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Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria
Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria

Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria

The PYD (Kurdish Democratic Union Party) has imposed its dominance in northern Syria, but its long-run prospects – like those of the areas it controls – depend on the party’s ability to adopt a more balanced and inclusive strategy.

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Executive Summary

With the Syrian regime and opposition locked in a see-saw battle, Kurdish forces have consolidated control over large portions of the country’s north. Their principal players, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG), now dominate three large, non-contiguous enclaves of Kurdish-majority territory along the Turkish border, over which the PYD proclaimed in November 2013 the transitional administration of Rojava (Western Kurdistan). Kurdish governance is unprecedented in Syria and for the PYD, an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish insurgent movement PKK, from which it draws ideological, organisational and military support. But it is unclear whether this is a first step toward stability and the Kurdish aspiration for national recognition, or merely a respite while the civil war focuses elsewhere. The PYD alone will not determine the fate of Syria’s north, but it could greatly increase its chances by broadening its popular appeal and cooperating with other local forces.

For all its successes, the PYD’s rise is in no small part illusory, attributable less to its own prowess than to its links with other regional forces. Perhaps most important is its de facto alliance with the regime, which handed territories over to it while continuing to give material support to those territories. The party’s gains also flow from its backing from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkarane Kurdistan, PKK). The PYD is in practice an ideological, organisational and military part of this leftist group, of which the umbrella organisation is in theory the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Ciwakên Kürdistan, KCK). It benefits ideologically from the prestige of Abdullah Öcalan, the movement’s long-time leader; and with the PKK’s backing, the YPG has become the immediate region’s strongest military force, one whose success in fending off jihadi militants is perhaps the single most important reason for the Kurds’ waxing fortunes.

Ironically however, these same factors, crucial to the PYD’s success, are also its Achilles heel. First, its PKK heritage has encumbered the party with a rigid culture and vague program that are out of sync with popular expectations. Heavy-handed governance prompts at best grudging acquiescence from a constituency whose younger generation, particularly, appears to aspire to something different.

Secondly, suspected collaboration with the regime has taken a toll on its popularity. The Damascus authorities have maintained a light albeit firm presence in PYD-controlled areas, reportedly acting mostly beneath the surface. Even as they relinquished control over certain state assets (notably administrative and security buildings) to the PYD, they have maintained their hold on, and continue to disseminate, state resources without which the Rojava project would wither.

Thirdly, the PYD’s competition for dominance with would-be allies, most importantly the Kurdish Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, has created popular disenchantment and fatigue; this has left room for regional powers – notably Turkey and Iran – to manipulate the various sides in pursuit of their own interests. Barzani is on good terms with Ankara and Washington, so the PYD has few allies other than Damascus, Iran and, to an extent, the Nouri al-Maliki-led government in Baghdad.

These challenges raise questions about the depth and durability of the Rojava project. For PYD supporters, it is the kernel of future Kurdish self-rule. For detractors, it is an empty shell, a tool of the regime. It is hard to identify a way forward for Rojava. Its dependence on the regime alienates constituents, yet any step toward Kurdish partners and other actors risks jeopardising its dominance on the ground by undermining relations with Damascus.

Kurdish rights – not to mention longer-term local stability – are unlikely to be realised by the PYD forsaking its natural allies for a partnership of convenience with the same regime that long denied them. What all peoples of northern Syria need, Kurdish and non-Kurdish, is a common strategy for dealing with both Damascus and the minority communities in the region. This would require that the PYD:

  • decrease its heavy reliance on its own military and the regime and instead broaden its support base among both Kurds and non-Kurdish populations, as well as the more pragmatic strands of the Syrian opposition;
     
  • prepare, jointly with its support base, a strategy to replace the regime as a service provider and ensure the region’s access to resources; and
     
  • diversify relations with foreign powers to diminish their ability to exploit communal tensions in their own interests.

Bringing northern Syria together would be no mean task, but the reward could be as great as the mission is difficult: emancipation from a regime that someday is likely to turn brutal attention back to the country’s north.

