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Rojava autonomy between furious Turkey and shocked Syria

As leaders of Syrian Kurds announce autonomy of the three mainly Kurdish cantons – Rojava – on March 17, this brings the Syrian government to a stalemate and angers Turkey. While the first says it does not recognize the autonomy, the latter again threatens to invade its neighbor state. A series of explosions in Ankara and Istanbul have deteriorated the situation even more. For the March 19 suicide bombing in Istanbul, the Turkish government blamed the “Islamic State.” As for the March 13 terror assault, Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) – an autonomous combat group that is probably affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - claimed responsibility for it. The reason was the military operation by the Turkish troops in the area of Sur, Diyarbakir city, and the nearby territories when nearly 800 Kurdish fighters were killed. Yet, PKK says its activists unlike TAK never target civilians.

Anyway, these converging vectors – an increase in activity, including terrorist activity, of Turkish Kurds and the autonomy of Syrian Kurds may undoubtedly change the political, military and later the economic realities of the Levant in the nearest future. Turkey gets a new, specific motive for its military operation. Now, the “red line” for Ankara is unification of the two Kurdish enclave-cantons – Kobani and Afrin. Turkish troops in the neighbor state have been actively trying to prevent establishment of a united autonomous formation of the cantons Kobani, Jazira and Afrin for a long time already. The Islamists (including the “Islamic State”) that are opposing Kurds are being permanently supplied with arms and munitions. The Kurdish positions and even civilian facilities have already been shelled from the Turkish territory. The peak of the Turkish troops’ doubtful achievements was the split, though insignificant so far, within ranks of Kurds. Reportedly, a new Kurdish group with pro-Turkish orientation, Grandsons of Salah al-Din, has emerged recently. Supported by the Turkish artillery, Grandsons of Salah al-Din have already clashed with the forces of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units between Azaz and Jarablus and even took several villages. It is noteworthy that the group’s leaders do not even conceal that Turkey supports them. For instance, one of Grandsons of Salah al-Din commanders Mahmoud Abu Hamza openly declared it. The group acts as an active and important participant in the coalition against the “Islamic State,” which would hardly be possible without external support.

Grandsons of Salah al-Din do not deny receiving arms from the United States either, though Washington disclaims any information about it. This triggers serious questions, considering that Washington was previously loyal to the demands for autonomy of Syrian Kurdistan. Anyway, at present the United States little differs from the government in Damascus – they did not recognize the self-proclaimed federation of Kurdish cantons. Since de-facto the federation has been existing for at least six months already and there were no fundamental objections to it by the United States, it is evident that there will be certain bargaining between Washington and the new autonomy, and in future with Russia that has not recognized Rojava either. U.S. may try to use Turkey’s activity for this purpose. Yet, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly proved his extensive “non-NATO” obstinacy, and he will hardly agree to mediate and promote interests of others when he has his own quite specific interests. What annoys Turkey most is the (People’s Protection Units) YPG, the armed wing of PYD (Democratic Union Party) movement of the Syrian Kurds. Ankara suspects it in cooperation with the PKK. PYD has a socialist ideology nearly identical to the one of the PKK, inherently Marxist one with a strong nationalistic bias. It is noteworthy that Seher Cagla Demir, a female suicide-bomber, who detonated a suicide vest packed with nails in the middle of Turkey's capital Ankara on Sunday, March 13, is believed to have had ties with not only with Freedom Falcons of Kurdistan and PKK, but also with…YPG. She even visited Kobani, as her father told Turkish Diyarbakirsoz.com. This is one more reason for Turkey to operate in Syria.

