The fragile ties between Damascus and the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northern Syria have seen a dangerous escalation amid widespread anticipation that US support for the Syrian Kurds will grow after the change of guard at the White House. The two sides have sought to besiege one another in several areas in recent weeks, fueling deadly tensions and allegations of collusion between Damascus and Ankara.
In early January, government forces restricted the entry of commercial vehicles to Aleppo’s predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiya as well as the nearby town of Tell Rifat and its environs, an area the Kurds call Shahba, Kurdish sources told Al-Monitor. The restrictions disrupted the supply of fuel and food, also affecting camps sheltering Kurdish refugees from Turkish-held Afrin.
The Kurds retaliated by encircling government-controlled pockets in Hasakah and Qamishli to the east. Mazlum Kobane, the head of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), accused government forces of blockading Kurdish-populated areas and arresting relatives of members of the SDF and the Kurdish police force Asayish. The Aleppo governor’s office rejected the accusations and denied shortages of basic goods in Kurdish areas.
On Jan. 27, one person was killed and several others injured as Kurdish security forces intervened to break up a pro-government protest in Hasakah. A pro-government militia responded by attacking an Asayish station amid mutual recriminations on who was responsible for the unrest.
Kurdish sources told Al-Monitor that the Russians did little to mediate in the crisis and declined to provide a security guarantee to a delegation the Kurds wanted to send to Damascus. Nevertheless, contacts took place locally and the Asayish began to remove roadblocks Feb. 2 as a goodwill gesture, they added. However, both sides preserve their military postures and the crisis has yet to be fully resolved, the sources said.
Sources in Damascus, meanwhile, said the Kurds promised to retreat within 48 hours during contacts Feb. 2. According to independent sources, they did lift the blockade in Hasakah and Qamishli that day, while the government allowed trucks carrying fuel and food to enter the two Aleppo neighborhoods and Shahba and a Russian-Syrian delegation inspected the situation in Aleppo.
A compromise may have been reached for now, but score-settling in mixed Kurdish-Arab areas could rekindle any time in the absence of dialogue on a constitutional status for the Kurds.
In Kurdish-held Qamishli, the Syrian army’s control is limited to the airport, an area housing public buildings, a road connecting that area to the airport and the border crossing with Turkey. Similarly, Kurdish forces control most of Hasakah, with government forces confined to an area housing security offices and public buildings.
The Kurds have attributed the blockade in Aleppo to a secret deal between Ankara and Damascus after an alleged visit by Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan to the Syrian capital. “The two sides discussed many things, including joint plans against the autonomous administration,” said Bedran Chiya Kurd, a senior official in the autonomous administration. Another top Kurdish figure, Ilham Ahmed, said security cooperation between Damascus and Ankara would not be surprising.
However, a Kurdish source interviewed by Al-Monitor advised taking such claims with a grain of salt. Intelligence contacts between Turkey and Syria make sense in the context of the common threat the two sides perceive from Kurdish autonomy, but they are unlikely to have advanced that much yet, he said.
Fidan’s first and only officially acknowledged contact with Syrian intelligence was in Moscow in January 2020, when he met with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau. According to the Syrian daily al-Watan, senior Turkish intelligence and military officials held talks in Damascus Dec. 29. Meeting on the same day, the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers discussed the strategic town of Ain Issa, which Turkish forces had been shelling for weeks. The Kurds feared it was a prelude to an assault to seize the town. To avert such a move, Russia sought to convince the Kurds to cede the town to Damascus.
The escalation between Damascus and the Kurds brings up several scenarios about the changing calculus of the sides in light of the new administration in Washington.
With the latest US sanctions paralyzing Syria, Kurdish collaboration with the United States in a region that holds ample oil, gas and agricultural resources has come under an increasingly negative spotlight. Shortages in other parts of Syria are now being blamed on the Kurds as well.
The Kurds believe Damascus sought to punish them in Aleppo in a bid to force the autonomous administration into cooperation, but could hardly prolong this game, given the Kurdish control over oil resources and grain silos in the north.
The Kurds also float a scenario whereby the Russians are making use of the Turkish threat to compel the Kurds to cede territorial control to the government, while Damascus is inciting Arab tribes against the Kurds to undermine the autonomous administration and make the region less secure for the Americans. In other words, Damascus is trying to deter the Americans as much as possible as Washington becomes more protective of the Kurds under new President Joe Biden.
The counterargument is that the Kurds, confident of US support, fueled the tensions, hoping to oust the remaining government forces from Hasakah and Qamishli. A Kurdish source concurred, but with a slightly different version. “It was the regime that started the blockade, but the Kurds tried to use the tensions to fully seize Hasakah and Qamishli. Also, the Kurds wanted to somewhat gauge the extent of Biden’s support,” the source said.
The final scenario has to do with Turkey. The argument goes that Turkey’s prospects of mounting a fresh military offensive or expanding Operation Peace Spring on the eastern bank of the Euphrates have dimmed after Biden’s victory. Turkey had turned up pressure on Ain Issa in a bid to take the town before Biden took office. The fall of Ain Issa would have allowed Turkey to expand its control along the key M4 highway, gain a route to Raqqa, encircle Manbij from the east and disconnect the border city of Kobani from other Kurdish areas to the east. Turkey was believed to also eye the Derik area on the border, which US forces use as a supply route from Iraq to Syria. The new reality, however, is forcing Ankara to abandon such plans and seek cooperation with Damascus instead to crush the Kurdish self-rule.
From Damascus’ point of view, any deal with Ankara on the Kurds needs to be linked to a plan to purge Idlib of jihadi groups and end the Turkish military presence in the province. Another incentive to cooperate with Ankara would be the prospect of ending the US military presence in Syria. Although reconciling Turkish and Syrian interests remains a tall order, observers do not rule out the possibility of a pragmatic Turkish-Syrian understanding against Kurdish-held areas to the east of the Euphrates. A destabilized northeastern Syria might curb the Americans’ incentives to stay in the region, which would serve the interests of both Damascus and Ankara.
The showdowns between the Kurds and Damascus appear to be without a winner. Things might change if Washington recognizes the autonomous administration politically and gives it an absolute protection guarantee, but in the present circumstances, any card the two sides attempt to play against one another would be damaging to both.
The latest showdown seems to have further weakened the standing of the Kurds. Arab tribes were already irked by Kurdish control of the oilfields and frequent unrest over the SDF’s “anti-terror” operations. The blockades in Hasakah and Qamishli have given fresh ammunition to those who seek to discredit or criminalize the Kurds. Stories of sick people unable to reach blockaded hospitals, students missing exams and drivers desperate for fuel made headlines, tarnishing the image of the Kurds. Tellingly, the local governor and Syrian military officials attended the funeral of the slain protester in Hasakah, while some tribal leaders and politicians vocally criticized the SDF.
The Kurds have pursued high ambitions through partnership with the United States, but at the same time, they have sought to reach out to opposition quarters and the whole of Syria. The latest events have damaged their efforts.