On 25 September 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan will vote on an independence referendum likely to increase tensions across the region. Meanwhile, across the border in northern Syria, the status of the autonomous Kurdish Rojava region is looking increasingly precarious.
There is a Kurdish proverb that says “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains”. This saying refers to the suppression the Kurdish diaspora has experienced under consecutive governments in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. However, in 2013 this idea was challenged. The previously diplomatically isolated Syrian Kurds began to form relationships with regional and international powers in the chaos of the Syrian civil war. The momentum the Syrian Kurds gained in the initial years of the civil war allowed for the establishment of an autonomous federation of Kurdish territories. Yet these successes appear to be coming to an end as Turkey re-focuses its Syrian policy, forcing the Kurds’ precious allies to shift allegiance.
Who Are the Kurds?
The Kurdish people live in a mountainous region that spreads across the borders of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The largest contingent lives in Turkey and the smallest in Syria. Yet, in Syria the Kurds constitute one of the largest minority groups.
Despite the group’s size, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has constantly violated the Syrian Kurds’ human rights. When the Arab Spring began, Assad targeted Kurdish politicians, concerned about the threat this group could pose. His concern was vindicated as the Kurdish militias, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the female-only Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), quickly established themselves as proficient fighters, now numbering an estimated 60,000.
By 2013, the Kurds claimed to be in charge of an autonomous region called Rojava, which stretches across the northern border of Syria. By 2015 they established a new fighting force, the Syrian Front (SDF), made up of a loose, multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalition.
The ability to establish both Rojava and the SDF was in large part due to the support the Syrian Kurds received from international powers. The US began providing aid and small arms to the Kurds, in a policy aimed at countering ISIS and preventing regime control of northern Syria. This support also extended to include the use of US air power, training, and reports of providing heavy weapons. The US has fought alongside the SDF on numerous occasions, most notably in the Raqqa offensive against ISIS, in which US soldiers wore Kurdish symbols on their uniforms.
There have also been efforts to formalise diplomatic ties between Rojava and European states. In 2016, the YPG set up Syrian Kurdistan’s representative offices in Berlin, Prague and Stockholm, to act as pseudo-embassies. This is the first time in modern history that the Syrian Kurds have gained autonomous political representation internationally. Moreover, Rojava has not only been seeking and receiving support from the West, but has extended its alliances to other actors, opening its first office in Moscow.
Russia has been providing support to the Rojavan Kurds, despite their adversaries doing the same. The SDF has coordinated with Russian air support to take regions of Aleppo and Afrin from jihadi militias. Russia also promoted the inclusion of the Kurds in the Geneva peace talks and has been able to mediate talks between the Assad regime and the Kurds, resulting in tacit truces, even in areas as war torn as Aleppo.
This has left the Syrian Kurds in a relatively good position. They have obtained military support from both the Russians and the US; established diplomatic ties in both Western Europe and Moscow; and have avoided sustained conflict with the Assad government while still seeking political autonomy. But these successes seem to be coming to an end as the balance of power changes in the region and Rojava’s former allies pivot in their interests.
US support for the Kurds has been waning, as Turkish involvement and Russian tensions rise. Ankara has long been an opponent of the Kurds and has been pressuring the US to withdraw support. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been increasing military activity in Syria since the July coup, said the US needed to decide between “me (Turkey) or the terrorists (Kurds).” Despite a recent decline in US-Turkish relations, it is unlikely the US would abandon its strategic relationship with Ankara in favour of the Kurds, as Turkey has the second largest military force in NATO and is a station for US nuclear weapons.
The Kurds can only offer the US an effective counter to ISIS, who are becoming less of a threat. Furthermore, the primary antagonist in the eyes of the West is no longer ISIS, but instead is Assad and the Russian backing he is receiving. The ability for the Kurds to play both sides will be stifled in a conflict increasingly galvanized by the US and Russia. While ties with the US are on the decline, turning to Moscow does not seem like an ideal scenario for the Kurds either.
The improvement in Russo-Turkish relations means the Kurds are likely to find reduced support in Moscow. Tensions between the two states reached their peak in 2015 after a Russian aircraft was shot down over Turkey. Since the July 2016 coup in Turkey, Erdogan and Putin have reached an understanding and the Russians have lifted the travel and trade restrictions imposed after the downing of the jet. Moscow is unlikely to reverse their growing cooperation with Turkey. Even after the assassination of the Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov, Putin responded not in derision, but by doubling down on forming stronger ties with Turkey.
The Kurds in Syria
The balance of power is also shifting within Syria itself. Assad, backed by the Russians, has taken back Aleppo and now overpowers all other rebel groups. ISIS’ last major stronghold in Raqqa is under threat and what remains of the Free Syrian Army, the primary anti-regime rebel group, has degenerated due to infighting and mass desertions. This leaves the Kurds of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria (DFSNS)—Rojava— as the foremost rebel group in Syria, rivalled only by a possible coalition between Sunni jihadists, campaigned for by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Assad has not shown any signs in the past of wanting to establish a dialogue with rebels, and has rejected previous Kurdish proposals to establish a federalist system in which they would act as an autonomous region. If Damascus rejected the Kurdish deal when fighting rebel forces weakened it, it is doubtful that it would agree to the same proposal when it has the battlefield advantage.
Looking to the Future
In 2017, the Kurds of Rojava will start to lose friends, and are unlikely to establish new ones. The Kurds of Iraq would be the obvious ally for the Rojavans. However, the Iraqi Kurds are currently preoccupied with achieving their own independence, have a different political ideology, and are going through their own détente with Turkey. Some smaller countries in Europe may also continue support, particularly non-NATO member states like Sweden. It is unlikely this will be enough to sustain Rojava amidst war. As the dynamics of the Syrian war change, the Kurds are left in an awkward position, one that will leave them diplomatically isolated and hamper their ability to maintain their hold over their territory.
Sam Brennan is a contributing author with Quarterly Access, the national publication of the youth networks of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
This is an edited extract of an article originally published in Quarterly Access on 27 March 2017 as Looking Into: The Future of Rojava.
It is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.