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SDF woos Syrian Kurdish rivals in wake of Turkish assault

Could the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi Kurdish-backed Kurdish National Council, long at loggerheads, come to an accord in the wake of Turkey's invasion of Kurdish-administered areas of Syria?
Mazloum Kobani, Syrian Democratic Forces' (SDF) commander in chief, talks as he announces the destruction of Islamic State's control of land in eastern Syria, at al-Omar oil field in Deir Al Zor, Syria March 23, 2019. - RC1F71152EF0

ERBIL, Iraq —Turkey’s Oct. 9 offensive in northeastern Syria was meant to shatter the Syrian Kurds’ doggedly nurtured autonomy project. It succeeded — at least partially. Their US protectors have pulled back from the length of the Turkish border they once jointly controlled with the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey has wrested control of the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad and the stretch of land that lies between, disrupting communications between majority Kurdish towns. Turkish artillery continues to claim civilian lives as Ankara's Syrian Arab proxies engage in war crimes. The future of the Syrian Kurds has never looked more uncertain.

But one unintended — and neglected — effect of Turkish aggression has been to rekindle reconciliation attempts between the YPG’s political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its rivals who are united under the banner of the Kurdish National Council. 

Since Oct. 25, top Kurdish National Council officials have met once with Mazlum Kobane, the commander of the US-backed and YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and twice with senior SDF officials led by Redur Xelil inside northeast Syria, the council's de facto foreign minister, Kamran Hajo, confirmed in an interview with Al-Monitor.

Most notably, the meetings took place at the SDF’s behest and this comes after years of snubbing the Kurdish National Council as inept and weak.

Aliza Marcus, a Washington-based expert on Kurdish affairs, told Al-Monitor that a power sharing arrangement that brings the council “into the Kurdish-led administration makes a lot of sense for the PYD and the SDF. A stronger, more united bloc can help in negotiations with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad and with Russia and it's a stronger opposition to what Turkey is doing.”

Even before formal talks took place in Syria, French President Emmanuel Macron sponsored meetings between the PYD and the council in Paris. They kicked off in April with Macron’s Syria envoy Francois Semenaud, a former ambassador to Tehran, taking the lead. But the French paused the talks indefinitely when Turkey launched its latest offensive, improbably labeled Peace Spring.

Nawaf Hasan Rasheed is a leading figure in the Kurdish National Council from the Yekiti, or Kurdish Union party, who says he has not been allowed back into Syria by the PYD since 2015. He told Al-Monitor in an interview in Erbil, “The latest dialogue was initiated by Mazlum [Kobane]. The Americans were pushing him. We consider that a positive step. And they have made no demands on us.”

“The Turkish invasion triggered this,” said a Syrian Kurdish civil society activist involved in past mediation efforts, who asked not to be identified by name in order to speak freely. He told Al-Monitor, “The aim is to avert mass displacement and salvage from the autonomy project whatever they can.”  p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Times; color: #ff2500; -webkit-text-stroke: #ff2500} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} Over 200,000 civilians were initially displaced by the Turkish offensive, more than 15,000 fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan

The activist added, “The SDF came forward and said, ‘We can convince the PYD.'” But this is easier said than done.

Dareen Khalifa, a Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor that the Kurdish National Council “still has international political legitimacy so a unified Kurdish front could strengthen the YPG’s [and PYD’s] international image and backing. However, I don’t see how it could strengthen the PYD’s position vis-a-vis Damascus." Khalifa said the council "has aligned itself with the regime’s adversaries and is hostile to Damascus. This could further complicate talks with Damascus.”

Hajo said the PYD wants the council to pull out of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition that is taking part in now-stalled UN-facilitated talks with the regime to draw up a revised constitution. The council would presumably then form a new bloc with the PYD and its Arab allies. “We cannot do this without external guarantees from the United States, Russia and the European Union,” Hajo said. 

In any case, the council insists that the PYD implement several confidence building measures ahead of any other steps. The council wants the PYD to release all political prisoners. Mediators between the sides estimate that there are fewer than six such detainees and several others who remain missing. They include Fuad Ibrahim, an opposition politician who disappeared on March 24, 2017. He was threatened several times by the Kurdish autonomous administration’s internal security forces for being overtly critical and then was abducted by unidentified masked men, council officials say. 

