Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) emerged in the milieu resulting from the total breakdown of civil society in Syria following the emergence of the Islamic State and the division of the country by various Sunni extremist rebel groups led by boisterous warlords, with a good amount of ‘secular’ rebels (secular only in the sense of not being outright Islamic extremists).
The Syrian government’s response to the official declaration of Rojava in 2014, which now functions as an autonomous region within the country, was initially extremely hostile, and the government treated Rojava like any other area controlled by rebels; this has now changed. Assad has given Rojava a large degree of unofficial recognition, and the two governments are in full communication with each other. Rojava was also recognized by pro-Assad Russia, which opened up a Rojavan consulate in Moscow last year.
Relations between the two improved after Salih Muslim Muhammad, the ‘president’ of Rojava, officially stated that he would not seek independence and that the country would remain an autonomous region within the Syrian Arab Republic. This was a great reassurance to Assad. In return for these overtures, the Syrian government began assisting Rojava on the world stage, such as by formally protesting at Turkey’s rampant, illegal, and genocidal bombing campaigns on Syrian Kurdistan – targets of which include schools, hospitals, and offices of the legitimate government there.
Recently, things have changed. Brief exchanges of fire between Syrian Army troops and Rojavan troops have led to increased tensions. Last week, the Syrian Airforce began air strikes in Hasakah (the second city of Rojava) without warning, killing 20 civilians (mostly farmers) hospitalizing dozens more, and causing serious damage to infrastructure. Hasakah is a city in which power is shared between the Syrian government and Rojava, and although tensions have occasionally flared up with small arms fire being exchanged between sides in recent months, for Assad to engage in airstrikes against the city is a first since the diplomatic reprieve between the two sides. Thankfully, the US scrambled jets over Hasakah to prevent further air action by the Syrian government, but the situation remains tense and it is impossible to say how things will develop from here.
This morning, Turkish tanks rolled into Syrian Kurdistan as the Turkish army commenced a full-scale invasion of the area around the border city of Jarablus. The incursion is completely illegal under international law. While Turkey has previously been engaged in a brutal and close to genocidal airstrike campaign against Rojava, a campaign noted for making no distinction between civilian and governmental targets, this may represent a change in the conflict. Turkey’s desire to annihilate any possibility of a resurgent Kurdish nationalism in the region could lead to an attempt to eradicate Rojava itself.
What happens next is crucial. The Kurds in northern Syria are an indigenous people to the region and they are there to stay. They have established a pluralistic, nonsectarian government along democratic and federal lines that allows no discrimination against the Arab population in the region. Rojava has done its best to reassure Assad that it will not seek independence, and is content with remaining within the Syrian Arab Republic as an autonomous region.
If Assad allows this incursion by Turkey to continue without further protest, it will signal that the Syrian government has changed its stance towards Rojava from toleration murderous hostility. It must be understood that from the Kurdish perspective, the only purpose of remaining within Syria as an autonomous region is peaceful relations with Assad. If this is not possible, Rojava will likely seek full independence as its sole recourse.
We are witnessing a key time in the history of the Syrian Civil War and the Kurdish people. If Assad will not allow Arabs and Kurds to coexist, then brutal, bloody war will be the only possible outcome.