BEIRUT: Syria’s Kurds have established an autonomous region during seven years of civil war, but the abrupt decision by their US ally to withdraw has thrown their political future into doubt.
Kurdish-led forces control a large swathe of the country’s north and northeast, some of it seized from Daesh at the cost of heavy losses with backing from the US-led coalition.
A US withdrawal could leave them exposed on two fronts, both to an attack by neighboring Turkey and its Syrian proxies, and to a return of Damascus government institutions.
Syria’s Kurdish minority have largely stayed out of the civil war, instead forging autonomy in a large swathe of the north and northeast, including along the Turkish border.
The fight against Daesh has allowed the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to expand that territory to include the Euphrates Valley city of Raqqa, as well as key oil and gas fields in the eastern province of Deir Ez-Zor.
On Dec. 19, President Donald Trump took many even among his own supporters by surprise with the announcement of a full US troop withdrawal from Syria.
That prompted the Kurds to seek a new alliance with the Damascus regime to protect them from a long-threatened attack by neighboring Turkey.
Ankara views the Kurdish fighters of the SDF as “terrorists,” in cahoots with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting Turkish troops since 1984.
Although unlikely without prior agreements between regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, analysts foresee a possible carving up of the northeast between the different sides.
“There will be a division of territory between the SDF, the Turks, and the Syrian army,” political geographer and Syria expert Fabrice Balanche predicted.
Today, the regime holds almost two-thirds of Syria after victories against militants and other rebels, and has pledged to eventually return the northeast to government control.
Last week, Damascus deployed troops in the northern countryside to stem off any Turkish-led attack on the flashpoint SDF-held city of Manbij.
On Wednesday, the army said 400 Kurdish fighters had retreated from areas around the Arab-majority city. But an Arab contingent of the SDF remains in control, and US forces are also present as they have not yet withdrawn.
On Monday, pro-government newspaper Al-Watan cited an Arab diplomat in Moscow as saying the northern city would revert to “full state supervision.”
The source also said Turkey, Russia and fellow regime ally Iran would discuss “a return of state institutions” to areas further east, beyond the Euphrates River, at a meeting expected at the start of the year.
Balanche said the regime would eventually resume full control of the main northeastern cities of Hasakah and Qamishli.
It would also retake the Arab-majority city of Raqqa, as well as the oil fields of Deir Ezzor.
“The Syrian Army will… rapidly seize the Omar oil fields — two-thirds of Syrian production,” Balanche said.
Turkey has led two previous incursions across the border, the most recent of which saw its Syrian proxies seize the northwestern enclave of Afrin from Kurdish forces last year.
But analyst Heiko Wimmen said Ankara would first have to seek consent from Moscow before any third offensive, especially to use its air force.
“If it does happen however, Turkey will try to control the border strip,” said Wimmen, of the Brussels-based think tank, the International Crisis Group.
“What they are aiming for is a buffer zone along the border,” he said, stressing that the mission would be fraught with difficulty.
“It is not clear that they are immediately prepared to take over and control a large area with a partly hostile population,” he said.
Balanche predicted Turkish troops and their allies would eventually push 20-40 km into Syria.
After decades of marginalization, since the civil war erupted in 2011 Syria’s Kurds have set up their own institutions in areas they control.
After government forces pulled out of Kurdish-majority areas in 2012, the Kurds set up their own administrations and implemented longstanding demands such as Kurdish-medium education.
But as loyalist forces gained ground last year and Damascus rejected Kurdish self-rule, the Kurds entered talks with the regime to seek some form of decentralization.
With the Kurds now set to see their US ally withdraw from Syria, Wimmen said the Kurds were “certain to lose a lot.”
“The question is whether the loss will be total or whether some of it can be salvaged… through a deal with the regime, guaranteed by Russia,” he said.
But “given the track record of the regime and its negotiation positions so far… there is little reason for optimism.”