Syria's Kurds Work All the Angles for Autonomy

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(Bloomberg View) -- Outside the headlines, something remarkable is going on in Syria. The Kurds, making a long-term play for an autonomous region, seem to have decided that their best bet is to buy it from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And the U.S. is signaling that it may be on-board -- a startling reflection of its pro-Russian, anti-Turkish policy.

The evidence for this reading of events starts with the upcoming fight for Raqqa, the headquarters of Islamic State. The so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group of fighters dominated by the Syrian Kurdish force known as the YPG, has reportedly gotten the green light to go ahead not only from the U.S. but also from Assad and Russia.

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This is significant because of the apparent plan for Raqqa if the Kurdish-led force succeeds in taking it. The expectation is that the town will be turned over to a local council -- which will in turn reconcile with Assad and offer sovereignty back to his regime.

What’s in it for the Syrian Kurds, who began the war by taking part in the anti-Assad uprising?

The most likely answer is that the Syrian Kurds hope to get a quid pro quo from Assad. The only outcome that is desirable to them and also potentially acceptable to Assad is an autonomous or semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Syria.

The idea of Kurdish autonomy was floated back in December 2016 in a Russian draft constitution for post-war Syria. In March, a Kurdish-dominated group made noises about actually declaring an autonomous regional government in territory taken from Islamic State.

The precedent for such an arrangement comes from Iraq. There, the autonomous region effectively created by the U.S. with the no-fly zone during Bill Clinton’s administration endured into the construction of the new Iraq after the George W. Bush administration’s invasion. It’s now part of the Iraqi constitution.

Iraqi Arabs, Sunni and Shiite alike, would have liked to reincorporate the Kurdish region. But that wasn’t realistic given how entrenched the Iraqi Kurds already were, and how closely they had allied themselves with the U.S. Now Iraq lives with the reality of asymmetric federalism, in which the Kurdish region enjoys a unique autonomy.

Syria’s Kurds must be looking to the Iraqi model -- and hoping Assad will, too.

Assad won’t want to give up sovereignty of Syrian territory any more than Iraqi leaders wanted to give autonomy to Iraqi Kurds. But like the Iraqi Arabs, Assad may have no choice. He’s desperate for allies to help him regain territory. And the Syrian Kurds are eager to gain territory themselves.

In a twist that could happen only in the Middle East, the Syrian Kurds are simultaneously useful to the U.S., which is desperate to show that Islamic State can be defeated. The Kurds are just about the only ground force willing and able to take on the militant group in Syria. As a result Donald Trump’s administration, which is arming the YPG, seems to have decided to endorse the Raqqa turnover plan.

That’s a flip from 2016, when Barack Obama’s administration indicated that it didn’t support Syrian Kurdish autonomy.

That puts the Syrian Kurds in the strong position of having the support of Syria and its ally Russia, and also the U.S. It is noteworthy that the U.S. and Russia are thus in effect cooperating to restore territory to Assad.

The only major regional player who strongly opposes Syrian Kurdish ambitions is Turkey.

Turkey considers Syria’s YPG far too close to the PKK, the Kurdish rebel group (and sometime terrorists) that has for many years fought for Kurdish rights and maybe autonomy within Turkey itself. And it is definitely not in Turkey’s interests for a Kurdish autonomous region to appear in Syria in parallel to the one in Iraq, which the Turks also initially opposed. The strong implication would be that such an area should come into existence in Turkey.

Yet Turkey has no leverage over Assad, whom it has opposed since the uprising against him began. (The Erdogan regime was drawing ever closer to Assad before that, however.)

And Turkey has little pull right now with the U.S., its traditional NATO ally. That’s not really because of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s slide toward dictatorship, which hasn’t aroused much ire from the Trump administration. It’s more that the U.S. has an ongoing interest in defeating Islamic State -- and has, it would seem, largely abandoned the goal of removing Assad, whatever the administration has been saying since bombing Syrian targets after Assad’s poison gas attack.

Will the whole Syrian Kurdish initiative to get autonomy from Assad work out? The plan rests on a series of gambles, to be sure. Everyone is using the Kurds, and they surely know it.

In Assad’s ideal world, he would wait until he had regained as much territory as he could on the basis of Kurdish efforts, then renege on the idea of autonomy. The Kurds realize this. Their bet must be that Assad won’t be strong enough on his own to take back whatever autonomy he’s given -- or that their autonomy will become part of an end-game deal that is backed by the U.S. and Russia.

The U.S. has no particular reason to support the Syrian Kurds after Islamic State is defeated. But perhaps the Kurds reason, plausibly, that the U.S. will want a weakened Assad as part of any final bargain. Kurdish autonomy would contribute to the weakness of the Syrian government. Of course, Russia will want a strong Syria for the same reason the U.S. will want a weak one.

What almost certainly won’t emerge from all this is a unified Kurdistan across the Iraq-Syria frontier. Kurdish unity has always been an elusive goal. The Iraqi Kurds have drawn close to Turkey over the last decade, essentially abandoning the PKK in exchange for a stronger relationship with a neighbor more stable than the Baghdad government. They might not even support a YPG-led autonomous region, much less seek to join with it.

If all this sounds impossibly arcane, that’s because it is. In the Middle East, the line between fantasy and political reality can be dangerously thin, because real people act on the basis of their expectations. Fantasy can become real -- albeit not always in a good way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His seven books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President” and “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

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