Kurds in Syria could also be reconciling as new US admin take shape

The US Embassy in Syria tweeted on January 15 that it supported the ongoing Syrian intra-Kurdish dialogue and looked forward to its continued progress.

Turkish Kurds look towards the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani from the top of a hill close to the border line between Turkey and Syria near Mursitpinar bordergate (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish Kurds look towards the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani from the top of a hill close to the border line between Turkey and Syria near Mursitpinar bordergate
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurds in Syria have played a key role in defeating ISIS and working closely with the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition over the last five years. However, they suffered setbacks because of Turkish-backed extremists, Turkish invasions, US policy infighting, and their own inability to come up with a way to reconcile different political movements. Now with a new US administration taking shape there is a push for Kurdish groups to hold a national conference and work with each other and other Syrian opposition groups.  
This has been a long process going back many years. The US Embassy in Syria says it supports this process and Kurdish groups are seeking reconciliation that could help create stability as the new US administration takes office. To understand what is at stake it’s important to understand the history.  
Syrian Kurds live mostly in northeastern Syria. Some also live in Aleppo and lived in Afrin in northwest Syria until Turkey’s attack on peaceful Afrin and the ethnic-cleansing of around 160,000 Kurds from the area. Kurds were also forcibly cleansed by Turkey from areas around Tel Abyad after the US greenlighted a Turkish invasion in October 2019.  
Before the ethnic cleansing by Turkey the Kurds had suffered from ISIS terror and also the Syrian regime’s suppression for decades. Under the regime many were not given citizenship and they suffered other abuses such as forced assimilation, suppression of their language and identity. However that changed in 2011 when protests broke out across Syria. Kurds got breathing space and citizenship as the Assad regime sought to encourage them to stick with the regime as parts of Syria fell to opposition hands.
The result were complex changes on the ground. Kurdish groups struggled for control with eachother and with the mostly Sunni Arab opposition. There was a brief honeymoon but soon fighting cast a shadow and the strongest group that emerged among Kurds was the PYD or its armed elements the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara has accused this of being an off-shoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). At the time, as ISIS was rising in 2013 and 2014, Ankara had a ceasefire with the PKK. The Kurdish authorities in Iraq, an autonomous region, even sent artillery via Turkey to aid Kurds besieged in Kobani in October 2014. Through the crucible of this conflict with ISIS, things changed.  
The YPG pushed ISIS back and US special forces began to work with the Kurds to create the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015.
The goal here was to go beyond the Kurdish cantons or areas in Syria and the SDF umbrella would enable Arabs, Christians and others to join. By 2017, this massive armed force, mostly armed with light weapons, had taken the ISIS capital of Raqqa. For Turkey though this was too much because Ankara’s ceasefire had fallen apart with the PKK in 2015 and Ankara used this as an excuse to crush Kurdish dissent and go after elected Kurdish mayors from the HDP in Turkey. Ankara then invaded northern Syria to stop the SDF advance at Manbij in 2016. By 2018, Turkey had invaded Afrin too, with a blank check from the US to do so.  
While Turkey was invading the authorities in eastern Syria were cracking down on other Kurdish groups, such as the Kurdish National Council (ENKS) and Kurds linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq. Syrian Kurds who were sympathetic to non-PYD groups had even formed their own armed unit, the Rojava Peshmerga in northern Iraq. For the US government the ENKS and those linked to the KDP were more palatable because they were also relatively close to Ankara. For instance Turkey’s Defense Minister was in Iraq on Tuesday in a visit where he also went Erbil and sought to increase Turkey’s war against the PKK in Iraq. Turkey has dozens of bases in Iraq and often carries out airstrikes against what it alleges are PKK hideouts in Iraq.  
To understand this complexity it’s important to understand that the US for many years was drawn into Turkey’s crackdown on Kurds and the PKK through the US war on terror. The PKK stopped doing terror attacks but Turkey exploited its previous work with the US, including support from US surveillance drones and intelligence, to crackdown on Kurds. Eventually the US rolled some of that back. But there was a division in US administration circles regarding what to do in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Some US officials have argued for an approach that is more close to Iran and have thus opposed the KDP’s search for more autonomy. Infamously in October 2017 the US stood by as pro-Iranian groups, backed by the Iraqi government, attacked Kurds in Kirkuk.
Then things shifted. US State Department appointees saw the US work with the SDF as part of an Obama-era pro-Iran policy and part of the US counter-insurgency campaign. From this view the US was hammering “insurgents” who tended to be Sunni Arabs and this was losing focus on the real problem in the region, which they argued was Iran. To get to Iran meant empowering Turkey.
Under this logic Turkey was seen as a “Sunni” power that would fight “Shia” Iran. There was no evidence of this as Turkey was working closely with Iran and Russia in Syria and seeking to get the US to leave Syria. The devil’s deal was that the US would enable Ankara’s crushing of Kurds in exchange for Ankara being tough on Iran. Turkey got Afrin and Tel Abyas, 300,000 Kurds were expelled, and then Turkey turned back to working with Iran, Russia, Hamas and considering deals with the Syrian regime.
