The precarious state of Rojava – Can Syria’s Kurds keep control of their territory?


Jan 25th 2018 | DEIR EZ-ZOR AND QAMISHLI – THE ECONOMIST –  ABU JABR waited more than three years to exact his revenge. In 2014 the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) murdered hundreds of his fellow tribesmen in the province of Deir ez-Zor. Mr Jabr returned to his village in December, leading a group of tribal fighters. Backed by American air power, his men have driven IS into the desert along the Iraqi border. The jihadists still send car bombs into his lines, but he says they will be defeated soon. American-led air strikes are said to have killed up to 150 jihadists in Deir ez-Zor on January 20th.

Mr Jabr’s men fall under the command of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led alliance formed to defeat IS in northern and eastern Syria. Armed and trained by America, the SDF is close to victory. Its flags flutter over a quarter of the country, much of which was once held by the jihadists. But when Turkish tanks rumbled into the Kurdish-held western enclave of Afrin on January 20th (see article), the Kurds suddenly found themselves fighting on two fronts. Turkey’s anger has grown as the area under Kurdish control expanded, over the course of the war, to include even Arab and Turkoman towns captured from IS (see map). In 2016 the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) declared the Kurdish-held territory, which abuts the Turkish border, a federal region called Rojava. It was not a move towards secession, said the PYD, but a model for the rest of Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad dismissed the declaration and the Turks seethed. But the Kurds, who make up around 10% of Syria’s population, have consolidated their grip on the north.

Shahoz Hasan, the PYD’s joint chief, refers to Rojava as a “democratic experiment”. The party has empowered women and set up village committees, in line with the teachings of Murray Bookchin, an American philosopher whose writings have greatly influenced the Kurdish movements in Syria and Turkey. But Rojava is hardly pluralistic. The PYD represses critics and other Kurdish parties.

The PYD’s leaders say they will never again allow Rojava to be ruled directly from Damascus. For decades the Kurds in Syria suffered under the oppression of Mr Assad and, before him, his father. Many were stripped of their citizenship and denied the right to own property. Others were booted off their land to make way for Arabs. Kurdish publications were banned and private schools were prohibited from teaching the Kurdish language. Little investment flowed into the oil- and gas-rich region. Instead the regime in Damascus milked the fertile northern plains to feed the rest of the country. As a result, the Kurds are desperately poor.

Surrounded by potential enemies and in need of support, the PYD has flirted with nearly all of the combatants in Syria. Its strongest backer is America, which views the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as the most dependable ground force against IS. America has given it weapons and training, and deployed 2,000 of its own troops to the region. Fearing a return of the jihadists and Iranian hegemony, America has promised to stay in north-eastern Syria until a peace deal is reached. The PYD does not think it will allow the Turks to go beyond Afrin.

Russia, which backs Mr Assad, probably blessed the Turkish operation, if only to spite America. In response, the PYD said it would probably not attend Russian-sponsored peace talks at the end of January. Still, Russia and Mr Assad may see a potential partner in the PYD, which has accepted Russian military support and maintained ties to the regime. The group is regarded as more pragmatic than the other rebel outfits. When Mr Assad’s forces retreated from areas in the north, they made sure to hand them to the PYD. One could imagine the regime and the Kurds supporting a deal that keeps Mr Assad in power and grants Rojava autonomy.

But the Kurds will probably have to concede some of their gains in order to keep most of Rojava. Any deal would probably require Kurdish forces to be folded into the national army; captured oilfields to be returned to the central government; and seized Arab lands to be given up. “If real negotiations happen we will talk about all these things,” says Mr Hasan. “We are always open for discussions.” First, though, he must deal with the Turks.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The precarious state of Rojava”