A New Path For Syria’s Kurds
No regional power has tried to oust the Syrian regime as openly as Turkey. Since the start of war in Syria in 2011, Turkey trained and armed opposition groups, hosted millions of Syrian refugees, and in 2020 even directly clashed with regime forces. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has called Syrian President Bashar al Assad a “murderer” and called on the international community to hold him accountable.
But in a dramatic reversal in its foreign policy, Ankara is now looking to normalize relations with Damascus, in line with its broader policy of mending fences with its former regional rivals.
In late December, Erdogan sent his defense minister and intelligence chief to Moscow to discuss normalizing relations with the Syrian regime. Turkish officials say this will likely be followed by meeting between foreign ministers in February. Erdogan has even suggested he could soon meet Assad.
Turkish-Syrian normalization would be big news by all accounts. Ankara has long supported the opposition and anti-regime forces in Syria and controls a huge chunk of Syrian territory in the north. For the United States and European powers, Turkish-Syrian normalization would represent a dramatic shift, fundamentally altering the strategic calculus in Syria and directly threatening the position of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds — given that both Ankara and Damascus want to see their territorial control and autonomous governing curtailed or brought under the auspices of a centralized Syrian government.
Whether an Erdogan-Assad meeting takes place or not, Turkey’s incremental rapprochement with Syria seems inevitable. Ankara is reshuffling its cards in the region, and the United States and its Western allies should recalibrate policy to help preserve the fragile U.S.-backed status quo in northern Syria. Western governments should explore how they can help shape Syrian-Turkish rapprochement towards a better end: protecting stability in the north where U.S. troops are stationed, sustaining some degree of Kurdish self-governance (and the rights of the Syrian Arabs living under their control) in northeastern Syria, and preserving humanitarian access.
The right approach is not arming Kurds or offering them the false promise of U.S. military backing to counter a Syrian-Turkish front but supporting them politically to secure a modus vivendi with the governments in Ankara and Damascus. To survive, Kurds need to reach an agreement with both. This will necessitate supporting the Kurds in their political dialogue with Damascus and pushing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — the U.S.- and Turkish-designated terrorist group — to declare a ceasefire inside Turkey ahead of the June 2023 elections, easing the pressure on Syrian Kurds. This could open up the possibility of a political softening on the Turkish-Kurdish front, remove a major irritant in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and preserve some Western influence inside Syria.
The Roots of Rapprochement
Erdogan is a political survivor. There are several reasons why Turkey’s leader is willing to reconcile with the Assad regime. Over the past few years, the Turkish president has formed an alliance with ultra-nationalists to secure his power — and the continuation of the war against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and its Syrian offshoot, the Syrian Democratic Forces, has served as a lubricant in this partnership.
Successive Turkish incursions in Syria since 2016 have already created a Turkey-controlled region along much of the border. Erdogan is no doubt calculating that an agreement with Damascus would secure a greenlight from Russia to launch a new incursion or coordinated action with Damascus against the Kurds ahead of the June 2023 elections, helping rally Turkish voters around the flag. (Previous incursions have led to temporary increases in Erdogan’s popularity.)
The presence of nearly four million Syrian refugees in Turkey has also turned into a political liability for Erdogan’s government. Normalization with Damascus would simultaneously allow the government to claim that it is taking steps to address the issue and — misleadingly — that it is creating space inside Syria for the refugees’ safe return.
But more than anything else, a rapprochement with Syria helps Turkey manage its relationship with Moscow at a time when Erdogan needs Russia’s consent for action in Syria and money to help prop up the country’s collapsing economy. Turkey and Russia have a complicated relationship which simultaneously involves competition and cooperation, often at the expense of Western influence in Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus. Ankara does not follow Western sanctions on Russia and has increased its trade with Moscow since the start of the Ukraine war. Financial flows from Russia and the Gulf region have so far helped Erdogan avoid an economic calamity ahead of the elections, but more will likely be needed.
Ankara is likely hoping that the promise of a thaw in relations with Damascus would keep Russian President Vladimir Putin content and be a domestic win — especially given that the Turkish opposition and public opinion are also pushing strongly in favor of normalization.
The Turkish-Russian Relationship
Syria has been out of Western headlines lately, and despite the extreme destitution of its people, the fighting phase of the civil war seems to largely be over. But a new Turkish incursion or wider coordinated action with Damascus under Moscow’s umbrella would no doubt change all that — and disrupt the fragile peace in the northeast, where an estimated 900 U.S. troops are stationed alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces. The United States is concerned this would put U.S. soldiers at risk — some of whom were nearly hit by recent Turkish drone strikes — while also having wider destabilizing consequences that would threaten the military gains made against the Islamic State and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.
