Kyle Orton* on SDF and geopolitical balance between Russia, the US, and Turkey

This interview was published in De Re Militari English, Issue 2 – check it out here: De Re Militari ENG, Issue 2.

(2018-09-08)- Me (VOA)De Re Militari (DRM): Not long ago, Putin said he would support Turkey’s interests in Northern Syria if Erdogan recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity. What does this statement mean for the SDF and more specifically the Kurds?

Kyle Orton (KO): The Russians have long played a double game when it comes to the “SDF”, acknowledging Turkey’s view of the situation yet on the ground providing support to the group. For the sake of simplicity, I shall simply call the SDF or PYD/YPG “the PKK” hereafter, since neither the ethnic composition of the SDF nor its claims to democracy alter the fact that the PKK military commanders run the show in “Rojava”.

The PKK was an outright proxy of the Assad regime from the outset of its war against Turkey in 1984 until the group was expelled from Syria under pressure in 1998. The Assad regime under Hafez acted as a cutout for the Soviet Union in dealing with any number of terrorist groups and such was the case with the PKK, a valuable instrument for destabilizing a frontline NATO state. The Russian Federation retained links to the PKK throughout the 1990s at the height of the war—and Turkey responded by dabbling with the Chechen insurgency. In the late 1980s, the PKK established ties with the clerical regime in Iran, too. By 2003, at the latest, Damascus had re-established relations that it scaled back, albeit with intermittent crackdowns—as Assad did with ISIS during the same period—up to 2011. After the outbreak of the rebellion, Assad and Iran moved to re-enlist the PKK in their column to sow chaos within the opposition and among its supporters like Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, both of whom regard the PKK as a mortal threat and diverted resources to containing the PKK rather than being able to focus solely on the anti-Assad cause.

All of this is a long way of saying Moscow’s rhetoric about supporting Turkey’s interests with respect to the PKK in northern Syria is designed to extract concessions where possible and to keep going the political relations established in 2016 because this helps keep NATO riven and off-balance. There is no way Moscow will surrender the point of leverage against Turkey the PKK supplies them, nor will the rest of the pro-Assad coalition.

DRM: Turkey and the US reached an agreement over a de-escalation safe zone along the Syrian border. What are the final parameters of the agreement?

KO: Nobody has any idea what the parameters of the proposed “safe zone” are and this is the problem. There can be no agreement since it is being approached from two opposing views. For Turkey, the PKK is the primary problem and the solution is a 30-km deep zone under Turkish control. For the Americans, ISIS is the sole focus—as ever—so stability, no matter how short-term in conception, takes precedent. The US proposals, such as they are, now they have more or less recognized that the Europeans are not going to step in to form this buffer, is a much narrower zone that Turkey can enter, where the PKK has supposedly been removed—likely replaced by Arab SDF contingents that are logistically, financially, and militarily dependent on the PKK—with joint US-Turkey patrols. These two visions are not reconcilable, properly speaking, so the status quo is likely to persist in the absence of a rash unilateral move by Turkey.

DRM: How will this zone help ease Turkish-YPG tensions?

KO: The short answer is that the “safe zone” will do little to solve the Turkey-YPG/PKK tensions. Turkey would see it as just the beginning, and the PKK would understand this and likely initiate guerilla operations to inflict a cost and deter further moves by Turkey. If the PKK starts undertaking these attacks on Turkey from behind the US tripwire in northern Syria, things then get very messy.

DRM: Allegedly, the US has 16 bases and posts on the SDF held territories. What is the strategic and political value of this network at present?

KO: Consciously, the US bases in northern Syria are just part of the anti-ISIS mission, and they have a lot of importance for intelligence gathering and rapid reaction in keeping ISIS down. Some US officials have wanted to use these bases as an anti-Iran instrument; that is not possible, for the reasons outlined above of the PKK’s alignment, but while the “SDF” holds territory with US forces embedded as tripwires, Iran cannot enter that area. So that is something. The problem is that these bases are helping lay the groundwork for a PKK statelet in northern Syria.

DRM: We have seen Turkey repeatedly back from its observation posts in Idlib. Will the US maintain its presence given the pressure from both the Assad government and Turkey?

KO: My own view is that at some point Trump will get his wish and the US troops will withdraw from Syria. It is not clear what conditions happen. If it is under a deal with Turkey, then the PKK project is finished in Syria. If not, it could well be that the pro-Assad coalition comes into that area, and the Turks might even welcome this. It would be short-sighted since the Assadists will repurpose, rather than dismantle the PKK, for use against Turkey, but states, including Turkey, have made stranger decisions over Syria.

DRM: How can we describe the current relations between the Kurds in Syria and the Kurds in Iraq? There has been tension between the Barzani family and the YPG leadership in recent months.

KO: The relations between the Barzani family and the YPG/PKK can be described only as limitless enmity. For political reasons, occasional statements to the contrary are needed by one side or other, but the reality has been consistent for decades.

DRM: How does the YPG cause fit in the overall Kurdish question? What are the discrepancies between the Syrian Kurds and their brethren in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran?

KO: The YPG is the name for the PKK when it operates on Syrian soil, as with PJAK in Iran. So, the PKK has, in theory, a fairly contiguous arc of power from Syrian Kurdistan through south-east Turkey and into the Kurdish area of Iran. In fact, at this moment, the PKK has been drastically weakened inside Turkey and sent most of the cadres that were in Iran to Syria under a deal with Tehran at the outset of the Syrian war. Syria is where the PKK has its current center of gravity while retaining its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq and tightening its good relations with the PUK/Talabani clan. But the Barzani family remains dominant in Iraqi Kurdistan and will continue to work to limit the PKK’s influence as best it can. There are Kurdish anti-PKK forces in all the other countries as well—quite strong in Turkey, virtually eliminated (driven into exile or killed) in Syria, and weak Iran.

DRM: Russia (in its USSR version) has played a significant role in nurturing the Kurdish movement during the Cold War. What are the current dimensions of the Kremlin’s involvement with the Kurds?

KO: As mentioned above, Russia is essentially keeping what we might call the Kurdish Option in its back pocket for use against Turkey should the current entente go south.

DRM: The US government has, on several occasions, chosen the established states’ cause before the interests of the Kurds. What are Washington’s actual plans for the Kurdish question – if any?

KO: One sometimes speaks to U.S. government employees, especially on the military side, who have a rather romantic and emotional vision of the PKK cause in Syria and what the West should do to support it. But this doesn’t have much weight on the policy. Some of the colder pro-Iran “realists” that surrounded the last President, Barack Obama, are quite content to hand over this vastly empowered PKK to the Assad/Iran system and the Russians. That view has more traction in the bureaucracy and the press. It’s unclear what this means, though, since the person who matters in the U.S., namely Donald Trump, quite possibly still doesn’t know the difference between Kurds and the Quds Force, and to the extent he has inclinations about Syria, let alone ideas, he is, like his predecessor, concerned only with ISIS, which means no serious long-term thought has gone into handling the PKK statelet that the U.S. has brought into being.

DRM: Kurdish forces have generally stood by as Assad dismantles the opposition strongholds in the west of Syria. What happens with the YPG-Assad relations once the question of Idlib is solved?

KO: It’s not clear to me that Idlib will be “solved”, even in the sense of reconquest by the pro-Assad coalition. If that course is taken, the PKK has signaled a willingness to participate alongside the Assad/Iran forces, just as Iran’s Shi’a jihadists came to help the PKK (without much effect, as it happened) in Afrin. Idlib might well suffer alone, one way or the other, as matters unravel east of the Euphrates. The likeliest outcome seems to be a reconciliation of some kind between Assad and the PKK. This might well have happened before now if the PKK had been willing to accept Assad’s terms. With the Americans still there, and their expanded wealth and weapons cache, the PKK has a sense of the balance of forces that has given it confidence, with seemingly little consideration of how abruptly the American commitment could end.

DRM: Is there an actual alternative to YPG/PKK among the Syrian Kurds?

KO: There are anti-PKK Syrian Kurdish parties, and if the structure in Rojava was opened up they would be quite competitive, especially in places like Qamishli. If the question is for right at this moment, then no: the PKK has broken the Kurdish opposition in Syria and monopolizes power very effectively.

* Kyle Orton is an independent analyst focused on Syria. He can be found on Twitter at @KyleWOrton.

** The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect De Re Militari’s editorial stance.

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