Swiftly after the last rebels were evacuated in Aleppo as Syrian forces took full control, a new ceasefire was orchestrated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey intending to a fresh round of peace talks in Kazakhstan. Though, the dominant Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its military wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, have been excluded from the talks at the insistence of Turkey.
The capture of Aleppo by the Syrian regime and their allies provides a pivotal moment in the Syrian war and a platform for a peace deal. However, vast areas of the country remain not in the hands of Assad or even the opposition but the powerful Kurdish forces.
Turkey’s Syria policy has long been shaped by its fear of an increasingly assertive Kurdish zone on its southern border. In fact, in some ways, this defined its approach to dealing with the Islamic State (IS).
In contrast, the United States has relied heavily on these Kurdish forces as one of the most effective forces against IS. Ongoing US support for what Ankara deems as terrorists has placed Turkey at loggerheads with the US.
With the thawing of ties between Ankara and Moscow, Turkey is enjoying new leverage in Syria, culminating in their intervention last year to curtail Syrian Kurdish aspirations to join their cantons. With the realization that Russia and Iran would not forgo Assad, Turkey’s focus has fast shifted from the removal of Assad to keeping Kurdish aspirations in check and creating a northern zone of influence.
The exclusion of the PYD and YPG in any talks and perhaps even the dismantling of their autonomy was likely a key Turkish condition on any deal with Russia and Iran.
Although the PYD has been excluded from the talks, the Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS) will be taking part. Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar of ENKS told Kurdistan24, “the claims that Syrian Kurds are not represented in the peace talks are false.”
The ENKS has played down PYD’s exclusion from the peace negotiations from being linked to Kurdish rights. But, ultimately, PYD has greater political leverage in the region as well as the influence of YPG forces.
This underscores the division among Kurds that undermine their solidarity, unity, and negotiating position in future talks.
Various agreements to unite the ENKS and the rival People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), an affiliate of PYD, have eroded.
Turkish intervention and takeover of a strip of IS controlled land in the north of Syria, primarily aimed at curbing Kurdish aspirations, is likely to have been launched with Moscow’s tacit approval.
Russia had previously insisted that participation of the main Syrian Kurdish party was vital in any peace talks.
In March 2016, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, critical of Turkish ultimatums at the time, even said leaving the Kurds out of the Geneva talks could endanger Syria’s territorial integrity.
Turkish intervention in Syria was not received warmly by Washington as it feared conflict between Kurds and Turks and a focus away from defeating IS.
In recent weeks, tense relations between the NATO allies were visible over a lack of US air support in Turkey’s bid to take al-Bab. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isık said the ongoing US support for the PYD was leading the government to “question” the use of the strategic Incirlik base by the US-led coalition forces.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was equally damning of the US stance on the Kurds, accusing the US of been engaged in a “fake struggle.” He urged President-elect Donald Trump to “put an end to this vileness, as it is now time for friends and foes to clearly separate themselves from each other.”
As much as Trump will be eager for a deal with the Turks and Russians to end the war, pulling the plug on the Kurdish forces is a significant risk at a crucial time against IS. Moreover, any military moves to curtail the Kurds would merely prolong and intensify the Syrian war.
Autonomy is a red-line for the Kurds, and regardless of which political party represents them in any peace talks, they remain a vital component of the Syrian landscape, and their rights should be ensured if Syria is to find any semblance of peace and stability.
As for Syrian Kurds, without a unified political scene and armed forces, any autonomous region cannot flourish amid hostile neighbors.
First Published: Kurdistan 24