Erbil/Brussels, 8 May 2014

A United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy delivering aid packages in the rebel-held town of Nashabiyah in Eastern Ghouta for the first time in five years, on 30 July 2017. AFP/Amer Almohibany

Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria

Russia’s proposal for humanitarian corridors for Eastern Ghouta and Rukban camp have little chance of mitigating suffering there. Instead, Moscow should push for a negotiated resolution of Eastern Ghouta through UN Security Council Resolution 2401 and secure normal aid agency access to Rukban, thereby enhancing its credibility as a mediator.

Syria’s civilians have suffered tremendously through the country’s seven years of conflict. Now, as the Syrian government and its allies prepare to retake Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburbs, hundreds of thousands will be caught in the crossfire once more. The humanitarian corridors announced by Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for Eastern Ghouta, and proposed for the Rukban camp on the border with Jordan further east, are unlikely to substantially mitigate that suffering.

To be sure, any means for civilians to safely and voluntarily escape the violence in besieged Eastern Ghouta is positive and welcome. But the corridor announced unilaterally by Russia and the Syrian government through the Wafideen camp lacks the sort of guarantees that would allow Ghouta’s nearly 400,000 residents to use it or other concerned parties, including UN Security Council members, to endorse it.

First of all, residents would have to be able to reach the corridor without fear of being targeted en route. Daily ceasefires of five hours, still punctured by intermittent shelling, are too narrow a window. Prior experience with Syrian ceasefires has generated a deep sense of distrust. It would take quite some time without any violations for people to trust that this one is different. These five-hour windows also fall short of the cessation of hostilities and durable humanitarian pause demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which Russia supported.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation.

People in Eastern Ghouta also harbour a deep-seated fear of what would happen to them once they reach government-controlled territory. Compulsory military service for male family members is a concern regardless of political orientation. Retaliation by the security state is a threat for anyone who has – or whose loved ones have – a record of opposition to the regime. In Eastern Ghouta, that may include nearly everyone.

Thus, for most, an unconditional return to areas of government control is not a safe or realistic option, as evidenced by the miniscule numbers who left thus far. State media have claimed that the armed groups prevent people from leaving, holding them as human shields for all practical purposes. Such accounts are impossible to verify, but without credible guarantees, little if any coercion would be required to prevent departures.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation. As time elapses, the argument will gain ground that those still inside are either in cahoots with, or held back by, insurgents – with the implication that neither government forces nor their Russian allies are to blame for casualties from shelling and bombing the densely populated area indiscriminately.

Eastern Ghouta requires a negotiated resolution, not a military victory that would be disastrous – for Ghouta’s residents first and foremost, but also for Syria’s future. Hundreds of thousands of people cannot be crushed militarily and then successfully reintegrated into Syria’s state and society. A non-violent alternative is possible: Russia has negotiated with Eastern Ghouta’s non-jihadist rebel factions in the past. For Moscow, these are known interlocutors, with whom it is possible to reach an agreement.

Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community ... rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Rukban’s situation is different. With no fighting ongoing in the area, residents there can leave the U.S.-policed zone around the Tanaf military base and return to their homes, no corridor needed. It is just that these homes are not safe. Last year, hundreds of Rukban residents returned to the town of Qaryatein near Homs, only to have the Islamic State (ISIS) overrun the town and massacre its civilians. Most of Rukban’s current residents are from Syria’s central Badiya desert and the country’s east, areas where ISIS has been defeated but which are not yet sufficiently secured. They would also need clarifications regarding their legal status when they return to areas of state control.

In the meantime, more should be done to deliver humanitarian assistance. Delivering aid across military lines from Damascus presents special challenges, including coordination with the U.S.-led coalition through de-confliction channels and with U.S.-backed militias inside the Tanaf zone. Still, Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community – a community the U.S. and Jordan have mostly failed to aid via the Jordanian border – rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Humanitarian corridors as proposed by Russia do not offer solutions for either Eastern Ghouta or Rukban. Yet both areas present opportunities for Russia to work toward something genuinely stabilising and life-saving, if Russia is willing to sway its ally in Damascus. Pushing for a full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which could provide an opening for a negotiated resolution in Eastern Ghouta, and securing humanitarian access to Rukban would greatly enhance Russia’s credibility as a mediator in Syria and, critically, spare more bloodshed.

This article was also published by the Valdai Discussion Club.