and Turkish representatives have shown that this situation will not  change for the time being. U.S. security adviser John Bolton travelled to Ankara to elicit a promise from the Turkish leadership not to attack the Kurds in the event of an American troop withdrawal. But Erdogan sent him packing. This means that currently, US presence is the only guarantee that Turkey won’t invade Rojava.

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