Another miscalculation by the PKK in Syria?

As long as the Kurds are not recognized politically, the danger of them being dropped by the US or other countries remains high.

Iraqi Kurds wave flags of Iraqi Kurdistan during a demonstration (photo credit: SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
Iraqi Kurds wave flags of Iraqi Kurdistan during a demonstration
(photo credit: SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
Due to pressure being exerted on the US by Turkey regarding the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish group, the possibility of pushing back the Kurds in Syria and limiting the border of their region to the west of the Euphrates is increasing. This could damage the Kurdish leadership’s reputation in the eyes of the Kurds even more, following the loss of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin to Turkey.
As long as the Kurds are not recognized politically, the danger of them being dropped by the US or other countries remains high. This has pushed the The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to reach an agreement with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Throughout the numerous failed negotiations to find a political solution to Syria’s crisis, the Kurds have always been denied a voice. They have never been politically recognized by any side and have therefore only been used to combat ISIS. The Kurdish leadership in Syria is mostly to blame for this, as they have shown no long-term strategy and have repeatedly marginalized themselves since 2011.
As a result, the Kurds in Syria are at risk of being denied any political gains after the war because the policy in their region has been designed and implemented by the PKK, whose sole focus is confronting Turkey and whose main influence is steered by its deep but complicated relations with Iran. This policy is deeply flawed, as it does not take into consideration or astutely use the wider geopolitical forces at play and in competition in the Syrian conflict to secure future rights for the Syrian Kurds.
Regarding the PKK’s relation with Iran, years ago the PKK’s commander in chief, Cemil Bayik, known as Heval Cuma, said something that was quoted in a meeting between Iranian officials and the PKK leadership: “Do you know what Ayatollah Khomeini’s view was about the PKK? He told the country’s officials that the PKK is like fire. If you get too close to the PKK, they may burn you and if you put too much distance they may become too cold towards you.”
This has been the PKK’s perception of Iran since the 1980s and both sides have sought to prevent serious clashes between them. This relationship has played an important role in saving Assad’s regime. The Kurds never sided with opposition groups to fight Assad or Iran’s influence as part of the Iran-Assad-PKK agreement in 2011.
As a result, Syrian opposition groups rejected any rights for the Kurds. This played into Iran’s hands by turning the Syrian revolution into a Shia-Sunni conflict instead of an Assad-Syrian people conflict, which helps Assad stay in power for the time being.
After eight years of bloody war, Syrian opposition groups are not the only ones who feel they have lost. The Kurds, who helped the international coalition against ISIS, also feel they have been ignored by the West.
“The Kurds had no say in the border patrolling decision in Manbij known as the roadmap by US and Turkey,” a Kurdish official in Syria told this author on the basis of anonymity.
“People in Minbaj, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor do not want the Kurds to take part in the governance of their cities. They view us as a group who saved them from ISIS and now they want us to leave. The Kurdish leadership had no post-ISIS plans and after sacrificing thousands of Kurdish lives, people and the international coalition reject our involvement in their region,” said the source.
On the morning of July 27, it was announced that the Kurds are officially entering into negotiations to reach an agreement with Assad. According to Damascus, the Kurdish-led SDF had reached an agreement about Arab territories held by the Kurds prior to the July 27 announcement, but Salih Muslim had claimed that the Kurds would not negotiate with Assad unless they reached an agreement about a future political system in Syria guaranteeing rights for Kurds.
However, according to this writer’s source, negotiations had already started before Muslim’s claim.
“At first, Assad was not willing to negotiate unless the Kurds surrendered Arab regions and the Turkey-Syria borders, but with Iran’s influence over Assad, negotiations then started on July 1” said the source. “Iran is also worried about its future in Syria, especially in Deir ez-Zor, which is strategic for Iran’s influence and we are conducting a liberation operation and have control over this region.”
Once again, this demonstrates that it is not the PYD, but the PKK, in charge of the Syrian Kurdish region’s policy.
The problem with the PKK being solely in charge of policy in the Syrian Kurdish region is that as Iran knows their focus is overwhelmingly to confront Turkey, it is now using the PKK to secure its influence in Syria to the detriment of securing concrete rights for Syrian Kurdish people. Indeed, both the PKK and Iran are worried about the negotiations between the US and Turkey on the one hand, and the US and Russia on the other, over the future of Syria.
In addition, since US President Donald Trump has adopted a confrontational stance toward the IRI, and since protests have erupted throughout Iran, the Iranian regime is now using the PKK in a double-pronged strategy to secure its influence in Syria while also seeking to keep power in Iran.
Iran is therefore trying to get closer to – and strengthen its relationship  with – the PKK in order to establish new alliances to confront any push-backs against its policies in the region, and now more importantly at home. It is therefore noteworthy that following the Assad-Kurdish negotiations, the PKK’s Iranian branch, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), released a revealing statement, claiming for the first time that their aim and priority is not to overthrow the Iranian regime. Furthermore, the Kurds and Assad also reached an agreement on the sharing of Hasakah’s oil resources. This clearly shows Iran’s hand at play.

It appears that the PKK wants to reach an agreement with Assad, with Iran’s assistance, before they lose all of their cards, such as controlling Arab regions and most of Syria’s oil resources – and above all, to deny Turkey any role in Syria. In fact, according to Alder Khalil, executive committee member of the Movement for a Democratic Society, the Kurdish forces are willing to side with Assad’s forces, which he refers to as ‘liberation forces,’ to take back Idlib from Turkey-backed Sunni forces.
Referring to Assad’s forces as ‘liberation forces’ seems rather ambiguous considering the massacres they have committed in Syria as well as the decades of repression they imposed on Syrian Kurds, reinforcing the claim that the PKK’s agenda in Syria is above all to confront Turkey. However, this has been done without securing any political rights for the Syrian Kurds whatsoever.
Blinded by their desire to confront Turkey, the PKK fail to take into consideration that the Syrian conflict is a proxy war involving a myriad of regional and international forces and ramifications. Consequently, the PKK is being used a pawn by Iran, which needs the PKK at present but could easily abandon them if the situation changes. This is another strategic miscalculation by the PKK, which is focusing on Turkey instead of observing the multifaceted nature of the Syrian conflict and acting accordingly to ensure the ability to secure rights for Syrian Kurds.
The writer is an Iranian Middle East analyst based in London and the Middle East. He has worked as a consultant and adviser for various organizations across the Middle East and Europe such as EU, MDM and KKC. He is currently working for a consultancy firm based in the United Kingdom with a focus on insurgency and counter-insurgency. He holds an MA in International Relations and he is a PHD candidate.