The council also wants the freedom to organize and operate unhindered within the PYD-run zone and for its members living in exile to be able to return. Bedri Dorsin, a council official sheltering in Erbil, is one of them. He claimed that his brother Bahzad, a senior opposition politician who went missing on Oct. 24, 2012, was disappeared by the PYD.

The PYD has long denied that it has any political detainees, saying those in custody are being held for criminal activities. It says it is not responsible for opposition figures who went missing in the early days of the uprising and that they may have been victims of either the Syrian regime or the Arab opposition. “We told them before, there are no political prisoners. There were two people being held on criminal charges,” said PYD spokesman Salih Muslim.

He said the Kurdish National Council parties can operate at will. “They wanted to open an office in Kobani but could not find anyone willing to work with them, [so] they gave up. We invite them to our TV programs, they refuse,” Muslim told Al-Monitor. 

Still, in November 2018, the PYD freed Abd Al-Rahman Apo, a prominent opposition figure who remains fiercely critical of the Kurdish administration in what mediators called “a very important confidence building gesture.”

In a Nov. 7 interview with Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish news channel sympathetic to the Barzanis, Kobane said, “We want our negotiations with America, Russia, or the central government in Damascus to include the Kurdish parties of Rojava as well. At this time, we call on Syrian Kurdish political parties to establish unity, to stand by the Syrian Democratic Forces, for us to struggle together, so that we [emerge] successful at the end of this phase.” 

Rasheed did not conceal his cynicism. “Logically speaking, if the Rojava administration were still intact, they would not be calling for yekrezi,” he said. “Rojava” is Kurdish for Western or Syrian Kurdistan and “yekrezi” for unity. 

Marcus said she believes chances for an agreement are slim. She said the Kurdish National Council and the PYD negotiated three previous deals to give the council "some power and these all fell apart. Both sides share the blame, but the fundamental problems have been that the PYD doesn’t like to share power and the [council] hasn’t wanted to recognize the legitimacy of the Rojava administration.”

Khalifa concurred, saying that an agreement between the PYD and the council “that would entail some form of power sharing is not something the YPG seems willing to offer.” Ominously, a date for the next round of talks has yet to be proposed by either side. This suggests that the council may have caved to Turkish pressure to walk away or that the PYD has succumbed to Damascus’ demands to do the same.

“The regime prefers to deal with an armed group with control on the ground that they know and think they can strike a quick deal and security arrangements with,” said the civil society activist.

But Kobane’s move was not just about melting the ice with his opponents. It was also calculated to lubricate ties with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership and above all with the powerful Barzani family, who are the council’s top mentors. Nechirvan Barzani is the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and his paternal cousin (and brother-in-law) Masrour Barzani is the prime minister. Kobane has in recent months traveled to Erbil at least once for meetings with both Barzanis. The purpose was to congratulate Masrour Barzani after he was sworn in as prime minister in July, Iraqi Kurdish and SDF officials speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor.

Since 2012, when the PYD and its allies erected their autonomous administration in northeastern Syria, the Barzanis have promoted a power-sharing arrangement with the Kurdish National Council in part to establish their influence over Syria’s Kurds. Massoud Barzani, the then president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and whose late father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, is revered by Syrian Kurds, was the driving force behind the attempts at rapprochement. 

This mirrored efforts by his father at patching up differences between Syrian Kurdish factions in 1970. 

But Massoud Barzani’s push, much as his father’s, came to naught as the PYD and the YPG steadily cemented power.

The PYD’s strength was rooted in several factors. It struck a non-aggression pact with Assad in the early days of the uprising, allowing the Syrian president to redeploy his troops to fight Sunni Arab rebels elsewhere and the Kurds to run their own affairs. Just as critically, in 2014 the YPG sealed a military partnership with the United States against the Islamic State; this allowed the Kurdish group to vastly expand its territory. 

