Events are moving very fast in northern Syria, so fast it is hard to keep track of all the different threads and what they mean. But one thing seems clear – the Americans and the Kurds are working together because their interests coincide. The Americans want a ground force with whom they can coordinate air strikes to push back ISIS, and the Kurds want to control and link up their three separate cantons along the Turkish border. So far so good, but what is the deal they have struck with each other?
Following the surprisingly quick fall of Tel Abyad to the Kurds last week, their YPG forces have now sped south and taken the town of Ain Issa from ISIS control, along with the nearby military base of Brigade 93 and surrounding villages. It is a half-way point to Raqqa, ISIS headquarters, just 50km further south, so have they really agreed to take on ISIS in its heartland, aided by US air strikes? Such a move would be highly audacious and unless the Americans already have intelligence that Raqqa is not as strong as it projects itself, would inevitably cost many Kurdish lives. The Kurds would want a big reward for such a project. What might that be?
Ain Issa is also at a junction of roads heading northwest across the Euphrates near the medieval castle of Qal’at Najm, towards Manbij and Jarabalus, a region the Kurds would have to control if they wanted to link up with their third and most isolated canton of Afrin, northwest of Aleppo. Is that a realistic ambition?
The biggest question is whether or not a grand but as yet undeclared American strategy in the region has now been formulated, using their willing Kurdish partners on the ground to strike at the heart of ISIS in Raqqa and deal it a blow from which it may struggle to recover. With its main supply routes via the Turkish border cut off at Tel Abyad and the Kurds increasingly controlling the Turkish/Syrian frontier areas, ISIS may indeed suddenly be vulnerable at its heart. If Raqqa were to fall the blow to ISIS PR and its image of invincibility would be massive. How deep into Syria’s non-Kurdish territory might the Kurds be persuaded to go? As far as Palmyra for example, just two hours’ drive south from Raqqa?
The picture is confused by many factors. How will the Kurds be received in predominantly Arab areas when there is a clear perception that their YPG forces have been conducting some ‘ethnic cleansing’ exercises in Tel Abyad and other towns they have taken? Arabs are said to feel unwelcome in Rojava, yet Al-Jazeera TV has shown pictures of some Arab families returning to their unlooted homes, even being reunited with their abandoned livestock.
Then there is Turkey’s position, now even more confused by the recent election results, giving more parliamentary representation to the Kurds than at any other time in their history. Today is the first day that efforts to form a ruling coalition are starting in Turkey, with President Erdogan and his dominant AK party increasingly hysterical about the dangers emanating from the strengthening of the Kurds along the Syrian border. Were the Kurds to succeed in joining up their three cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Hassakeh the consequences for Turkey would be considerable: it would put paid to their hopes of a no-fly zone along the border inside Syria and might even permit the Kurds to open up a corridor for an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean from Iraqi Kurdistan. Maybe this is even what has been promised to them by America as their reward for combating Islamic State.
The future of such grand schemes will depend above all on the ability of the Kurds to win over the other ethnic groups with whom they share this territory – Arabs, Turkmens, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Armenians, Chechens. They must prove that their declared intention – to build a democratic life free from race, religion and gender discrimination – is mirrored in their actions. Let us hope that at least is part of the deal.