It would also present the Biden administration with an acute dilemma: Abandon its Kurdish partners or be faced with yet another crisis with a NATO ally. The relationship between Ankara and Washington is already troubled. But with its defense sales to Kyiv and ability to secure the Black Sea grain deal, Turkey has been important for Ukraine’s self-defense. With enough problems on the Turkish-U.S. front, Washington doesn’t want to have to choose either option. It wants Turkey, with all its hedging, on board.
Add to this the Russian angle. On the one hand, the United States and Russia seem to have a shared desire to prevent a massive Turkish incursion in Syria, since Russia ultimately wants Assad to cement control over the entire country, and neither capital views the Turkish-backed opposition as a force capable of governance. Moscow has been signaling its opposition to a Turkish incursion publicly and privately while pressuring Syrian Kurds to turn to Damascus, making clear that they will not get any Russian protection from a Turkish incursion if they don’t do so.
But Syria has also become an arena of great power projection for Russia and a site of proxy warfare within the broader great power rivalry with the United States. Putin might eventually choose to greenlight a limited Turkish incursion or coordinate a joint Turkish-Syrian pincer movement against the Kurds, knowing that this could keep Ankara happy ahead of the elections and would create a crisis inside NATO. He also knows that Turkish-Syrian normalization would put immense pressure on the residual U.S. position in Syria.
The Challenges Ahead for Syria’s Kurds
One thing that is clear in all of this is that these are ominous times for Syrian Kurds, with important implications for the West. The Kurdish experiment at self-rule inside Syria, long facilitated by the U.S. military presence, is looking precarious. While the United States says it has no intention of leaving Syria soon, with the war in Ukraine and the strategic challenge from China, Syria is no longer a top priority. With the U.S. commitment dwindling and its ongoing military presence unlikely to be indefinite, the Kurds would be playing a risky game by betting solely on long-term U.S. protection as their immediate neighbors gang up on them.
At this stage, the only thing that might make Syrian Kurds safer in the long run is a political deal with both their primary antagonists: the Syrian regime and Turkey. The Kurds will ultimately need to reach an accommodation with regional powers, as they have in Iraq, to secure a sustainable existence.
Given America’s interest in preventing instability and an Islamic State resurgence, Washington should continue pressing Turkey to delay its planned incursion. But the real brinkmanship for a sustainable solution to Syria would be on the diplomatic front. The United States should step up its political focus on supporting a viable pathway towards an agreement between the Syrian Democratic Forces, Damascus, and Turkey so that stability in northeastern Syria can be preserved, along with some — but not all — Kurdish gains.
Reaching Agreement about the Future
What could such a deal look like? It requires two different tracks — one with Turkey and another with Syria. With the Assad regime, the Kurds should be aiming for an agreement that guarantees more autonomy than Damascus is currently willing to give but recognize they will have to accept less than what they want. Syrian Kurds would need to pledge allegiance to the Syrian state and, in return for local power-sharing, be willing to formally integrate their armed forces inside the Syrian military.
Here, non-military issues will be more difficult to discuss than military arrangements as demonstrated by the long-standing failure of on-and-off talks on this front. While Damascus and Moscow have struck co-existence agreements allowing the Syrian army into some Kurdish areas, the Assad regime is rigid on political matters, not wanting to grant constitutional rights to recognize local Kurdish rule.
This is where the West could play a stepped-up diplomatic role, one that, despite the war in Ukraine, could de facto align with Russian positioning given Moscow’s desire to secure a negotiated solution to the situation in northeastern Syria. While some in the West will reject a negotiating track that aligns with Russian goals, there is a U.S. and European interest in seeking a deal that maintains stability and secures local rights (for Kurds and the opposition in general) in the face of the regime’s pursuit of complete control. Contained talks on Syria does not need to mean a softening on the West’s wider position on Russia and the ongoing pursuit of Moscow’s defeat in Ukraine.
For any prospect of success, Russia, which has long sought an agreement between Damascus and the Kurds, will clearly need to do much more to push the regime for a framework that guarantees some Kurdish political rights within the Syrian state. But Western support could help the Kurds more assertively leverage their own cards at the negotiating table to secure this decentralization. The U.S. military presence, Kurdish security capabilities, control of local oil resources, and the prospect of partial sanctions-easing on Syria (if also tied to the U.N. special envoy’s wider push for a step-for-step approach) all represent important points of influence that could be leveraged to help secure a deal that averts a combined Turkish-Syrian agreement over Kurdish heads.
