by Derek Davison
Last week, open warfare broke out in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah between militia forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and forces affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Street-level clashes between the two sides earlier in the week escalated quickly on Thursday, when Assad’s Syrian Arab Air Force reportedly struck YPG targets in the city. The SAAF struck Hasakah again on Friday, killing “dozens” of civilians and forcing “thousands” to flee the city.
The government’s bombardment drew a response from the United States, which scrambled fighters on Thursday to intercept the attacking Syrian planes in defense of U.S. Special Forces troops who were embedded with the YPG in Hasakah. Washington later issued a warning to Damascus to avoid carrying out strikes that place U.S. personnel at risk. On Saturday, Syrian planes flew over the city in an apparent effort to test that U.S. warning, though it’s not clear that they attempted any airstrikes. However, since those strikes, it appears that the fighting inside Hasakah has turned decisively in favor of the Kurds, who announced on Monday that they were beginning an operation to take control of the entire city and called on pro-Assad militias to surrender. A Russian-orchestrated ceasefire appeared to take effect on Tuesday, but only after most of the city, and therefore of the entire Hasakah province, had come under Kurdish control. In response to the chaos created by the fighting, Al-Masdar News reported Tuesday that the Islamic State launched a “massive” offensive in southern Hasakah province that, at least temporarily, seems to have pushed the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) back.
Assad’s forces and the YPG have largely co-existed with one another for the majority of Syria’s over five- year-long civil war, with Assad concentrating on fighting rebels in the western part of the country and the YPG focused primarily on its fight against the Islamic State in predominantly Kurdish northeast. The YPG and Assad’s army have even worked in concert with one another at times—YPG clashes with rebels in eastern Aleppo in late July helped tighten the government’s siege there. However, the current fighting in Hasakah is not the first time these two factions have come to blows. In April, for example, fighting broke out in Qamishli, another northeastern city where control is shared between the YPG and Arab militias loyal to Assad, and government forces last December bombed a Kurdish neighborhood in Damascus. This isn’t even the first time these two groups have fought each other in Hasakah. It is, however, the first time in the war that Assad has employed his air force to strike the YPG.
Uncharted Diplomatic Territory
What is also new about the latest fighting in Hasakah is that it comes in the wake of the failed coup attempt against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in mid-July, and is happening amid the frenzy of diplomatic activity in which Erdogan has been engaging since then—diplomatic activity that has been largely focused on improving Turkey’s relations with Russia and Iran, Assad’s two strongest backers. This has raised the possibility of a diplomatic realignment among those three countries with respect to Syria, one that might very well require a change in the Assad government’s approach to dealing with the YPG.
Turkish-Russian relations, frozen since Turkish aircraft shot down a Russian plane over northern Syria last November, were beginning to thaw before the attempted coup, but the process has moved rapidly since then. Erdogan met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on August 9 in St. Petersburg and, after praising Putin for calling him “the next day after the coup attempt,” told reporters that “the axis of friendship between Moscow and Ankara will be restored.” Both countries have ample reason to reengage with one another—Russian sanctions imposed after the November incident hurt Turkey’s economy, and both nations stand to benefit from resuming trade and restarting their proposed joint energy development projects, should relations improve enough to support that. Erdogan undoubtedly sees closer ties with Russia as a way to offset his growing isolation from Turkey’s traditional Western allies (the attempted coup seems to have further strained Turkey-U.S. relations, for example), and in many respects Erdogan’s outreach to Moscow simply means a return to his pre-Syria policy of “zero problems with neighbors.”
Three days after Erdogan’s August 9 meeting with Putin, Turkey hosted Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran was very vocal in its support for Erdogan in the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup, for reasons that are less readily apparent than the reasons underlying the reconciliation between Turkey and Russia. It is likely true that, while Tehran’s relationship with Erdogan’s government hasn’t been close, a weakened Erdogan is preferable to any of the plausible Turkish alternatives from Iran’s standpoint. But although Turkey and Iran have taken steps to strengthen their economic ties, they don’t share the same kind of relationship that Turkey and Russia do. By far, the biggest thing Ankara and Tehran have in common is that they’re both heavily invested in what happens next in Syria. And they fundamentally disagree on what that should be.
Or do they?
Softening on Assad?
