The Platform

U.S. soldiers stationed in Syria in 2021. (Jensen Guillory)

To secure vast swaths of his broken country, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might need the help of Syrian Kurds.

Since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent re-election, there has been an escalation of attacks on Kurdish-held regions in northeastern Syria. Erdogan’s ongoing animus towards the Syrian Kurds has become increasingly evident. For instance, earlier this year, Turkish authorities controlling parts of northwestern Syria even refused to grant permission for humanitarian convoys to cross into earthquake-affected areas controlled by the Kurds. With his recent victory, Erdogan has grown bolder and is likely to continue his aggressive policies toward the Kurds.

While Syrian Kurds do have some support from the United States, with a small contingent of American troops stationed in Syria since 2015, the Kurdish experiment of self-rule within Syria, facilitated by the U.S. military presence, is now looking precarious. Although the United States claims it has no immediate plans to withdraw from Syria, its focus has shifted due to the war in Ukraine and the strategic challenges posed by China. Consequently, Syria is no longer a top priority for Washington, and the Kurds cannot rely solely on long-term U.S. protection.

At this stage, the only viable long-term solution for the safety of Syrian Kurds is a political agreement with the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Similar to their counterparts in Iraq, Syrian Kurds will ultimately need to find common ground with Damascus to ensure their continued survival. However, this is not a simple task, as the Kurdish dream of maintaining an autonomous entity within a future federated Syrian state is threatened not only by Turkey but also by a resurgent Syrian regime that opposes any autonomous zones within the country. Nonetheless, there are potential areas for mutual cooperation that can be explored between Damascus and the Kurds.

During the conflict, Syria’s Baathist state and the Kurds have largely stayed out of each other’s way, despite occasional clashes. There has been a tacit understanding between Assad and the Kurds regarding the administration of the region from which the Syrian army withdrew in 2012. For example, state government employees in this region continued to receive salaries from Damascus, and the regime maintained control of the airport in the Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli, as well as some security centers in the city. This existing understanding can serve as a basis for future detailed negotiations.

Although Bashar al-Assad has vowed to reclaim “every inch” of his country, he currently lacks the forces to do so, and more than a decade of war has severely damaged and weakened the Syrian armed forces. Integrating battle-hardened Kurdish forces within the Syrian army would provide a significant advantage to Damascus. The Kurds need assistance from Assad’s forces to protect them from Turkey’s onslaught, while the Syrian military would find the Kurds essential for governing and helping secure northern Syria.

To reach a mutually beneficial agreement, both parties must acknowledge certain realities. The Kurds need to recognize that, given the current circumstances with Turkey’s opposition and limited support from the U.S. and the West, their demands for extensive autonomy within a decentralized federal state in Syria and the preservation of Kurdish forces as an independent military entity will not be accepted by Damascus. Conversely, Assad must acknowledge that, despite emerging victorious from the civil war, he cannot rule Syria with the same authoritative mindset as before the war. Furthermore, the Kurds’ demands are not unreasonable. The two million Kurds in Syria, accounting for 10-15% of the total population, have sought nothing more than a degree of autonomy, a desire that was always denied to them even before the civil war. Damascus can fulfill some of their basic demands, such as cultural rights and a form of local autonomy for governance.

Syria is a diverse society consisting of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkomans, Alawites, and Yazidis. All parties must recognize that collective efforts are necessary to rebuild Syria and ensure the well-being of all its ethnic groups. A starting point could be the coming together of the Syrian government and the Kurds, as their territories account for most of Syria. It is worth noting that in the 2000s when Erdogan led his AKP party to victory and formed his first government, an actual deal was reached with the outlawed PKK. This resulted in the granting of certain cultural rights to the Kurds, such as the use of the Kurdish language in broadcasting, education, and print media. In return, the PKK softened its demands for a separate Kurdish state. If Turkey and the Kurds can reach some sort of agreement, there is no reason why Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Kurds cannot do the same. It will require sincere and honest efforts from both sides.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.