The US presence forced the Kurdistan Regional Government to ease access to northeast Syria through the Fish Khabur border crossing for humanitarian aid, commercial goods and military equipment for the coalition campaign against the jihadis. Kobane wants to make sure things remain that way if and when American troops leave.

But the PYD had secured an advantage over its rivals long before the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. And without understanding this background and the related jumble of acronyms, it's impossible to understand the dynamics that led to the Turkish invasion and landed Kobane in Ankara’s crosshairs.

The PYD was founded by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the rebel group fighting initially for Kurdish independence and then autonomy inside Turkey. Its now-imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was offered sanctuary by Assad’s father, Hafez, between 1979 and 1998 as leverage against Turkey, allowing Ocalan to recruit thousands of Syrian Kurds to join his fight. Kobane was among them. The Kurdish National Council-linked opposition parties, on the other hand, had been virtually crushed, with many of its leaders fleeing to Europe. 

The PKK’s welcome wore out in 1998 when Turkey threatened war and Damascus forced Ocalan to leave. 

Syrian repression of the Kurds intensified as relations with Ankara steadily warmed. Hundreds of PKK and other Kurdish politicians were jailed. 

But the situation was reversed yet again when Turkey decided to throw its full weight behind opposition rebels seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in August 2011. The major Kurdish National Council parties joined the Turkish-backed opposition, though they never took up arms against Assad. The PYD views the council as a Turkish puppet. The council in turn sees the PYD as a tool of the PKK, whose disavowal of Kurdish nationalism in keeping with Ocalan’s philosophy is alien to the council's base.

Bave Halabja, a council official in Erbil, bristled at the suggestion that the bloc took its orders from Ankara. “During the attack on Afrin we were not silent. We called it an occupation.” Halabja was referring to Turkey’s 2018 invasion of the mainly Kurdish enclave on the Turkish border. 

“And Turkey’s so-called Operation Peace Spring, we call it Operation Blood Spring,” he said. 

Renas Hussein Sabah, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who ekes a living as a cook in Erbil, said he was appalled by Turkey’s actions and appreciated Kobane’s efforts at peace. “This guy is trying to do something good. He is including Christian and other minorities in the government. But the PKK is controlling him.” He said that if Kobane moved away from the PKK, then the council could trust him. 

The YPG’s close ties with the PKK is the formal reason Turkey went to war against the Syrian Kurdish group. It is also why Turkey is furious with Washington for pursuing its partnership with the YPG.

Getting the PYD to share power with the Kurdish National Council was long seen as a way to calm Turkish fury. This would entail letting the council’s armed affiliate — known as the Roj peshmerga and mostly drawn from the more than 250,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan — to return to Syria to take part in the fight against the Islamic State. The Roj pesh, as they are commonly known, operate under the command of the Iraqi Kurdish department of defense, known as the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. 

 A former Trump administration official who dealt with Syria told Al-Monitor said while it has urged the council and the YPG to cooperate, the council “is now basically Turkish-owned.”

Unsurprisingly, the United States failed to persuade the YPG to go along with the plan, which was anyway seen as a recipe for intra-Kurdish fighting at a time the US-led coalition was concentrating on the fight against the Islamic State. The YPG called the entry of the Roj peshmerga a red line.

On recent morning a group of Roj peshmerga were spotted smoking and joking as they waited to board a bus to take up their posts at various observation posts near the Syrian border. They sported patches emblazoned with Mustafa Barzani’s face. One of them who would identify himself only as Ibrahim said, “I was happy to join because I love Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Barzani is a big name that we are proud of. But after training from peshmerga commanders I feel bored. We have no future. Most of our friends are traveling to Europe.” He continued, “We look up to the [Iraqi Kurdish] peshmerga as great commanders but they look down on us as inferiors.”

His views were echoed by a young man with gel-coated hair, called Yasser, who also declined to provide his surname. “There is no future in this force. We are considered refugees, not fighters,” he said.

Feisal Ahmed, the head of Roj pesh recruitment office in Erbil — perhaps inadvertently offered clues for their lack of enthusiasm. He told Al-Monitor, “There are many who left the YPG to join us. We do our best to avoid fighting.”

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