A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits on guard on a rooftop in Raqa on October 20, 2017, after retaking the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters.
SDF fighters flushed jihadist holdouts from Raqa's main hospital and municipal stadium, wrapping up a more than four-month offensive against what used to be the inner sanctum of IS's self-proclaimed "caliphate", which for three years saw some of the group's worst abuses and grew into a centre for both its potent propaganda machine and its unprecedented experiment in jihadist statehood. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa after retaking the city from ISIS in October 2017. AFP

Trapped between Turkey and the Assad regime, Syria's Kurds are now being squeezed by the US

The demilitarised zone in the Syrian province of Idlib is still the focus of international attention, as the war continues to grind on. But in the country’s north-east, over the past two weeks, there have been dramatic developments that could yet have a profound influence on how and when it ends.

First, at the end of October, after Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that he would target Kurdish militants, Turkey shelled positions around the Kurdish base in Kobane, northern Syria. The Kurds, infuriated, declared a pause in their operations with the United States against ISIS in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. News from this fight against the remnants of ISIS rarely makes its way to western newspapers, but this time it did, with Turkey being blamed for jeopardising the mission.

Then something unusual happened. The US suddenly began joint patrols with Turkey in Manbij, a Syrian city that Turkey threatened to attack over the summer. Then Washington declared it would offer $12 million in rewards for information leading to the arrest of three senior Kurdish militants. By last weekend, the Syrian Kurds had agreed to resume their operations against ISIS.

Lots of activity, then, but little clarity. Initially it can be hard to see how these apparently disparate events fit together. But the Kurds may sense another betrayal coming. Every time the US has had to choose between Turkey and its Kurdish allies, it has chosen Turkey. Now, as a new rapprochement with Ankara appears to be taking hold, the US may be about to do so again.

The Kurdish situation is complicated by the fact that Kurdish fighters gather under several banners inside Syria. For Mr Erdogan, the central issue is the Turkey and Iraq-based Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long separatist campaign against the Turkish state. Ankara claims the People's Protection Units, or YPG − a predominantly Kurdish group inside Syria − is linked to the PKK, but the US does not acknowledge this.

Then there is the issue of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated militia fighting ISIS in eastern Syria. Even now, the US is careful which weapons it gives the SDF, lest they end up in the hands of the PKK across the border. Just last week, the US special representative for Syria James Jeffrey reiterated this point.

When Turkey shelled YPG positions at the end of October, it was the Kurds inside the SDF who declared a pause to the US-backed Manbij offensive against some of ISIS's final strongholds. If in theory these two groups are separate, in practical terms, they are not.

This means that several major political goals are connected. The fight against ISIS in eastern Syria is linked to the Turkish desire to push Kurdish militants from its borders, which is linked to the US desire for influence in the Syrian war, which is linked to Turkey's relations with the European Union. Tug at one thread and another part of the tapestry unravels.

It is in that light that recent events must be viewed. It is noticeable that the US offered two major concessions in quick succession after the Kurds paused their operations. But, tellingly, the concessions were not to the Kurds, but to Turkey.

The commencement of joint patrols in Manbij and the offer of rewards for information about senior PKK figures – placing them in the same category as Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, ISIS’s reclusive leader, a decision that will dismay many Kurds – are certain to please Ankara. That these actions were taken so quickly shows how important the eastern Syria fight is for the Americans, and how vital the SDF is. In that sense, the pause by the Kurds was a miscalculation, because it opened the door for these concessions. The Kurds are now watching their aspirations for statehood slip away. And the US is happy to take advantage.

Even now, America could be angling to wring more from the Syrian Kurds. The decision to aid Turkey in the hunt for PKK militants could be a way of testing the YPG, seeing if they will fall in line with what the US wants. If they do not, the implied threat is that the US will leave Syria's Kurds to the mercy of the Turkish state.

What the US wants is a distinction between the YPG and the PKK; one that Turkey and the international community can accept. A public declaration, perhaps, that Syrian Kurds will not be bound to the PKK’s ideology. But in return for severing such links, the US is offering the Syrian Kurds nothing, except the continuation of apparently deliberate policy of occasional, inconsistent and unreliable support. The US will not give the Kurds heavier weapons, nor back any desire for statehood.

Such political manoeuvrings matter. The prospect of the US leaving the Kurds to face Turkey is a recipe for years of conflict, hampering the fight against ISIS and easing the victory of President Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Mr Erdogan is implacably opposed to any Kurdish presence on the border and is willing to stay in Syria for as long as it takes to clear the area completely.

Moreover, the conflict in Idlib is still burning, and Ankara's focus on the north-east is funnelling away resources. As The National reported over the weekend, medical workers inside the province are being kidnapped in significant numbers, a development that suggests a breakdown of law and order. The Turkish-Russian deal to create a demilitarised zone is still nominally in force there, but a deal that stops the regime attacking Idlib only to render the province lawless would hardly be a victory.

While the world is watching Idlib, the Kurdish part of the story is playing out largely unnoticed. Having already been abandoned by Washington twice just this year – in Afrin in early 2018 and in Manbij over the summer – this sudden rapprochement with Ankara does not bode well for the Syrian Kurds. Whether they can ever distance themselves politically from Kurds across the border is one question. Whether such a declaration, even if it happened, would be enough to halt the aggression from a Turkey governed by Mr Erdogan is quite another.

What is certain is that time is running out. The fight against ISIS and the wider war are lurching towards an end. It is a tragedy for the Syrian Kurds, squeezed between Damascus and Ankara, that the US − supposedly their closest ally − appears intent on placing them under even greater pressure.

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