The distinct factor that marks our foreign policy in this era is ruin and defeat. One way to conceive of world politics nowadays is as a game. Strategic actors often assert with pride that they have “spoiled the game.”
An example of a game that was spoiled, ruined and defeated is the situation of the Kurds in Syria. The Kurds’ hopes of a pan-Kurdish dialogue, of a Russian guarantee as well as of solution with Damascus have all been dashed.
Recently, the Turkish Foreign Ministry lashed out at France for joining a statement along with Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, the UAE on the eastern Mediterranean and Libya. Ankara praised itself for having dealt a heavy blow against France’s efforts to carve out a “terror statelet” in Syria.
After the Kurdish National Council (ENKS) established an office in Istanbul and joined the National Coalition for the Syrian opposition and the Revolutionary Forces (SMDK), Ankara regarded it as the Kurds’ sole legitimate representative body. It suited the Turkish government insofar as it could accuse the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of being a “terrorist organisation.” Yet as soon as the ENKS began talks with the PYD, its hitherto “legitimate” character tumbled.
France and the U.S. have allegedly pressured the ENKS to split from SMDK and the leader of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government Nechirvan Barzani was called on to exert more pressure on them. Yet, the KRG complained that the YPG were preventing Roj Peshmergas from returning to Erbil.
A general policy of oppression and destruction against the Kurds has left them with few opinions. Meanwhile, its NATO partners are called in to provide them with a way out of this inextricable situation.
Give the ENKS and the PYD’s differing programs, philosophies, organizational structures and their respective domestic and foreign connections which are hostile to each other, a prospective ENKS-PYD partnership hardly seems within reach. Besides, the mere beginning of talks between the two groups would suffice to alarm Ankara.
What is more, another rival organisation, the “Independent Syria Kurdish Union” is attempting to supplant the ENKS and assert itself as a Kurdish group that is willing to speak to Turkey. The head of this organisation, Abdülaziz Temo states that he “rejects dialogue with terrorist groups.” The pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah now refers to the organisation as the organisation that “represents the majority of Kurds in Syria.”
In addition, an official from the SMDK recently said he regarded the PYD as a “terrorist organisation” and called the talks “unacceptable.” In other words, the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition refuses to side with groups antagonistic to Turkey. What they could do instead is settle in Cairo. There are Syrian opposition groups in Istanbul, in Riyadh and in Cairo.
While the ENKS and the PYD agree on certain topics, a deep gap remains between the two groups. And the American and French pressure will do little to close that gap. Moreover, Barzani’s ties with Turkey limit his capabilities. Given the KDP and the PKK were fighting each other in the Qandil mountains, how could the two movements unite on the Syrian front?
Meanwhile, Russia pursues its dialogue with the Kurds. Yet Turkey uses its ties with Russia and its military presence on the field to deter the finding of a settlement that would involve the Kurds. On the other hand, the main actor in this process, Damascus, refrains from engaging in negotiations. As the US is unlikely to leave until a solution is found that involves the Kurds, Damascus and its allies remain cautious.
Bedran Çiya Kurd, the co-deputy chair of the "Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria" (NES), also known as Rojava, told me that the Kurds and the Russians had started military cooperation in Aleppo in the fall of 2015. He said that this cooperation had intensified during the Afrin and Shahba sieges against armed groups supported by Turkey.
Bedran Çiya Kurd added that after Turkey and Russia began to cooperate in Syria, Ankara started blocking all efforts at finding a political solution between the Kurdish autonomous administration and the Syrian government. He also said that Russia’s green light for Turkey to intervene in Afrin had undermined the trust between Moscow and the Kurds.
As the U.S. has given its own green light to the Turkish intervention in Tel Abyad and Ras-El-Ayn, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Army have reached an agreement after having both reached a deal with Ankara, the situation in Syria has come to a new equilibrium.
Russia is determined to play the role of guarantor in a prospective political solution. So far, Moscow has held trilateral meetings with the Syrian government and the Kurdish autonomous administration. This process has been slow and has failed to yet to bring concrete developments. Either way, the Kurds are conscious of the significance of Russia’s role in this process and continue to support its initiatives.
According to Bedran Çiya, when it comes to the U.S., the Kurds maintain a partnership in the framework of the fight against terrorism. The Kurds believe the U.S. should play an effective role in the political process as they did in the military field. Yet the political position of the U.S. remains unclear.
Bedran Çiya said the following of U.S. special adviser William Roebuck’s mediation efforts:
“The U.S. wants the Kurds to play a strong role, to be effective within the Syrian opposition and take part in the future political map of Syria that is to be reached through the Geneva process. But American wishes are met with serious rejection from Turkey. Besides, the U.S. is following a strategy where after Iran withdraws from Syria, the Syrian regime would continue to be pressured, the fight against terror would continue and the expansion of the Russian influence would come to halt. The Kurds, on the other hand, do not want to be a part of regional or international clashes. The Kurds also want dialogue with Turkey.”
The U.S. is now attempting to use Russian influence to guarantee the withdrawal of Iran from the field. What would Kurds gain from a possible Russian-American bargain? Would the Kurds still go to Geneva? Possibly not.
If Turkey continues to thwart the Geneva process, would Russia determine the solution and bypass Damascus? Perhaps.
If the U.S. military presence ends, would Damascus approach the Kurds with more courage? That too is a possibility.
Russian moves towards the Kurds depend on the course of the Turkish-Russian partnership. In recent times, Turkey has been knocking on the doors of the EU and the U.S. Russia has carefully been monitoring Turkey’s moves in Idlib and the way it has used the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity.
Ultimately, Turkey holds the key to the finding of a solution. If it chooses to go down the peaceful route, the burden on the region would finally ease. If it doesn’t, the stalemate will carry on.