That said; Russia’s increased stakes in Syria, with its bolstered presence and military operations against the opposition since September 2015 is cause for concern. Moscow has clearly signalled that it is not willing to give up on its Syrian ally, and the West has seemingly given up hopes for Assad’s immediate departure, or dramatic regime change other than a mere co-optation of the willing and semi-loyal opposition to Assad.
After minor delays, the talks started this weekend under auspices of the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The Damascus delegation is headed by Syrian UN representative Bashar al-Jafaari. The opposition delegation, dubbed as the Riyadh Group since its platform was glued together in December in Saudi Arabia, is headed by Asaad al-Zoubi, a defected major general of the Syrian army from a major Sunni Arab clan, and two other opposition figures. The Riyadh Group, or High Negotiations Committee (HNC), consists of a pallet of actors ranging from exiled politicians, remnants of the Free Syrian Army, to hard-line Islamists sponsored over the course of war by Saudis and their allies.
PYD Left Out and Turkish Stakes and Fears
Salih Muslim, political leader of the PYD (Democratic Union Party), which is the main Kurdish force in Syria, is reportedly still sitting in an apartment in Geneva awaiting his invitation to the peace talks. The PYD is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian Wing. Over the course of the war, the PYD built a strong presence in Northern Syria, including the establishment of governance structures. It proved itself a capable force in the battlefield against ISIS and earned Western sympathy and a label of a rather moderate force in the Syrian theatrum belli. Despite being a considerable force, the PYD was not invited to Riyadh for the main opposition talks in December.
As a protest, the PYD organized its own parallel conference hoping it would be included in the upcoming Geneva III talks. The newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) orchestrated the talks and established the Council of Democratic Syria as its political wing. The SDF, with only a minor Arab component, is dominated and controlled by the PYD. In early October, the US finally abandoned their failed training program for “moderate Syrian rebels” and the SDF now represents their primary ally on the ground in Syria. As Aaron Lund notes, the SDF may serve as an incubator for Sunni Arab militias which may push deeper into ISIS’s heartland and into the territories which are predominantly Sunni Arab, which has not been possible with solely Kurdish forces.
The prospect of the SDF/PYD being included in the upcoming peace talks indeed made Ankara uneasy. Turkey has faced major PKK insurgency operations in the country’s southeast since last August, following the collapse of a two year ceasefire. Turkey fears that the PYD will eventually assume control over most of its border with Syria and use it as a launching pad for its operations on Turkish soil just as it did throughout the 1990s. In December, SDF forces captured Tishrin dam and secured a perimeter along the West bank of the Euphrates, despite strong Turkish opposition to such a move- which could be viewed as prelude to a push further eastwards with the ultimate goal of connecting the Kurdish cantons Afrin and Kobanî, and thus gain control of the entire Turkish-Syrian border.
On January 26, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu stated that he was promised that the PYD would not be invited to the talks. He also threatened that if the promise was broken and the PYD invited, Ankara would consider boycotting the Geneva talks. Staffan da Mistura subsequently invited Haytham Manna, the secular-leftist and Arab co-chair of the SDF, along with some other members. The SDF actually came to an agreement with Russia and proposed a common list of some fifteen people who they wished to be invited to the talks as advisers. However Haytam Manna conditioned his participation in the Geneva talks upon the invitation of PYD figures only. On January 27, the spokesman of the US Department of State Mark Toner confirmed that PYD representatives will not be participating in “this week’s talks”.
To Include, Or Not To Include PYD?
The PYD is not an insignificant player in Northern Syria. Over the course of the war, it has come to represent the traditionally fractious Syrian Kurdish political landscape. It controls the majority of the Syrian border with Turkey. Its militias proved to be a useful proxy in combating ISIS, delivering the first major victories against the group with the support of US airstrikes and other aid (for example, in Kobanî in October 2014-January 2015 or Tall Abyad in June 2015). At first glance, it seems strange that the PYD was not backed by the US to become a part of the Geneva talks or asked to join the Riyadh Group. While according to Cengiz Çandar, the PYD’s exclusion from the talks was primarily a result of Turkey’s pressure on the US, I argue that there are also other significant factors.
The PYD has been performing a careful balancing act throughout the course of the war in Syria. Its relationship with both nationalist and Islamist Arab opposition groups has always been strained and both opposition wings refused the Kurdish autonomous bid and frown upon the PYD’s ties with the regime and its allies. By the end of 2012, PYD units were engaged in regular clashes mainly with Islamist opposition groups. The PYD’s efforts to include minor Sunni Arab components or Syriac Christians in operations such as Burkan al-Firat and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) serve merely as a theatre play that is supposed to craft an image of PYD as a force willing to share power with other ethno-religious groups. In reality, all these projects are dominated by the PYD and are under their control. No wonder then that the Riyadh Group actors themselves opposed the PYD’s participation. The Riyadh Group actually has a Kurdish representative, Fuad Aliko, in the delegation. Aliko is, however, a member of the Kurdish National Council – a coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties opposing the PYD.
The PYD’s Strategic Bet
At the same time, the PYD is in a long-standing marriage of convenience with Assad’s regime. Their cooperation ranges from common deployment and defence of certain areas, such as in al-Hasaka, to military aid. After all, the PKK has a long history of contact with the Syrian regime, mainly throughout the 1990s when Damascus allowed PKK forces to use Syrian soil as a launch pad for its operations in Turkey. Moreover, the PYD is the PKK’s wing in Syria which necessarily implicates that it follows the PKK’s wider strategy in the region. And in the regional mosaic, the PKK also enjoys friendly ties with Iran (for example its current leader Cemil Bayık has cordial ties with the Iranian security apparatus), and the pro-Iranian Patriotic Union Party in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PYD has never hidden its good relationship with Moscow – Salih Muslim frequently travels there, and recently it has been announced that the PYD will be sending permanent representation there. (And with the current tense relationship between Turkey and Russia, it wouldn’t be surprising if Moscow supported the PKK against Turkey as it did in late 1980s and 1990s.)
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Regional Government dominated by Massoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is interlocked in a dispute with PKK over the Sinjar province where both Iraqi Kurdish and pro-PKK forces operate. While Barzani announced the annexation of Sinjar in November 2015 and pro-KDP actors called on PKK to leave, it doesn’t look like the PKK will do so any time soon. The Kurdistan Regional Government is a long-term Western ally in Iraq and also enjoys cordial ties with Ankara.
In the end, the PYD’s balancing act in Syria is understandable. The PYD’s goal is to retain its monopoly among the Syrian Kurds and come out of the war with as much autonomy as possible. To further these goals it turns to different supporters, including to the West, but a strategic bet seems to be placed on Damascus and its backers. In post-war Syria, Assad’s regime (with or without Assad personally) will need a foothold in Northern Syria in order to contain the rebellious Sunni Arab majority. At the same time, the “PKK/PYD card” can be played against Turkey. Although the PYD receives aerial support and weapons and the US and Special Forces are reportedly present on the ground in Qamishli, for the US, the PYD is primarily a useful tactical proxy in combating ISIS.