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Russia’s deal with Turkey sounds death knell for Kurdish self-rule

Muhammad Hamed, REUTERS | Kurds displaced by Turkey's Syrian offensive wait to cross into Iraq on October 21, 2019.

Abandoned by their US allies and pummeled by Turkey’s offensive, the Kurds of Syria are forced to surrender control of their region and see their dreams of autonomy wiped out as Moscow and Ankara split control of northeast Syria between them.

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The Kurds’ short-lived experience of self-government was all but crushed on October 22 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed to carve out and police a buffer zone stretching across the Kurdish heartland in northeast Syria.

Their “memorandum” requires Kurdish forces to pull back 30 kilometres from the Syria-Turkey border along the 440km stretch running from the Euphrates to Iraq. It involves them relinquishing control of many of their main towns – with the exception of Qamishli, the de facto capital of their now defunct autonomous region.

Under the terms of the Sochi agreement, Russia and its Syrian allies in Damascus will “facilitate the departure” and disarmament of all fighters from the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), thereby blunting the militia that controlled the area and spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

The YPG and their allies in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) lost more than 11,000 fighters in years of battle against the jihadist group. They had hoped their sacrifice would guarantee them the support of Western powers.

But those hopes were dashed by President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull back US troops deployed along the border, which paved the way for the Turkish army and its Syrian proxy fighters to attack the heavily outgunned Kurds.

The Sochi deal signals a victory for Turkey, which rejects any idea of Kurdish autonomy along its border with Syrian and brands the YPG militia and its political branch as “terrorists”, due to their links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the banned organisation that has waged an insurgency in Turkey since 1994.

It also spells the end of the radical political experiment promoted by the Kurds, the world’s largest stateless nation, in a region they refer to as the Rojava – a rare case of progressive politics in Syria’s theatre of endless suffering.

‘State of shock’

“The Kurds are still in a state of shock,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and head of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “They know their dreams and hopes of creating an independent state are no longer on the agenda, and that they will now have to live under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, who is not about to give them more autonomy.”

Summoned to the rescue by desperate Kurds in the wake of the US pullout, Assad’s regime is another great beneficiary of the Sochi accord, along with its Russian protector.

The Syrian government will now be able to reclaim control of swathes of territory it abandoned in 2012 while battling for survival. Thanks to Russia’s guarantee, it will do so unhindered by Turkey and its proxies, a motley force of former Syrian rebels, armed by Erdogan, who have turned their guns on the Kurds after failing to unseat Assad.

“The YPG will no longer be able to operate in this region as before,” said Landis. “As a result, the Syrian regime will restore its control as far as the border and across large areas, with the exception of those currently occupied by the Turks, whose fate remains uncertain.”

In one of the Sochi agreement’s grey areas, no specific date is given for Turkey’s withdrawal from Syrian territory.

“This is a huge victory for Assad and Russia, because they have succeeded in stopping the Turkish invasion in northeast Syria, where Ankara was hoping to establish a safe zone that would have been entirely under Turkish control,” Landis added.

A ‘compromise’ rather than a ‘genocide’

Amid their debacle, the Kurds have found a measure of consolation in Turkey’s decision to halt its offensive and scale back its territorial claims. Ankara was hoping to control a 30km deep “safe zone” along the border’s full length. Instead, it has settled for a 120km segment of the border strip – an Arab majority area between the towns Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. Furthermore, joint Russian-Turkish patrols are set to begin along a 10km wide strip of the border on October 29.

For the Kurds, this will help “offset the bad news” contained in the Sochi agreement, said Landis. “For all their sorrow, this is relatively good news for the Kurds, who prefer having Russian or Syrian patrols rather than being in Turkey’s line of fire or having to leave their region,” he continued.

Landis cited the town of Kobane, a symbol of Kurdish resistance since the epic battle that saw it fend off the IS group’s repeated assaults in 2014, “which would have ended up in the area Turkey was hoping to control, had it not been for this accord”.

As details of the Sochi agreement filtered, Mazloum Abdi, the head of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said he preferred a “compromise” to a “genocide”. He also thanked Moscow for “defusing the war in our region and sparing civilians its scourge”.

Exodus

Dubbed “Operation Peace Spring”, the Turkish offensive has resulted in the deaths of over a hundred civilians and more than 250 SDF fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitor. During a Congressional hearing in Washington, the US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, said US forces had seen evidence of war crimes committed during Turkey’s assault, though not of “ethnic cleansing”.

>> Kurdish boy severely burned during Turkish offensive arrives in France for treatment

Operation Peace Spring has caused some 160,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations, while NGOs say more than 7,500 Syrian Kurds fleeing the clashes have crossed into neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a humanitarian group, says it expects up to 50,000 Syrians will have to be accommodated in Iraqi camps over the coming months.

"We're seeing hundreds arriving into Iraq every day and we expect more to arrive, not only because of the fighting but also because of the fear of what is going to happen next," said NRC's director in Iraq, Rishana Haniffa, in a statement on Tuesday.

Since the Syrian regime’s withdrawal from the Rojava in 2012, the Kurds had established institutions of their own, along with a “social contract” that underpinned their administration’s progressive and secular values. They also set up schools that taught the Kurdish language, following decades of marginalisation by a Syrian regime that denied them political and cultural rights. Seven years later, that regime is suddenly back.

Back in July 2018, the Kurds had begun tentative talks with Damascus, hoping to preserve their model within a “decentralised” Syria. Whether the Assad regime is ready to consider such an option, now that the Kurds are negotiating from a position of weakness, is far from certain.

This article was adapted from the French original.

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