Encouraged by Iraq's gains, Assad may attack Syrian Kurds

Encouraged by Iraq's gains, Assad may attack Syrian Kurds
Analysis: Damascus may now control a rump of Syria, but it still considers Kurdish-held areas 'occupied', writes Paul Iddon.
6 min read
10 November, 2017
Assad may well feel emboldened to rein in the Kurds, following Iraq's example [Getty]

As the Islamic State groups nears defeat in Syria, Damascus may take a leaf out of Baghdad's book and attack its Kurdish minority, who have expanded their territories in the lengthy fight against the moribund "caliphate".

On October 16, the Iraqi army and Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces militias swiftly seized Kirkuk from the Kurdish Peshmerga, which had controlled the province since the Iraqi army previously retreated from it during the lightning IS advance into Mosul in June 2014.

The following day, the Iraqis also seized the vast majority of all other territories disputed between Baghdad and Erbil from which the Peshmerga withdrew without a fight.

Iraq's Kurds feel betrayed by the United States since it didn't help them, despite their sacrifices in helping Washington rout IS from its heartlands.

A similar fate could well befall the Syrian Kurds. Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said these Kurds "need to learn" from what happened to Iraqi Kurds last month - a not-so-subtle hint at what may come.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - the main component of which is the People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) - were by far the most effective forces that fought IS in Syria. It also partnered with Assad to help the Damascus regime re-take the rebel-held city of Aleppo.

The YPG dealt IS its first major defeat after the militants' four-month siege of the Kurdish border city of Kobane and have since reversed IS' territorial gains in Syria - with the support of the US and sometimes Assad's proxies - culminating in the SDF's defeat of IS in Raqqa this October.

The regime was much slower to divert resources to fight IS since it was instead focused on crushing opposition groups in other parts of the country. A rushed offensive launched by pro-regime fighters to re-establish a foothold in Raqqa province from IS ended in a total defeat in June 2016.

Following the defeat of insurgents in East Aleppo in December 2016, however, the regime has slowly rebounded and, in early September, broke IS' three-year siege on the eastern Syrian city of Deir az-Zour.

Damascus has unequivocally stated that it considers Raqqa "occupied" until the Syrian army retakes control over it

As the regime advanced into Deir az-Zour province, the SDF also rushed in, seizing large swathes of territory to the east bank of the Euphrates River from IS, with the regime removing the militants from territory on the west bank.

The SDF's rapid gains have given it control over most of Syria's oil reserves, including al-Omar, the country's largest oilfield.

Damascus has unequivocally stated that it considers Raqqa "occupied" until the Syrian army retakes control over it. Furthermore, it may use force, as Iraq did in Kirkuk, to push the SDF out of Deir az-Zour's oilfields. 

The SDF invariably installs military councils in non-Kurdish territories, such as Manbij, that they take from IS, and argue that local people in these areas have the right to decide whether or not they want their towns and cities to become part of Syria Kurdistan's unrecognised federal system.

While the US has provided military support to the SDF/YPG to fight IS since September 2014, this will likely prove ad-hoc in the long-term, especially after IS' ostensible defeat. They are highly unlikely to support the SDF/YPG against the regime, especially in Deir az-Zour or in Raqqa.

In May, an unidentified US official involved in the campaign against IS told The Wall Street Journal: "We won't be in Raqqa in 2020, but the regime will be there."

Kurds control three areas of northern Syria, though Turkey is keen to stop them controlling any more

US officials invariably insisted that the PYD was not directly connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). They did this to placate Turkey and ensure US support of the group was legal, in light of the fact the PKK is on the US State Department's terrorism list.

The PYD/YPG are, for all intents-and-purposes, the Syrian wing of the PKK.

US officials recently voiced their opposition to the placement of portraits depicting the PKK's imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan on the streets of Raqqa shortly after the PYD/YPG defeated IS there.

It's unclear if the regime will attempt to completely crush the SDF/YPG in Syria's Kurdish-majority areas, which sit along much of Syria's northeast border with Turkey - from the border with Iraqi Kurdistan to the east bank of the Euphrates River - given the continued presence of US troops and bases there.

The only other Kurdish-majority territory is the isolated Afrin Canton, which sits approximately 60 miles to the west of the west bank of the Euphrates.

Turkey has been eager to destroy the YPG there for months now. Turkey's deployment to Idlib province - one of the de-escalation zones in Syria agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran - was clearly aimed at encircling that Kurdish enclave.

Ankara has also clearly reached some kind of an agreement with al-Qaeda's offshoot, Haya't Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls all of Idlib, which saw HTS militants "escort" Turkish military forces into the province to secure positions in Idlib bordering Afrin.

While they avoided fighting Assad... Syria's Kurds doubtlessly believed a post-IS clash with the regime would prove inevitable

This has, to date, saved Turkey from diverting resources to militarily confront that group there. HTS also wants to avoid any confrontation with Turkish forces that could reverse, or outright destroy, its hold over that strategic province.

A Turkish assault on Afrin carried out alongside a simultaneous Syrian attack on the SDF/YPG in Deir az-Zour and Raqqa could afflict devastating setbacks on these Kurdish-led forces - of the kind Iraq's Kurds have just suffered.

While they avoided fighting Assad - brief clashes between regime forces and the Kurds occurred in Kurdish-majority cities such as Qamishli and Hasaka, where pro-regime militias had enclaves - Syria's Kurds doubtlessly believed a post-IS clash with the regime would prove inevitable.

This is likely the reason they sought anti-aircraft weapons from the US back in January.

Iran, President Assad's number one ally, supported Iraq's re-taking of Kirkuk from the Iraqi Kurds and strongly opposed those Kurds beforehand for going ahead with their independence referendum last September 25.

According to Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Syrian regime will capture Raqqa from the SDF.

"We will witness in the near future the advance of government and popular forces in Syria and east of the Euphrates, and the liberation of Raqqa city," Velayati declared on a visit to Beirut.

There is perhaps one thing that could avert such an outcome. Russia has sought to de-escalate clashes between Turkey and the YPG and more generally favours brokering a deal between Damascus and these Kurds, since it retains friendly relations with both sides.

This may prove difficult - as Assad's aforementioned adviser Shaaban insists: "I don't believe any government is able to negotiate with any component when the issue concerns state sovereignty and its territory."  

Nevertheless, Moscow has its own interests in facilitating a peaceful resolution, since it would wind down any further fighting in Syria now that the regime is securely in place and has re-established its control over most of the country - in large part due to the decisive Russian intervention two years ago.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon