by Giorgio Cafiero
When a plethora of state and non-state actors were collaborating in the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Syria during the so-called caliphate’s peak, the dominant Kurdish force—the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—cooperated with both the United States and Russia. The YPG’s role on the frontlines of battles against IS earned the group much goodwill in Washington and the Kremlin simultaneously. Notably, while Turkish leaders were always quick to blast their U.S. counterparts on the issue of the U.S.-YPG alliance, Ankara had a muted response to the Kremlin’s cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia as the campaign against IS was ongoing.
In the 1990s, the Turks had a weakness that Russia exploited via its historic ties with the Kurds. During that decade, Ankara used its relations with Muslim separatists in Chechnya to try and steer Moscow away from coordinating too closely with the Kurds. Fast forward to 2016 when the PYD set up a political representation office in Moscow, and Turkey found itself with far less leverage to influence Russia, especially after that year’s failed coup which drove Ankara much closer to Moscow. Put simply, the Turkish leadership was in no position to condemn the Kremlin for cooperating with the YPG even though it remained a source of friction in Turkish-Russian relations.
Yet in January, when the Turks waged their Operation Olive Branch campaign against the YPG in northwestern Syria, Russia cleared the space for Ankara’s offensive. Consequently, friction emerged between the Kurdish force and Russia. The YPG’s leaders saw Moscow as untrustworthy and keen to prioritize the Russian-Turkish rapprochement above Russian-YPG relations. This pushed the group closer to the U.S. for external support. After Turkey removed the YPG and its Democratic Union Party (PYD) political wing from power in Afrin in March, YPG fighters quickly abandoned that Kurdish enclave and relocated to other parts of northern Syria where they gained protection from the presence of U.S. troops, who served to deter Turkish operations against the Kurdish force.
While beneficial to the YPG’s interests in continuing to operate in and control large parts of northern Syria, the U.S.-Turkish standoff in northern Syria amounted to a dangerous game of chicken. Ankara views Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of northern Syria, announced last week, as cause for much optimism—albeit cautious optimism—about the two NATO allies overcoming what, for years, has been an extremely painful source of tension in bilateral affairs. Just as President Barack Obama blinked in 2013 and refused to enforce his chemical weapons “red lines” given the risks of a direct clash with Russia, Trump also blinked, refusing to take more action that would further increase the risks of a direct U.S.-Turkish clash.
In blinking, Trump pleased Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which may significantly improve U.S.-Turkish relations. But the YPG has interpreted Trump’s announcement as a sign of his administration’s betrayal. Although the U.S.-YPG partnership will not necessarily be over after U.S. forces leave Syria—Washington may continue supporting the Kurdish militia in other ways—the YPG must contend with new realities in Syria, recognizing that President Bashar al-Assad has “won” the war. The Syrian regime’s “victory” combined with the U.S. exit will likely push the YPG closer to Russia and the Damascus regime.
Thus, despite the baggage in Russo-Kurdish relations that stemmed from Moscow’s perceived complicity in Ankara’s Operation Olive Branch, the removal of U.S. forces will likely create a vacuum that Russia moves to fill. In the Kremlin’s efforts to gain greater leverage as a result of the American forces’ exit, Russia’s leadership may well come to view a reset partnership with the YPG as key to achieving this objective.
Last year the Russians began facilitating the opening of channels of communication between the YPG and Damascus. Moscow’s objective was to push the parties toward a solution whereby the U.S.-backed group integrates into the Syrian state security apparatus in exchange for some concessions from the regime to the YPG. With limited options otherwise, it appears that the YPG must capitalize on such opportunities for an agreement with the regime that possibly began taking shape amid these Russia-brokered talks.
Yet regarding a potential integration of the YPG into the Syrian state’s national security institutions, some sensitive questions remain. Will the regime be flexible and make concessions regarding Kurdish culture and language? How much autonomy would Damascus grant the Syrian Kurds? How much territory in northern Syria, where the YPG maintains control over civil administration, would the Kurdish force hand over to Syria’s central government? Would the YPG still police the most heavily populated areas in northern Syria? These questions remain open, but time is now clearly much more on Damascus’s side than it is on the YPG’s.
President Erdogan’s statement on December 21 that Ankara will postpone operations against the YPG—though not indefinitely—will likely put even more pressure on the YPG leadership to speed up efforts to strike a deal with the Assad regime. If the two sides do manage to strike a deal, it will mark yet another strong indicator of Russia’s role as a driver of the post-conflict settlement in Syria, a process that the U.S. will be sitting out. For Russia to gain the trust of the YPG, Moscow will need to veto any Turkish military operations against the group in northern Syria. This would ensure that the YPG, currently in control of 25 percent of Syria, officially joins forces with the Syrian regime ultimately to ensure its own protection in the absence of U.S. forces.