Rojava leader warns obstinacy could prolong Syrian conflict to 2025

The Syrian conflict has raged since 2011, when President Bashar Assad met mass protests with violence. 

Since then, the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have quashed almost all opposition around the country, but the policies of Assad and the Turkish government could prolong the conflict for at least six more years, according to Aldar Halil, an executive committee member of the mainly Kurdish group governing the autonomous region in northeast Syria known as Rojava.

Halil’s Movement for a Democratic Society is the ruling coalition of the Rojava legislature, known as the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). The SDC has gained favour from Western nations for being the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that took the lead role in defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

The Kurdish militia lost some 11,000 fighters in the struggle against the jihadis, and Halil says this should earn Kurdish groups recognition.

“We saved the world from a huge problem. Everyone sees this and acknowledges the truth of it. Now the structure that’s come from that struggle has to be accepted,” Halil told Ahval. 

That structure – a series of self-governing administrations covering vast areas of north and east Syria, including some of the country’s richest oil reserves – is still not recognised by Assad’s government, or any international state or body.

But the inclusion of a delegation from Rojava in the stalled United Nations-backed peace talks in Geneva raised hopes of formal recognition, and the United States in particular has insisted the Kurdish administrations must have a seat at the table.

“For a long time, the Americans have stressed that no results will be achieved at Geneva without the Kurds,” Halil said.

U.S. support has been crucial for the Rojava administrations since ISIS began losing its last remaining territories in Syria last year. With the jihadists all but defeated, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops and threatened an invasion of northeastern Syria.

The Turkish government views several of the most powerful Kurdish political and armed groups in northern Syria as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has fought for Kurdish self-rule in southeast Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. 

U.S. officials protested when President Donald Trump announced a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria on the grounds that this could facilitate a Turkish attack on the Kurdish forces that helped defeat ISIS. Trump relented, instead suggesting the creation of a safe zone that his special Syria envoy James Jeffrey has been negotiating with Turkey since early this year.

With Jeffrey due in Syria to discuss the matter with the Kurdish side, there are likely to be concrete developments on the issue, Halil said, stressing that Kurdish red lines would make it impossible for the Turkish side to get the 25-30-km-deep zone inside Syria it has demanded.

Instead, the safe zone would stretch 5 km across the border at most, and neither include settled areas nor be under the control of Turkey’s armed forces, Halil said.

Rather, the Kurds will agree to a zone patrolled by an international coalition that may include Turkish troops and will be mostly active in desert regions, he said.

Sources in the region have said Berlin has agreed to provide air support for the coalition and could well send troops as well.

One condition that will not be easy for the Turkish side to accept relates to Afrin, the northwestern Syrian border area that was captured from Kurdish control in a two-month military operation launched in January 2018 and occupied by Turkish and allied Syrian auxiliary forces since.

The Rojava administration has demanded that Kurdish civilians forced from their homes in Afrin are allowed to return and has demanded the return of all confiscated property.

It has also said security in the region should be provided not by Turkish security forces or by the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) they captured Afrin from, but by local forces.

These conditions, Halil said, will be very difficult for Erdoğan to swallow, making a deal very difficult.

If Turkey proves uncooperative, it will leave one front open in a conflict that has already spanned nearly a decade.

For Halil, the Syrian president’s similarly obstinate stance is also likely to stretch the conflict out. The Kurdish politician said Assad was living in a dream world by believing he could continue to hold the country under one-man rule as he did in 2011.

With Assad’s forces failing to make headway in Idlib, the last rebel-controlled province, despite months of intense attacks backed by their Russian allies, Halil stressed that a military solution would not be easy to achieve in the short term, and the situation could take until 2025 to find a resolution. 

This, he said, was down to obstinacy both on Assad’s side and that of Turkey, which is backing the rebel groups in the province.

In the meantime, the Kurdish administrations still face the danger of an ISIS resurgence, with the existence of camps holding ISIS prisoners and their children a likely breeding ground for extremism, Halil said.

“These children are eight, 10 or 12 years old now, soon they’ll be teenagers, and in the camps their mothers are raising them as jihadists. We can’t know now what will happen when these kids grow up and mix back in with society,” Halil said.

“At the same time, we have about 10,000 prisoners (from the fight against ISIS), and the whole burden is being borne by Rojava,” he added. “If there’s an uprising tomorrow or the next day, or if they escape, no one knows what the consequences are. The international community needs to take responsibility for this."

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.