US military ally YPG has become Russia’s political ally
It all happened within the space of two weeks. First the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) lost control of oil-rich provinces of Kirkuk and Mosul. Then it froze the post-referendum process.
KRG leader Masoud Barzani announced his resignation from the presidency. His independence dreams lasted less than a month, broken by rare co-operation between Turkey, Iraq and Iran, which intervened to prevent the disintegration of Iraq.
In Syria, developments are moving equally fast. Turkey, Iran and Russia have begun to implement “de-escalation zones” inside Syria, including in rebel-held Idlib. These three guarantor countries, as well as the Syrian regime and opposition groups, have launched a seventh round of the Astana Process talks in the Kazakh capital, trying to strengthen the cease-fire and discuss other confidence-building measures between the two fighting groups.
Although Turkey and Western powers demand the resumption of Geneva Process meetings, which aim to find a political solution to the Syrian problem, nobody knows when the related parties will come together to negotiate a transition period.
Meanwhile, Russia has announced that it will host Syria’s various ethnic groups at a conference in Sochi in mid-November. The conference will focus on seeking “compromise solutions for the political settlement,” as a senior Russian official put it.
It is unclear which groups will attend the meeting. So far only Syrian Kurdish groups that rule in the north have confirmed their participation. It remains to be seen whether an invitation will be extended to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a group that Ankara has deemed a terrorist organization, along with its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The Russian move follows Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallim’s statement that Damascus could grant autonomous rights to the Syrian Kurdish groups after the full elimination of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from the country.
The YPG has played a key role as main U.S. ally in the fight against ISIL, despite Ankara’s disapproval. With recent progress in the fight against ISIL after the re-capture of Raqqa, both the American and Russian authorities believe that Syrian territories will be completely ISIL-free as of next year. That is why all concerned parties are focusing on the kind of political transition that will take place once peace prevails in the war-torn country.
The picture is becoming clearer. It is unlikely that Bashar al-Assad will leave soon. His fate is in Russian hands. The Syrian Kurds already anticipate the establishment of a regional parliament in January 2018 and will continue to enjoy an advantageous position. Both Washington and Moscow will continue to work with the YPG militarily and politically for the foreseeable future. (It should also be recalled that Moscow was one of the first countries to allow the PYD to open an office in Russia.)
Turkey’s anger with the U.S. over its military support for the YPG will endure. This will stymie serious and healthy dialogue between the two allies, pushing Turkey towards Russia.
Ankara remains silent as Russia attempts to pull Syrian Kurdish groups to the negotiating table that will shape Syria’s future. Furthermore, no large-scale Turkish military offensives into Afrin seem possible under the current conditions. In this regard, efforts made by senior Turkish officials (and reports in the pro-government media) to depict the Idlib operation as a step toward an offensive in Afrin are misleading.
In sum, there are signs that Turkey’s Syria policy will soon reach a new deadlock because of its inflexible stance vis-a-vis Syrian Kurdish political groups.