The domestic political situation in the newly declared autonomy is noteworthy too. Besides the Democratic Union, the most popular force among Syrian Kurds and the strongest one from the military point of view, there is another political force, though less influential. Established not so long ago, in 2011, this union of 16 parties – Kurdish National Council (KNC) – has traditional ideology unlike its socialistic rival and supports the Iraqi Kurdistan led by Masoud Barzani and the Iraqi Democratic Party of Kurdistan. KNC is part of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces the major goal of which is to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Members of the Kurdish National Council were invited to the Geneva talks over Syria in 2014 as delegates of the NCSROF. At the instigation of Barzani, the KNC regularly blames the Democratic Union and its leader Salih Muslim for coordinating its actions with President al-Assad. Although Muslim dismisses such criticism, he has never come out for full separation of the Kurdish regions from the Arab republic, pinning hopes just with autonomy, which he has eventually achieved. Rojava leaders Mansur al-Salum and Khadiya Yusef who were elected at the congress of deputies from Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira, are also members of the Democratic Union. It is noteworthy that al-Salum is an Arab, and the rights of national minorities in the Kurdish territories have been agreed upon too – they can even elect members of the parliament. Assyrians are also recognized as a national minority in Rojava. At present, the Kurdish problem is at its crucial stage – the autonomy that was achieved mainly by the efforts of the Democratic Union activists has been declared but not recognized yet. If Damascus, Moscow, and Washington delay its recognition, this may affect the reputation of the Democratic Union and its leaders that head the united federation of the Kurdish cantons of Syria. After all, recognition is the next stage of the autonomy that has been de-facto existing since autumn 2015. Weakening of the Democratic Union’s positions may automatically strengthen the KNC. While the Democratic Union de-facto has supported the Syrian president since 2014, when the People’s Protection Units held deadly battles against the “Islamic State,” the Kurdish National Council opposes the Syrian president. Refusing to show flexibility Assad may alienate the Democratic Union and even get more enemies especially that his Minister for National Reconciliation Affairs Ali Haidar declared in April 2015 he was ready for talks with Kurds over autonomy (though after the war against Islamists). All this may spark a large-scale ‘migration’ of Kurds to the National Council. This will be a solid support to the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and Free Syrian Army, the role of which is insignificant in the balance of power in the territory of Syria now – it is just supported by the media reports on the recent ceasefire and the external support.

The Kurdish autonomy extremely needs recognition by Syria. Blocked from all sides, having no big towns or any industrial facilities in its territory – the last fragments of indyustry were destroyed by the years-long devastating war – the Syrian Kurds have quite obscure economic outlook. Rojava may find itself in a more desperate situation if the Arab Syria and Turkey blockade it. (Turkey has a years-long experience of economic suffocation of its neighbor-state – the Turkish-Armenian border is still closed to “help” Azerbaijan restore control over Nagorno-Karabakh that is supported by Armenia.) In such a situation, the Kurdish autonomy will have to “beat its way to the sea” via the Syrian territory (to the Mediterranean) or the Turkish territory (to the Black Sea, which is a mythical scenario). Meanwhile, if Damascus recognizes Rojava and establishes mutually advantageous trade relations with it, the economy of the Syrian Kurdistan and the Arabic part of Syria will improve significantly in the future, as it will make possible oil shipping from the Iraqi Kurdistan via the territory of the country – now oil is supplied to the world markets via Turkey only.

As regards the federalization that Damascus opposes and refuses to recognize, it is a fait accompli. Furthermore, the Syrian government should welcome even the desire of Kurds to stay as part of the united Syria, despite their separate war against the “Islamic State” and pro-Turkish groups in the north of the country. Kurds do not refuse from the unity with the Syrian Arab Republic, though they have enough force and reasons for it. Furthermore, they are and will remain important allies of Damascus in the fight against the “Islamic State,” Jabhat al-Nusra and the Turkey-supported groups that the West calls “moderate opposition.” Together Damascus and Afrin will better fight against Turkey in case it decides to invade Syria.

Syria will never be the same, but it does not mean that it will collapse. To prevent Syria’s collapse, al-Assad’s government must pursue a flexible policy towards Rojava and agree on federalization. This will become a severe blow on the Erdogan government in Turkey.

In the current political and economic situation, the key to the full independence of the Kurdish territories will be in the hands of Damascus that controls the external trade operations and other activities of the autonomy. It will be logical for Russia, as it has repeatedly helped the Syrian Kurds with air strikes, to recognize Rojava’s autonomy. This will help Moscow keep its important allies in the fight against Islamists and have a lever of influence upon Turkey, as well as prevent (though it is less possible) from expansion of U.S. influence in the region – Washington also claims the role of “the friend of Syrian Kurds.” Flexibility and readiness to necessary concessions are what the sides to the Kurdish settlement in Syria need. The success of this process may become an important stage for stabilization of the Levant, achievement of peace in its territory, while the failure of this process will blow up the entire Middle East - from Anatolia up to the border of Iran – considering the geography of the areas densely populated with Kurds.

Anton Yevstratov, lecturer at the World History and Regional Studies Department, the Russian-Armenian University (RAU), for EADaily

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