Cutting deals with the devil: US betrayal pushes Syria's Kurds into clutches of regime

Cutting deals with the devil: US betrayal pushes Syria's Kurds into clutches of regime
Comment: The deal the Kurds were forced to cut with the Syrian regime is likely to only have one winner: Assad and his regime, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
17 Oct, 2019
Over half a million have been killed in Syria's brutal civil war [AFP]
While much Syria commentary has adderssed the spectre of the return of the Islamic State (IS) as a result of Turkey's incursion into PYD-held areas of North Syria, it seems that many overlooked the beneficial effect it would also have on the Assad regime.

That is, until the Assad regime struck a 
deal with the PYD. The deal has seen pro-regime forces taking over PYD-held territories near the Turkish border.

Though many have reacted to this development with surprise, this alliance has an immediate precedent in the PYD's doomed resistance to 'Operation Olive Branch' last year. This was Turkey's name for the official operation of capturing most of the PYD's Afrin Canton, during which the PYD and its armed wing, the YPG, struck a similar deal with the Assad regime.

As I have written before, the PYD's mostly pragmatic alliance with Assad goes back to the very beginning of the Syrian war. It's notable, though rarely discussed, that when Free Aleppo fell, it was the YPG working with Russia, Iran and Assad that cut off the final supply route to the people of the liberated areas of the city, paving away for the brutal seizure and ethnic cleansing carried out by Assad and his allies.

So while it's clear that the most immediate factor behind the current PYD-Assad deal is the Turkish incursion against the PYD, there is a recent historic context of mutual support between the two forces that goes beyond mere necessity.

But one thing is for sure about the deal: the cost for the Kurdish people of Northern Syria will, I fear, be high.  

Bashar al-Assad isn't suddenly a supporter of Kurdish autonomy. Nor, more importantly, are his Russian and Iranian backers. When these forces vowed to reconquer every inch of Syria, we know, regardless of moments of opportunistic rhetoric, he means the areas controlled by the PYD. Assad would've, if possible, retaken these areas by force, but the deal means force is no longer required.  

Assad will now softly reconquer the PYD-held areas of Syria that Turkey spares east of the Euphrates

The Assad dynasty have been the authors and executioners of long-standing anti-Kurdish policies in Syria. Both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad refused to give Kurds full Syrian citizenship, leading to a situation of concentrated unemployment and poverty among the Kurdish populations in the North.

The Kurdish language was suppressed, while Arabic was promoted in schools - the regime deliberately settled Arabs from the rest of Syria in Kurdish-majority areas to create a buffer between Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. It was also an attempt by Assad to continue a strategy that pitted Syrian Kurd against Syrian Arab, all the better for him to rule.  

In fact, prior to the Arab Spring, it was in 2004 in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli that protests erupted against Assad's rule, leading to a brutal crackdown by the regime that saw as many as 100 Syrian Kurdish protesters murdered, and thousands more flee to Iraqi Kurdistan.  

This is the regime that now rides into town portraying itself as a friend of Syrian Kurds. It's highly unlikely that Assad will even put significant elements of his forces in harm's way against the Turks, but will rather take symbolic superficially supportive action, while gaining large concessions from the PYD.

The outcome will most likely be that Turkey will carry out its operation to whatever capacity it sees fit, while Assad will now softly reconquer the PYD-held areas of Syria that Turkey spares east of the Euphrates.   

Read more: YPG and Assad: Pragmatic allies but unwilling bedfellows?

Assad might allow toothless local councils in any Kurdish area it takes over from the PYD, but they will be mere tools of his tyrannical rule, while there will be nothing even remotely approaching the kind of autonomy Kurdish people want or deserve. In fact, though the situations are admittedly different, we've seen the monstrous manner in which Assad rules reconquered other areas of Syria.  

If Kurdish or Arab residents of any area given to Assad by the PYD attempt to act in a manner that undermines his rule, they can expect to see the same kind of mass repression that he has instituted in formerly rebel-held areas. Protests against the deal have already erupted in PYD-controlled Arab-majority areas such as Deir az-Zour and Raqqa.  

Assad will not tolerate this.  

As we've seen with various "de-escalation" and ceasefire deals made during the Syrian war, deals with Assad and Russia almost always end in one way: with the triumph of Assad at the great expense of the other party.  

Maybe that's the reason the PYD, bereft of their former US ally, have attempted to forge such a deal - not because they think it gives them any realistic fighting chance against Turkey, but because it might blunt the brutally sharp edges of Assad's inevitable Reconquista.  

Bashar al-Assad isn't suddenly a supporter of Kurdish autonomy

Or maybe it's the last desperate act of a party that made the mistake of stretching itself too far between ultimately self-interested state actors, who will always find some level of consensus between themselves over the will of non-state actors.

Despite rhetoric from the PYD claiming Russia has fully backed the deal with Assad, the reality is that Russia isn't going to side with the PYD over a state actor and one of its allies, Turkey. Again, Olive Branch provides us with a very recent precedent for this.

One of the major reasons why the regime's involvement in Olive Branch was so limited is because Russia, which essentially controls the regime, gave assurances to Turkey that any intervention by Assad would be minimal.

It was widely accepted that Russia, despite its necessary contrary rhetoric, either willingly consented to or, more likely, simply had no other choice than to acquiescence to Turkey's operations against the PYD.  

At the time, even the PYD's own commanders spoke openly at the time of Russia's 'betrayal of the Kurds'.  

It has even emerged that the US allegedly gave its 'blessing' to the PYD's alliance with Assad, but, again, given the fact the US effectively greenlighted Turkey's invasion, this is meaningless.

Deals with Assad and Russia almost always end in one way: with the triumph of Assad at the great expense of the other party

In a letter from Trump to Erdogan, the US president implores his Turkish counterpart not to be "a fool" and warning that if he persists with the operation, the US will destroy the Turkish economy.  

It's hardly coincidental that this letter was miraculously leaked after the US House of Representatives voted to denounce Trump's decision to pull out US troops, or that a day later, Turkey agreed to completely end military operations in northern Syria, after Kurdish fighters withdraw from the "safe zone".

Regardless of Trump's current efforts to influence the narrative, the US could've acted in Syria on numerous occasions to avert the genocide that now engulfs that nation. But the Democrats weren't interested when Obama was abandoning millions of Syrians to be tortured maimed or cleansed by the Assad regime.  

And that's the most grim realisation of the Assad-PYD deal, the fact that after eight years of war with no end in sight, hundreds of thousands dead, millions cleansed and his leading role in an active genocide, Bashar al-Assad is still around to be making deals.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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