Civilians gather to watch fighting between Syrian Kurds and the ISIL militants alongside Turkish soldiers aboard a tank holding a position overlooking the town Kobani, Syria, on a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, Turkey. Lefteris Pitarakis / AP Photo
As 2017 begins, the Kurds in Syria face demands and threats from both Ankara and Damascus. Turkish officials are upping the ante on their threats against the ruling Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), threatening to move against them in the city of Manbij and even in their own territories, all of which are situated along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
On December 24, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that Turkey would soon capture the northwestern Syrian city of Al Bab from ISIL.
“Next is Manbij,” Mr Erdogan declared, referring to the city that the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), captured from ISIL in August last year while fighting under the umbrella of the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Ankara is adamant that the YPG be denied access to the western side of the Euphrates River, over fears it will advance to connect to the remaining isolated western Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin, which would give it control over the entire length of Syria’s border with Turkey. A primary aim of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in north-west Syria is forcibly preventing the YPG from fulfilling this objective.
“Turkey had limited the Daesh threat through Operation Euphrates Shield,” Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim said on December 20. “We will conduct similar operations on our southern border.”
The pro-Erdogan Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reported that these comments were understood as a move to, among other things, expand Euphrates Shield into other PYD-held regions in Syria.
AIn a full-fledged Turkish war with the PYD/YPG, Ankara would be fighting on three fronts: against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey’s south-east, another against ISIL in north-west Syria and a third against the Syrian Kurds across northern Syria.
The US ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, reiterated Washington’s opposition to the YPG linking-up with Afrin in an interview with Turkey’s NTV on December 23.
“We do not support, have never supported, connection of the so-called Kurdish cantons in Syria,” Mr Bass said.
Nevertheless, the United States does not support Turkish attacks on the YPG because it is currently relying on the SDF/YPG to capture ISIL’s main Syrian stronghold, Raqqa.
The US, along with Turkey and Syria, opposes the PYD’s federalism plan for Syria. The plan envisions a central government established in Kurdish territories, which would enable the PYD to consolidate the de facto autonomy it has enjoyed since early in the war. It denies seeking an independent Kurdish region in Syria.
Asked about Turkey’s vision for Syria, an unnamed government official told Reuters on December 28 that Ankara’s priority is not to see president Bashar Al Assad go, “but for terrorism to be defeated”.
“It doesn’t mean we approve of Assad,” the official clarified, “but we have come to an understanding. When [ISIL] is wiped out, Russia may support Turkey in Syria finishing off the PKK.”
The Turkish government invariably insists that there is no distinction to be made between the PKK and the PYD/YPG.
The PYD also has to contemplate more demands and pressure from Damascus. The Syrian regime’s recapture of East Aleppo in December has left only one other armed force in that key city, the YPG, which controls the Kurdish-majority northern Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood.
Syrian army general Haitham Hassoun told the Kurdish Rudaw news agency on December 27 that the PYD/YPG forces in Aleppo must either integrate their armed forces with the Syrian military or withdraw from the neighbourhood altogether.
“The government had entrusted the PYD with these areas and now the government wants them back,” Gen Hassoun said. “Their work in confronting the terrorists has been completed.”
Soon after, Damascus entered its first talks with the Syrian Kurds since the war in Syria began. Negotiations were conditional on Syrian Kurdistan dropping its federalism plan and agreeing to support Mr Al Assad in the next presidential elections.
PYD/YPG forces have clashed with the Syrian regime in the past, in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakah, where the regime has maintained enclaves. These clashes did not escalate into a full-fledged war, but tensions remain.
Damascus is set on reasserting national sovereignty over the Kurdish regions as part of the negotiations with Russia and Turkey on Syria’s future.
This, coupled with Washington’s opposition to the federalism plan and the linking of the cantons, indicates that the Syrian Kurds will probably face more pressure and threats from both Ankara and Damascus in the year ahead. Furthermore, as the US relies less on the Syrian Kurds, if and when they defeat ISIL in Raqqa, they may well become far more susceptible to these threats and will have to accept their respective demands or risk enduring hostilities against them.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East politics, affairs and history
On Twitter: @pauliddon