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

Essay 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)
Ankara ein Dorn im Auge: Die Türkei sieht die Kurdenmiliz YPG als Terrororganisation an und hat angekündigt, sie zu zerschlagen. Seit der Ankündigung des Abzugs der US-Truppen aus Syrien gibt es Sorge vor einem dadurch entstehenden Sicherheitsvakuum im Norden und Osten Syriens. Die Kurden befürchten nach einem US-Abzug eine Offensive der Türkei auf syrischem Gebiet.

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.

So the big question is when and under what conditions the U.S. will pull its 2,000 soldiers out of Syria and how it then plans to prevent Erdogan launching an offensive.

In response to the question concerning the pull-out plans, there are so many answers circulating in Washington that nothing appears definite. President Trump constantly contradicts himself in his Tweets and statements – at one point the withdrawal was going to happen quickly, then he allegedly never said it would be quick, he doesn’t want Syria ("just sand and death"), nor does he want IS, but others should fight against it (Iran, Russia, Turkey).

Then again he doesn’t want to withdraw completely until IS has disappeared, the Kurds should be protected, but Ankara is allowed to fight "terror" (Erdogan means the YPG, Trump means IS). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and security adviser Bolton are trying to extract practical policy from this quickfire verbal exchange marked by ignorance and without any attempt at a strategy – in vain.

Nothing to do with freedom and democracy

On the other hand, the question of how the U.S. plans to protect the Kurds without troops in the area is simply answered: it can’t. The PYD and YPG realised this a long time ago and are now seeking their salvation elsewhere – in Moscow and Damascus. The U.S. withdrawal is paving the way for Putin’s plans and thereby Assad’s return to the northeast.  Moscow would like to bring the area back under total regime control, crush the Kurdish self-administration, fob the PYD off with a few cultural rights and integrate the YPG into Syria’s armed forces.

The rationale is that in view of such a prospect, Erdogan would hold off launching an offensive. Particularly as such a move is highly controversial within the Turkish government, after all thanks to the Americans, the YPG east of the Euphrates are better equipped and an attack such as that carried out on Afrin a year ago would trigger international criticism and solidarity with the Kurds.

Putin’s vision therefore falls on sympathetic ears in Ankara: should Assad’s troops advance, the People’s Protection Units would pull out, the regime on the border would serve as a buffer between the PYD and PKK and Assad would be the only one to secure the "territorial unity of the country", or in other words prevent Kurdish autonomy in the long-term.

Which brings us back to Assad’s favourite role as the "lesser evil". From the PYD standpoint, the Syrian regime is better than Erdogan. And Erdogan would rather come to an arrangement with Assad than with the PKK’s comrades-in-arms. This confirms one of the basic principles of the conflict: whenever two parties clash in Syria, Assad always reaps the rewards as the smiling onlooker on the sidelines.

The Kurds have no choice

So what does the future hold for Rojava? Upon the request of the YPG, in early January the regime sent troops to Manbij, the only large city under Kurdish administration west of the Euphrates. Turkey has for a long time wanted to gain control of Manbij with rebel support, negotiations with the US, which maintains a troop presence there, yielded no outcome. Now Assad’s soldiers are positioned between pro-Ankara rebels and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the prospect of an invasion appears to have been averted.

If the cooperation between the YPG and the regime works in Manbij, Damascus could deploy further troops to Rojava and station them along the border with Turkey.

At the same time, the PYD is negotiating with the regime through Russian mediation. As long as the Americans maintain a military presence, the Kurds can demand more – an unclear, incomplete or slow US troop withdrawal would strengthen their position with the regime and Russia. Any final agreement will however prioritise the interests of Damascus, because the key intervention forces Russia, Iran and Turkey all want a robust centralised state in Syria. In the northeast, this means as much power as possible for the regime and as few rights as possible for the Kurds.

Without reliable American or European backing, the latter have no choice. Because the entire world has come to terms with Assad’s rule, they will also continue to come to their own arrangement with the regime. The PYD could save face with cultural concessions, Kurdish-language pro-regime media and Kurdish-language schools; it could conceal its loss of power with an insidious takeover by the regime and pseudo-decentralised structures. So for now, the Syrian Kurds’ dream of autonomy is shattered. In the offices and classrooms of Rojava, images of PKK leader Öcalan will be taken down and the Assad portraits put back up. All this has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom and democracy. But in an era of  "lesser" and "greater" evils, there doesn’t appear to be any place for this in Syria anyway.

Kristin Helberg

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon