When the US announced its withdrawal from Syria late last year, there was an outcry regarding changing power relations in the Middle East: the US leaving the playing field to Russia, Turkey and Iran. The Kurds in the region at the forefront are forced to deal with this new reality. The Kurdish armed forces of the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat – PYD) have been an ally to the US led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) for several years now. Even though the Kurdish forces fight IS, Turkey considers the Kurds themselves terrorists. This led Turkey to invade the Northern Syrian region of Afrin early last year under the pretext of safeguarding its own national security interests. The US declaring its intention to leave Syria triggered plans for further military operations by Turkey into the Kurdish held territories in Syria.
The changing power relations were also part of the discussions during the trilateral meeting in Sochi between Putin, Rouhani and Erdogan last week on February 14. Even though all three states have worked together in the past establishing the Astana Process, their interests in Syria differ. Russia and Iran support the Syrian President Assad emphasizing the principle of state sovereignty and its corollary, territorial integrity, of the Syrian state. Therefore, they welcomed the US’ withdrawal as an important step to re-establish control by the Syrian government. Different to Russia and Iran, Turkey does not back the Syrian government. Nevertheless, Turkey also relies on the principle of sovereignty for safeguarding its own national security interests. Being a firm opposer of any Kurdish movement, Turkey claims to protect its own national security interests when launching its military operation in Northern Syria. In the so-called “Operation Olive Branch”, Turkey has used aerial bombing by its armed forces and supported Islamic militias on the ground in order to occupy the region of Afrin and connected areas. Civilians living in Afrin did not have any other opportunity left than fleeing. As a result, thousands of civilians were displaced.
In December 2018, Turkey announced its plans to expand its military operation into further areas in Northern Syria, starting with Manbij. With the threat of a military attack into the Kurdish regions in Syria and the declared US withdrawal, Syrian Kurds are left without allies. Taking advantage of the situation, Syrian President Assad just proclaimed its help to the Kurds. Assad warned the Kurds that the US would not help them in the case of a Turkish attack despite the US threat to impose economic consequences against Turkey. At the same time, Assad offered protection to the Kurds through the Arab Syrian Army stating that the Kurds would otherwise become slaves to the Ottomans. Whereas the Kurds try to find a solution through initiating a dialogue with Assad, it is not clear whether Assad is willing to make any concessions. It seems time again and again the old Kurdish saying is being confirmed: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains”.