The Turkish government, of course, has backed rebel groups fighting to remove Assad from power since very early in Syria’s civil war. When protests first broke out in Syria in early 2011, Ankara believed it could use its perceived leverage with Assad to moderate his response to the protesters. Assad’s brutal crackdown was thus seen by Erdogan as an affront to his claims to regional leadership. Then, in 2012, Assad made the conscious decision to leave most of northeastern Syria to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed YPG wing, while his forces concentrated on fighting rebels in the more populous western part of the country. As the University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis, who publishes the blog Syria Comment, told me, “Assad used a minority strategy in the east of Syria in order to frustrate rebel insurgents there, helping to arm the Kurds and cooperating with them so that the Kurds would fight effectively against the rebels. This led to an alliance of convenience between the PYD and the Syrian government. Part of that alliance was the understanding that the Syrian government could remain in Hasakah and other places and retain its authority in some areas without being attacked.”
When Assad effectively handed northeastern Syria over to the Kurds in 2012, he crossed a much more serious line with Ankara than simply insulting Erdogan’s ambitions. The PYD is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been in conflict with the Turkish government off and on for almost four decades over the issue of Kurdish autonomy, or outright independence, in southeastern Turkey. The creation of a PYD-controlled enclave across the border in Syria was seen by Ankara as a national security threat to Turkey, even though, at the time, Erdogan was engaged in an effort to negotiate an end to the conflict with the PKK. And, while it is difficult to prove causation, these events in Syria did coincide with an uptick in PKK violence in Turkey. The 2015 breakdown of those negotiations only increased the perceived threat posed by the PYD in Syria.
But there have been signs recently that Ankara’s hard anti-Assad line was beginning to soften. In July, Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim reportedly “stunned” Syrian rebel groups who have been receiving support from Turkey when he suggested that Ankara might normalize its relations with Damascus. Then, on August 20, Yildirim announced a rethinking of Turkey’s Syria policy, focused on maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity and security via a post-war Syrian government that represents all of the country’s ethnic and religious groups—the point about Syria’s territorial integrity seems to be the linchpin of discussions between Ankara and Tehran about the ending the war. More recently, there have been reports in Arab media that one of Ankara’s deputy intelligence chiefs met with officials from Syrian intelligence in Damascus.
Still, to date the most Ankara has been willing to say publicly on Assad is that they could see a role for him in a transitional Syrian government after the war, but nothing beyond that—speaking with reporters on Saturday in Istanbul, Yildirim said “Could Syria carry Assad in the long term? Certainly not.” And there have been reports that Turkey and Russia are still very much at odds, albeit behind closed doors, over Assad’s future. Still, it is possible that Turkey has decided that easing up on Assad is the price it must pay in order to get something it wants more than Assad’s ouster—namely, a unified regional front against the PYD/YPG, which would also strengthen Erdogan’s hand against the PKK.
Hasakah and the Possibility of Realignment
When I asked Landis about how the PYD might view a Turkey-Russia-Iran axis, if one were to emerge, he said, “I think they are worried about it. It could be one reason why they’re grabbing territory now, to limit the amount of pressure that the Syrian government can put on them in the future.” It is possible that such an axis is emerging, amid all the diplomacy that followed the failed coup in Turkey and with all three countries anxious to find a way to negotiate an end to a civil war that has been a drain on their resources. If Iran and Russia (and therefore Assad) are trying to bring Turkey into their fold on Syria, then taking steps to curtail Kurdish ambitions might well be the way to do it. The YPG, at least, is arguing that, by attacking the Kurds in Hasakah, Assad was trying to signal to Turkey his willingness to be a part of an anti-Kurdish coalition.
This is obviously speculative, but at least one aspect of the theory makes sense: the idea that Erdogan would be willing to ease his position on Assad in exchange for regional support to counter the PYD. The Middle East Institute’s Gonul Tol told me, “The fact that the regime started bombing the Kurds for the first time since the conflict started might indicate aligning interests between the regime and Ankara. Turkey has come a long way from its previous position of ‘Assad must go,’ and is now openly admitting that it has made mistakes in its Syria policy. We can expect to see further recalibration of that approach if Ankara can secure Assad’s backing on dealing a blow to further Kurdish advances.”
Something else happened recently that lends credence to the idea that Iran, in particular, might be willing to countenance new action against Syrian Kurds: in June, militias affiliated with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), which has close ties with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, clashed with government troops for the first time in 20 years. The Iranian government also clashes periodically with the PKK-PYD affiliated Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), so it is already inclined to oppose the PYD’s aims in Syria, but the reintroduction of the KDPI to the fray may have convinced Tehran that now is the time to take a harder line against any expression of Kurdish nationalism, even though the KDPI and the PKK-PYD aren’t on particularly good terms with one another. Turkey and Iran have previously recognized a need to cooperate against the PKK and PJAK, and it’s entirely possible that a good portion of the recent Ankara-Tehran diplomatic activity has focused on their shared Kurdish issue.