Meanwhile the Kurds in eastern Syria felt isolated. Formerly amicable relations with Moscow and a kind of non-aggression understanding with Tehran fell apart as Ankara convinced Damascus, Moscow and Tehran to ditch the Syrian Kurds, arguing they were American pawns. This was difficult for those in Rojava, the eastern Kurdish part of Syria, because they had worked with the Syrian regime in Aleppo and when Turkey forced Kurds out of Afrin they came under Syrian regime control. The regime offered authoritarianism but no more ethnic cleansing. Turkey offered only killing and murder of Kurdish minorities in Syria.  
Then the US came back into the picture. US diplomat William Roebuck, the deputy envoy to Syria, seeing the chaos of the US withdrawal of October 2019, sought Kurdish unity talks with the ENKS and authorities linked to the PYD. Talks had actually stretched back to 2014. Turkey’s interest was in sabotaging them and even threatening the ENKS or KDP. Turkey, everytime it sensed the talks were moving forward would launch a mass bombing campaign of Kurds in Iraq. For instance in June when the talks progressed Turkey started Operation Claw.  
The US view of the talks was that if the PYD could share power with the ENKS then Turkey’s claims that eastern Syria was an “existential PKK terror threat” would be reduced. Turkey’s excuse for invading northern Syria and expelling Kurds was that it needed a “safe zone.” This safe zone sounded a lot like Adolf Hitler’s “living space” and invasion of Poland and Czechslovakia to those being targeted, but from Ankara’s point of view it was an easy way to get rid of Kurds in Syria and put Arab refugees in their place. Ankara’s plan was to expel Kurds and settle three million refugees in Afrin and Tel Abyad. But Ankara isn’t good at resettling people, so it mostly failed and turned Afrin into a center of militias, extremists and kidnapping. ISIS other al-Qaeda type extremists, smuggled through Turkey, even set down roots in neighboring Idlib.  
Roebuck was known to have empathy for the Kurds and a leaked memo in November 2019 indicated that he hoped no more Afrin-like tragedies would occur. The problem was that the rest of the US administration didn’t know what to do in Syria. Some wanted to back Ankara. Some wanted to fight Iran in Syria. Some wanted to stabilize. Some wanted to leave. Central Command had its favorites and the State Department had its favorites. Turkey, Iran and Russia exploited US administration chaos.
The difficulties and US chaos and Turkish threats fell on the shoulder of the Syrian Democratic Council and leaders like Ilham Ahmad. She had tried her best to speak to people in Washington and gain sympathy for the important role of the SDF and PYD in eastern Syria. Ostensibly the SDC was another one of the various umbrella groups, like TEV-DEM, representing eastern Syria. Without trying to divine which group is actually in charge, what matters is that the signal to the US and others was that the Kurds and others in eastern and northeast Syria would hold a national conference. This has been a problem because Kurds have been systematically excluded from talks in Geneva where the US, Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime and Syrian opposition have sent represents from time to time. This is largely a way for Russia to waste the opposition’s time, but at Turkey’s hectoring the US excluded its own SDF partners and civilian authorities. Ahmad said in reports on January 17 that the SDC has been in contact with Syrian groups in and outside Syria.  
Add one more layer to this. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which has been praised for enabling pluralism and rights for all religious groups in eastern Syria, is seeking to cement its role. AANES is the administration of this whole area with the SDC, PYD and others within it. The SDC also has a memorandum of understanding with Moscow. They want to resolve the Syrian crisis in accordance with UN Resolution 2254 and see a constitution drafted. Ostensibly Russia and Turkey also want this, and so does the US. The problem is that Ankara’s agenda is to rid Syria of most Kurds, which it accuses of being linked to the PKK, and empower other extremist groups. Could Ankara be palatable to an AANES that includes the Kurdish groups it works with in Iraq? That is the thought process of the US, in the final days of the Trump administration.
However the US envoys and officials working on these issues, Ambassador James Jeffrey, Roebuck and also Joel Rayburn, have left their roles. Rayburn was Deputy Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria since July 2018 and then became the Special Envoy for Syria when Jeffrey left after Trump lost the election.  
The US Embassy in Syria tweeted on January 15 that it supported the ongoing Syrian intra-Kurdish dialogue and looked forward to its continued progress. The discussions are supposed to support and complement the broader political process under UNSCR 2254. The embassy even tweeted this in Arabic and Kurdish. The embassy rarely tweets in Kurdish so this appeared to be a signal to the Kurds.  
The hurdle for the Kurds is that Ankara has sought to sabotage these talks before. Ankara-backed extremists groups continue to shell and harass people in eastern Syria, attacking Ayn Issa and the Christian communities near Tel Tamr. Women in Afrin continue to be kidnapped by Ankara-backed groups such as the Sultan Murad Division, Hamza division, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah and others.
It’s hard to reconcile when one doesn’t know if tomorrow the US will withdraw or if extremists who vow to expel minorities and kidnap women will be unleashed to attack as they were in October 2019. It’s also hard when the US administration has sent mixed signals. It’s also hard because of all the groups involved and a lack of clarity about who is calling the shots at the end of the day in the SDC and ENKS and others involved.