WASHINGTON – Supported by the United States, Syrian Kurdish groups last week announced the first step toward uniting efforts to run the northeastern part of Syria.
Since 2012, the Kurdish-majority region has largely been controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The YPG is the main element within the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
In addition to these groups, the Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS) is another major bloc that includes several political parties. The ENKS has opposed the PYD and its autonomous administration in northeast Syria.
U.S. officials hope the two sides put their differences aside and focus on improving the local administration in the war-torn country.
“We are here tonight to celebrate the progress that has been made, which is significant,” Ambassador William Roebuck, deputy special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, told reporters last Wednesday in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasaka.
For months, the U.S. has been mediating negotiations between the two Kurdish sides to obtain agreement on a political framework that will allow them to participate in a joint administration for northeast Syria.
Following the announcement, the U.S. Embassy in Syria issued a statement, saying the initial agreement will cover governance, administrative cooperation and protection.
“The United States welcomes this as an important step towards greater understanding and practical cooperation, which will benefit the Syrian Kurdish people, as well as Syrians of all components,” the embassy said in a statement last week.
The U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended its operations in 2012 following a Syrian government crackdown on protesters during the early days of the country’s civil war. But the embassy maintains contact with the Syrian public through social media.
Stabilizing NE Syria
Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, says the U.S. wants to align the Syrian Kurdish parties in order to stabilize northeast Syria, as Washington continues its campaign against IS.
“A major U.S. goal is to diversify the political actors in northeast Syria and to provide a Turkish-approved Syrian Kurdish party with the opportunity to participate in governance and security in northeast Syria,” he told VOA.
“Uniting the Syrian Kurdish factions is a local move with geopolitical implications for U.S. policy on Syria and the U.S.-led effort to execute counter-ISIS operations,” Heras said, using another acronym for Islamic State.
Considered close to Turkey, the ENKS has expressed willingness to participate in the local administration established by the PYD.
“The success of this agreement depends on how much the U.S. can support it while investing in our region politically,” said Sulaiman Oso, an ENKS leader.
Other Kurdish officials say such unity efforts are important to protect the gains they have made against IS and other militant groups throughout the Syrian civil war.
“Turkey and the Syrian regime are trying to damage our gains, but we have been able to create a consensus amongst ourselves, which will prevent these actors from exploiting our divisions,” Mazloum Abdi, general commander of SDF, told VOA.
Heras says the push by the U.S. for Syrian Kurdish unity “could also assuage Turkey’s concerns about a PYD-dominated order in northeast Syria sufficiently to forestall future Turkish military action against the SDF.”
Turkey views the YPG and PYD as extensions of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a decades long war with Turkish armed forces for greater Kurdish rights. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.
In the past two years, Turkey and its allied Syrian militias have seized several Kurdish towns in northern Syria that were previously held by the YPG.
In what appeared to be a response to the recent Syrian Kurdish talks, Turkish officials said that any organizations that work with the PKK will be considered legitimate targets, including the ENKS.
“Whatever their names are, those who are with the YPG-PKK are not different in our eyes from the YPG-PKK, and they are legitimate targets,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with CNN Turk television last week.
Two days after the Syrian Kurdish unity announcement, the Turkish military launched a campaign against what Turkey calls elements of the PKK militant group in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
Ilhan Tanir, an editor with the Turkish website Ahval News, believes Turkey will focus its efforts on spoiling the unity talks.
“We have already seen that Ankara, both by threatening ENKS and bombing Iraqi Kurdistan, has shown it is unhappy with the talks and will do more to halt such a joint administration,” Tanir told VOA.
But Kurdish officials believe a solid partnership between the different factions in Syria would strengthen their political status at the regional level.
“It will ultimately protect our region from threats by other states who accuse the PYD of being a PKK affiliate,” Oso said of the ENKS.