With Russia and America engaging in ever closer cooperation with Kurdish forces in Syria and with the question of President Assad’s war against terrorism changed from one of ‘if’ to a question of ‘when’, it is necessary to example what the relationship between Syria and the Kurds will be in the conflict’s aftermath.
Furthermore, such a discussion cannot be had without taking the views of Syrian allies Russia and Iran into account. One must also consider the adversarial position of Turkey and the increasingly ambiguous position of a Trump led America who has exited the de-facto jihadist/Wahabist/Turkish coalition and switched to exclusively backing Kurdish dominated SDF forces.
When Russia was engaged in frequent wars with Ottoman Turkey and Qajar Persia in the late-modern period of the Russian Empire, Kurdish fighters saw an opportunity to achieve political and territorial gains at the expense of Russia’s regional adversaries and likewise, Russia saw the advantage of cooperating with fierce local Kurdish fighters. This was a relationship based on mutual self-interest.
After Turkey joined NATO (1952) and the Kurdish Works Party (PKK) was established in 1978 as a leftist revolutionary movement, the Soviet Union had reason to back the Kurds both on an ideological basis and to create leverage against Turkey, a NATO state that had been a traditional rival.
In 1998, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was forced to leave Syria which had traditionally supported the PKK, in spite of long term problems with its own Kurdish insurgents.
Öcalan travelled freely to Moscow hoping to forge a closer alliance, but the economic woes of late 1990s Russia, combined with a generally stagnant geo-political climate in Moscow, meant that the meeting led to virtually nothing.
The Syrian conflict which started in 2011, is on the whole, a foreign conflict wherein terrorist proxies were funded by and acted at the behest of America and her NATO allies including Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Israeli citizens and Palestinian Hamas fighters have also participated in the conflict against the legitimate Syrian government.
The Kurds in Syria saw this as an opportunity to realise a longstanding ambition to create an autonomous region or even an independent Kurdish state on legal Syrian territory.
More recently, Kurdish fighters have cooperated with the Syrian Arab Army against a common enemy, Turkey. Russia has been fully supportive of this as an ally of both the Syrian Arab Republic and the Kurdish YPG forces. In spite of its leading position in NATO, the US which under Trump, exclusively backs the Kurds in the Syrian conflict, has not done anything to aid fellow illegal NATO invader, Turkey.
Many in both Russia and the United States are sympathetic to Kurdish desires for greater autonomy in a federal Syria. Others yet support the creation of a state of Kurdistan.
Here is why I oppose such proposals.
1. The Majority of Syrians Oppose This
For the majority of Syrians who have fought to the death to preserve the territorial and constitutional integrity of their country for years, during a conflict with numerous enemies, any surrender of territory will be viewed as punitive.
Furthermore, because of Kurdish ties with Israel, one of modern Syria’s oldest enemies, having an autonomous zone or a state on Syria’s borders that could conceivably aid Israeli interests would be entirely unacceptable. Beyond this, wider federalisation could likely result in the same enemies of Syria who have participated in the conflict, attempting to carve out zones of influences in the would-be federal regions of the country. This would represent a big step backwards for a country that was unified and generally peaceful and prosperous prior to 2011.
If an ally of Syria such as Russia were to insist upon such a thing, it would be viewed as a stab in the back. Luckily, because unlike Turkey and the US, Russia respects international law, Russia has consistently repeated that this decision is up to the Syrian people alone.
It is inconceivable to patriotic Syrians who fought valiantly to preserve their Syrian Arab Repulbic, that the nature of the Republic should be changed as a result. It would be an example of Syria winning the war but losing the peace in a humiliating fashion.
2. The Kurdish Question Is Not Integral To The Conflict–It Is A Parallel Issue
In spite of conflicts between Syria and its Kurdish populations, the animosity between the two sides cannot be compared to that which transpired in Iraq (until the late 1990s), nor can it be compared to that which continues to occur in Turkey.
In the Syrian Arab Republic, Kurdish individuals may take Syrian citizenship and enjoy the same rights as Arab Syrians of any and all religious affiliations.
If there is any state whose war guilt both in Syria and whose actions against Kurds merits the attention of the wider world, that state is Turkey and certainly not Syria. Why should Syria be punished for what is first and foremost something that even most Kurds would admit is a Turkish problem? If there is to be a Kurdistan, the world should focus first on Turkey as this is the political epicentre of the Kurdistan question.
Also, it is important that the peace settlement which eventually come into force in Syria, recognises that the conflict is one between Syria and her allies versus jihadist terrorism. The running disagreements between Kurds and Damascus can be settled at a later date without external interference.
The cooperation between the Syrian Arab Army and Kurdish fighters against a common Turkish enemy is demonstrative of the fact that future disagreements can be and ought to be settled amicably. Furthermore, it can be done without resorting to federalising the country. Agreements come and go throughout history and there is no reason that opposition to federalism and separatism should prohibit some kind of mutually acceptable agreement under the framework of a unitary, sovereign Syrian Arab Republic.
Again, this can only be done through the consent of the majority of Syrians.
3. Iran’s Perspective
Iran has been active in aiding the Syrian war against terrorism for even longer than Russia. Unlike in the 19th century, modern Iran is not only a highly important Russian ally, some would argue that Iran is Russia’s foremost ally in the Middle East.
Iran has its own dispute with Kurdish insurgents and for that reason alone, Iran would not be supportive of any measures which could see Syria set a precedent for Kurdish autonomy in Iran.
Iran is far more important to Russia than the Kurds and as a state, it is only sensible for Russia to put it as a priority before a stateless people, however close the ties might otherwise be.
For all of these reasons, Russia must consider the wider consequences of putting their full weight behind would-be Kurdish separatism or related calls for Federalism. This is not to say that Russia should abandon the Kurds. Russia should simply realise that ultimately., having good relations with Damascus and Tehran is not only more important to Russian interests but ultimately more just in terms of being a good partner.