Why Rojava matters for Israel

If Syria adopted a more democratic system, Iran might not be able to manipulate Damascus’s foreign policy as it has in the past.

By JONAH NAGHI
February 11, 2019 20:11
4 minute read.
SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC Forces (SDF) celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province liberation last yea

SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC Forces (SDF) celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province liberation last year. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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With tensions rising between Israel and Iran near the Syrian border, Jerusalem may be concerned over a potential US withdrawal. Without a US military presence in Syria, Tehran may have a more direct route to transfer arms to its Shia militias to fire at Israel.

At the same time, in the northeast of Syria, there is another US ally on the ground that is concerned about a US withdrawal: the Syrian Kurds. While Israel does not have formal relations with the Syrian Kurds and they have many different interests, an analysis of the regional alliances will reveal that the status of Rojava is relevant to Jerusalem’s national security interest in undermining Iran’s hegemony.

The Syrian Kurds have created an opportunity where they could promote legitimate change in postwar Syria. In 2015, the Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG) agreed to form a coalition with local Arab militias in northern Syria known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since then, with US military support, the SDF has proven to be perhaps the most formidable force on the ground combating ISIS by driving it out of most of its held territory, including the capital of its so-called Islamic State, Raqqa.

The SDF has also been running an autonomous zone in the territories it has acquired, known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (also commonly referred to as Rojava), where it has upheld a relatively democratic and egalitarian system. It has done this by developing a decentralized system where the diverse communities may govern themselves in their localities without interference from a central power, and this is something that may serve as a good model for the rest of Syria.

The Syrian Kurds have indicated that they are willing to negotiate with the central government in Damascus for autonomy and a reformed governing system. For example, on January 19, the Syrian Kurds presented a road map to the Assad government that included the preservation of Kurdish autonomy and a fair distribution of resources to the various ethnic groups through a more decentralized system.
Given their military accomplishments and US support, the Syrian Kurds may hold some leverage in negotiating with the Assad government to agree to forming a more democratic and decentralized government. If such a system were to be implemented, the Islamic Republic of Iran might find it harder to pursue its geopolitical interests via Syria.

Iran has long been able to use its close relations with the Assad government to ship arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which poses a national security threat to Israel. And now that the Assad government may feel more in Tehran’s debt with its assistance in the civil war, Israel may find itself more vulnerable, with Assad allowing Iran to build more military bases in Syria.

However, if Syria were to adopt a more democratic and inclusive system, similar to Rojava’s, Iran might not be able to manipulate Damascus’s foreign policy as it has in the past. Indeed, if more communities in Syria were to have a say in national affairs, the Iranians might not get the approval they need to send weapons to Lebanon or build more military bases on Syrian soil. This is because other Syrian communities, such as the Sunni Arabs and Kurds, may not want to be part of the Iranian axis, as the Assad regime has been.

Nevertheless, if the United States withdraws from Syria, the Kurds may not have the leverage they need to expand their democratic system.

Since US President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that America would soon be leaving Syria, the Kurds have found themselves in a difficult dilemma. Turkey has been preparing for a possible invasion in northern Syria to drive out ISIS, but also undoubtedly with the intent of driving out the Kurdish YPG, which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization.

Feeling the US betrayed them, the Syrian Kurds have become desperate and asked the Assad government for protection. For example, on January 29, Ilhan Ahmed, a leader of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, said that if Washington withdraws from Syria, they (the Syrian Kurds) would consider joining Assad’s forces. However, by allowing Assad’s forces to come to Manbij and other places in the north for protection against Turkey, the SDF may become more dependent on Assad and Iran, and thus undermine the Kurds’ leverage in pushing for a democratic transition after the civil war.

Iran has exploited the Syrian crisis to expand its regional hegemony, but the Syrian Kurds may be the key to countering them. By remaining invested in Syria, the US not only would be able to prevent Iran from sending more arms to its Shia proxies near Israel’s border, but would also be able help Rojava expand its democratic system through a negotiated settlement, which could undermine Iran’s hegemony.

Thus the Syrian people could finally discover the freedom they have longed for and strengthen Israel’s national security and the stability of the broader region.

 The writer is a contributing author for the Israel Policy Exchange.

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