However, it would be a mistake to attribute the past week’s violence in Hasakah entirely or even mostly to changes in regional diplomacy when there is a simpler explanation: the PYD-Assad alliance of convenience may simply have run its course. Kurdish ambitions in northeastern Syria have grown along with the YPG’s list of military accomplishments, and it is certainly possible that Kurdish separatism has reached a point where Assad feels he must do something to contain it. The fighting in Hasakah reportedly began with low-level street clashes between the city’s Kurdish police force and a pro-Assad militia, and escalated from there, which argues against it having been engineered by Assad from the outset. The Carnegie Endowment’s Aron Lund speculates that Assad opted for airstrikes on Hasakah when those clashes began, in an effort to mask his weakened position vis-à-vis the PYD in northeastern Syria, though he allows for the possibility that Assad was also looking to make inroads with Ankara. The Syrian army went so far as to blame the PKK for causing the fighting, though in using the acronym for the Turkish PKK to refer to the Syrian PYD, Damascus may have been trying to send a signal to Ankara that they now share a common enemy.
If Assad did deliberately move against the PYD in Hasakah—and, if he did, it seems to have largely backfired—in support of a rapprochement with Turkey, it poses a potential complication for U.S. policy in Syria. The United States has been using the YPG as its most important proxy against the Islamic State in Syria, and while this has already been a source of tension in Washington’s relations with Ankara, that tension would ratchet up considerably if Turkey began colluding with Assad and his allies against an American-supplied proxy supported in the field by embedded U.S. advisers.
Turkey’s decision on Wednesday to send troops, tanks, and warplanes into Syria to help an Arab rebel force take control of the city of Jarabulus, in the northern part of Aleppo province, may further compound tensions between Ankara and Washington, though there are also contradictory signs that those tensions are easing a bit. While the rebels seized Jarabulus from IS, it is likely that Turkey got involved not simply to dislodge IS, but to ensure that the Arab rebels captured the city before the YPG could do it. And now that it’s entered Syria, Ankara appears ready for a fight should the YPG attempt to take Jarabulus from the Arab rebels, something that, again, could stoke U.S.-Turkish tensions. However, even as it has worked closely with the YPG in the northeast, the U.S. has tried to curtail the Kurdish militia’s ambitions to take and hold territory to the west, like Jarabulus and Manbij. In Ankara on Wednesday to meet with Erdogan, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden insisted at a press conference that the YPG must fall back to the eastern side of the Euphrates River or else “they cannot and will not get American support.” And the U.S. has reportedly been considering giving the Turkish-backed force that took Jarabulus its direct military support. So it’s possible that Washington and Ankara have reached a compromise about the limits of U.S. support for, and Turkish opposition to, the YPG’s war aims.
At the same time, U.S. support for the Kurds may help explain why Assad now sees them as a threat in his own right, absent any thought of gaining Turkish support. As Landis told me, “the U.S. has essentially been supporting a Kurdish nationalist movement in northeastern Syria in exchange for the Kurds helping the U.S. to destroy IS. Its efforts to build up the Kurds increased Kurdish confidence, and now the PYD have decided to renegotiate their understanding with the Syrian government, pushing forward with their nationalist ambitions. The PYD is confident that it can wipe out these pockets of Syrian government control in northeastern Syria with U.S. backing, and that the Syrian government is too weak to do anything about it.”
Landis seems to think that, although they may be worried about the possibility of a new Turkey-Russia-Iran alliance, the Kurds are not in any immediate danger from some kind of joint Erdogan-Assad offensive:
My hunch is that it would be very difficult for Assad and Erdogan to agree. There’s a lot of bad blood there, and Turkey has invested a lot in trying to bring down the Syrian government. Turkey has been revising its plans, the new prime minister has been signaling that he wants to stabilize relations with Russia and Iran, but that means Turkey has to move on Assad. And there have been signals from Turkey that Assad would be allowed to be part of a transitional process. But I think the Kurds have a lot of wiggle room because relations are so bad between Erdogan and Assad, and it’s not clear how much the Syrian army can or would offer Turkey in a fight against the Kurds in northeastern Syria—the army is very weak there, especially if the U.S. is prepared to defend the Kurds by air.
“The Kurds have decided that this is their moment,” he added. “The question is whether they overreach, and alienate enough of their neighbors to cause a coalition to be formed against them.”