This may seem far off, especially as Turkish-Syrian talks centered on confronting the Kurds intensify. But the fact that Russia and the regime lack the resources to rebuild Syria and restore legitimacy to its government — and that, despite the bravado, a fight against Syrian Kurds could still be a costly affair for the Syrian regime — means there could still be space for deal-making. The Kurds may in the end be forced to strike a deal on their own, but U.S. support will help them get a better deal with more hope of guarantees that can actually hold up if the United States leaves.
A Kurdish deal with Turkey is more complicated — but Western actors should still see if they can encourage movement in this direction. Erdogan is ultimately a pragmatist: He could go for escalation or explore a deal with Kurds, as he attempted ahead of the 2019 local elections. There is already speculation that the ruling Justice and Development Party is looking for ways to secure conservative Kurdish electoral support or to peel Kurds away from the opposition block. Recently, a delegation from the Justice and Development Party visited the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, and former party co-chair Selahattin Demirtas was allowed to leave prison and travel on a private plane to visit his ailing father in a hospital in Diyarbakir.
It is too premature to say these moves represent a thaw in Erdogan’s outlook. For Ankara, the main problem is the Syrian Democratic Forces’ links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkey views the two as part of the same movement, and in today’s nationalistic climate, no Turkish leader will sign onto the idea of an autonomous Kurdish zone inside Syria that is controlled by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
But there are ways of making a Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation in Syria more palatable for Erdogan, who has been engaged in on-and-off negotiations directly with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the past. For a start, the United States should press the Syrian Democratic Forces to create more meaningful distance from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, visibly removing Kurdistan Workers’ Party-aligned factions within the group and publicly pledging allegiance to Syria’s territorial integrity. A Kurdish deal with Damascus liming the scope of Kurdish autonomy would also address some of Turkey’s concerns.
But the real game-changer would be if the Kurdistan Workers’ Party declared an end to hostilities against Turkey. If the Kurdistan Workers’ Party publicly announces a permanent or temporary ceasefire ahead of the elections, effectively conceding that the plight of Turkey’s Kurds can no longer be advanced through an armed insurgency inside Turkey, this would open up space for a thaw between Erdogan and Kurds. There would be no real excuse for Turkish incursions into Syria — and Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, could emerge as a kingmaker in the political arena.
This is not easy, but it is worth a try — especially since Turkey and the Kurds engaged in a similar quid pro quo during the peace process a decade ago. At the start of the Syrian war, Turkey was engaged in a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and even invited representatives of Syrian Kurds to Ankara for talks on the future of Syria. The idea at the time was based on expanding Turkey’s regional influence through a peace process with the Kurds. A deal with the Kurds would still bring the promise of domestic stability and enhanced regional influence for Turkey — as well as better relations with the West. If backed by Russia and the United States — separately, of course — this might be tempting for Erdogan, who wants first and foremost to retain his hold on power but also to go down in history as the man who expanded Turkey’s influence beyond its borders.
Ultimately, this track will be shaped by Turkey’s internal dynamics, but Western actors should be leaning hard on their Kurdish interlocutors and Ankara to press this case.
Amid wider global challenges, the United States and its Western partners don’t have a strong hand or a long-term strategic interest in staying in Syria, but they should not just walk away without a strategy for an order to support stability and protect their Kurdish allies. A precipitous withdrawal would create a public humiliation like Afghanistan and a free-for-all which would likely leave the Kurds devastated and the region raked by new instability — which, in turn, could well be exploited by ISIL in a manner that eventually pulls the United States back to Syria for a counter-terrorism campaign. The United States also needs to prevent further degradation of its already tense relations with Turkey in a way that would destabilize NATO from within and fully align Turkey with Russia on Ukraine. Bringing Turkey more towards the transatlantic framework and getting Erdogan’s greenlight for Sweden/Finland accession to NATO would be easier with a better climate on the Turkish-U.S. front.
It may be counter-intuitive, but the path towards meeting these U.S. and Western interests rests on getting a deal between the different actors before new escalation erupts.
Aslı Aydıntaşbaş is a visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, as well as a Global Opinions columnist at The Washington Post and an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow in the MENA program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).