Syria’s six-year long civil war is slowly diminishing, with Bashar al Assad as the unbreakable victor. Multiple allies have backed the Arab nationalist Ba’athist government, including Iran, Russia and Hezbollah who shifted the direction of the brutal war in Assad’s favor.
Despite Assad’s determination to clinch onto power regardless of the Syrian people’s aspirations for a change of government, one group, the Kurds, refused to continue to be ruled by the tyrant. Through hard fought battles and loss of many lives, the Kurds – Syria’s largest ethnic minority – managed to establish a secure region in the north much different from the rest of the country in what they call Rojava (West Kurdistan).
At the start of the war, the Kurds of Rojava had little interest in battling the Assad regime or siding with the opposition forces. But this changed when Islamic State (IS) attempted to pivot north towards a small Kurdish town of Kobani, bordering Turkey. Kobani was surrounded; on one side was IS, on the other the Turkish military, watching idly in the hope that Kurdish town would plummet. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even went as far as saying “Kobani is about to fall.” But Kobani never fell, instead becoming a symbol of resilience which has inspired the success of the Kurds to date.
Today, under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a coalition of majority Kurdish but also Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian fighters have pushed back the Islamic State to near nothing. The SDF controls large of swaths territory west of the Euphrates river, weakening IS strongholds. The Syrian army has chosen its battles, combatting opposition forces to regain strategic cities rather than concerning themselves with the Kurds in the North. But this has backfired. The Kurdish forces are now strong, well organized and defiant, helped by the backing of US and Russian forces. To make matters worse for Assad, they now completely govern themselves. And so he is faced with a tough choice: intervene in Rojava and reclaim the land through the use of force, or accept that Syria is no longer whole.
It is true that the Kurds in Syria have established their own safe-haven, and are now preparing to hold local council and regional assembly elections. The Kurds have however attempted to quell fears of total separation, insisting that they are not seeking independence. The regime hopes this is true: Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad stated that “the elections will be a joke. Syria will never allow any part of its territory to be separated” and Assad described the self-governance in the region as “temporary”. Separation would also be a blow for Turkey; its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears such move will push Kurds in his own country to demand autonomy and has been accused of aligning with the Islamic state to prevent further Kurdish advances. A former ISIS communications technician stated “ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all [from Turkey], because there was full cooperation with the Turks and they reassured us that nothing will happen…the Kurds were common enemy for both ISIS and Turkey.”
Yet Syria’s main ally in the war, Russia, has been open to granting the Kurds autonomy. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met with opposition parties in Moscow earlier this year to discuss a draft Syrian constitution which pushed for “allowing for autonomy of Kurdish regions.”
Ultimately, the Assad regime must decide how it will prevent the Kurds from moving forward with their ambitions. Although agreeing upon a solution with Russia and the US as mediators is the ideal condition, it is not likely that Kurds will give up territories they have fought for – or that residents within such regions would want to live under Assad’s government ever again. But if Assad does decide to forcefully intervene, the least likely scenario, it may end his regime once and for all. His government does not have the manpower, resources or time to fight on another front after years of war. His allies Russia will not fight the Kurds, and Iran will shy away from advancing north due to the presence of US forces.
The ball is once again in Assad’s court – either make a mistake similar to 2011 when he declined to implement reform or step down during the Arab Spring protests, or commit to a peaceful solution and let the Kurds be. A model comparable to the Iraqi one could be implemented, where it granted the Kurds autonomy under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with its own border, military, parliament and laws. But this may not be the most convincing resolution as the KRG is preparing to divorce Iraq with its independence referendum on September 25, a move Baghdad calls “illegal.”
Syrians should not suffer any longer due to personal ambitions of the regime or power struggles of its allies. The final phase of the civil war is near, the Islamic State is nearly defeated and all actors involved are scrambling to gain last minute spoils, which is not limited to territory but natural gas and oil fields, access to dams along the Euphrates River, access to the Mediterranean Sea and Iran is seeking its long ambitions of completing the Shiite crescent through a land bridge from Iraq, Syria into Lebanon threatening Israel.
Assad’s Kurdish question could have been answered long ago, but the Kurds in Syria have reaped what they have sown: the Syrian regime too weak to call the shots and can no longer determine the future of the entirety of the country.