Syrian Kurds declare autonomy —at what price?

Syrian Kurds on March 17 formally declared a "Federation of Northern Syria," uniting their three autonomous cantons into one entity, in an announcement quickly denounced by the Assad regime, the opposition and regional powers alike. Democratic Union Party (PYD) official Idris Nassan said the federation brings together "areas of democratic self-administration" encompassing all the Rojava region's ethnic and religious groups. The decision was approved at a meeting in the town of Rmeilan (Jazira canton), attended by some 200 representatives of Kurdish, Arab, Armenian, Turkmen and Syriac communities. (Middle East Eye)

PYD co-leader Salih Muslim Mohammed said the new federation should be seen as a model for Syria, and denied the project was specifically Kurdish. "There is no autonomous Kurdish region, so there is no question of recognizing it or not," he told Middle East Eye. "It is part of a democratic Syria, and it might expand all over Syria. We want to decentralize Syria… The name is not important, we call it a democratic Syrian federalism… The federalism we talk about is not a geographical line. Maybe tomorrow it’s going to be expanded to Raqqa, and other places. Maybe even the people of Deraa will join."

Raqqa is of course the ISIS capital. His invocation of Deraa seems an overture to the opposition, as that is where the revolution started in March 2011 (by school-children who painted anti-regime slogans on a wall).

The US responded to the move negatively. "We don't support self-ruled, semi-autonomous zones inside Syria. We just don't," said State Department spokesman John Kirby. "What we want to see is a unified, whole Syria that has in place a government that is not led by Bashar Assad… Whole, unified, non-sectarian Syria, that's the goal." (Reuters, Feb. 17) (Of course the declared Federation is explicitly non-sectarian.)

The Damascus regime of course has flatly rejected a federalist model for post-war Syria. However, just days before the announcement a Russian official said federalism could be a possible model. (Reuters) Only Moscow has been silent since the announcement. The Russian response will shed light on how valuable the Kurds are seen by Moscow as potential proxies

The announcement also comes as "indirect" talks between the regime and opposition open in Geneva—with the Kurds excluded. Russia has advocated for the Kurds' inclusion.

We've noted the theory that Obama and Putin have cut a deal for the partition of Syria into "spheres of influence." Under this theory, Russia is to secure an Assad-controlled "rump state" around Damascus and Latakia, while the US and Turkey will protect opposition-controlled zones in Syria's west. This leaves in question the vast east of the country—largely divided between ISIS in the south and PYD-led Rojava in the north. Was the Rojava autonomy declaration related to this? And will Moscow try to get Assad to accept Kurdish autonomy—even as a temporary measure? The declaration of autonomy—officially the "Rojava and Northern Syria United Democratic System Document"—is prominently posted on the embarassingly, blatantly pro-Assad website Syria 360°, which may be a sign.

Turkey of course bitterly opposes the PYD and the Rojava revolution, and is now said to be backing a new Kurdish faction within the Free Syrian Army—which boasts that it is prepared to stop the PYD armed force, the People's Protection Units (YPG), from seizing further ground along the Turkish border. The "Grandsons of Salahadin" are said to be involved in the fighting between the YPG and FSA-aligned factions at Azaz

Mahmoud Abu Hamza, a Grandsons of Salahadin commander based in Turkey, told Middle East Eye his group is backed by both the US and Turkey. "Turkey doesn't support us with arms. Our arms are American," he said. Of their fight against the YPG, he said: "It is not because they are Kurds, but because they are agents of the regime and the Russian." However, the force is only said to have 600 fighters. Global Security puts the YPG's troop strength at between 30,000 and 50,000.

Any Great Power deal over Syria is propelled by two imperatives: to avert a global conflict between Russia and the West, and to unite against the common threat of ISIS. Despite Moscow's accounced (partial) withdrawal from Syria, Russian air-strikes continue. But after months of the cynical propaganda trick of bombing the FSA while pretending to bomb ISIS, Russia on March 18 finally did attack ISIS. Actual Russian strikes on ISIS have heretofore been largely token. Now Moscow's warplanes are backing a regime drive to take back Palmyra from ISIS. (Al Arabiya, March 18)

And this is happening just as US Secretary of State John Kerry in a speech at the State Department declared that ISIS "is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims." This marks the first time the US officially declared a finding of genocide since the Darfur case in 2004. (Jurist, March 17)

It is worth noting that Rmeilan, where the Rojava autonomy declaration was issued, is where the Pentagon is said to be preparing an air-base to support the YPG and its greater coaltiion, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), against ISIS. The Pentagon issued requite denials that it is building any base at the site, which is in the Rojava canton of Jazira and the "official" Syrian governorate of Hasakeh. Still, the US acknowledges it has sent about 50 special operations troops into northern Syria, to help train and equip the SDF. (AFP, March 7; Reuters, March 6)

The Rojava Kurds and their local allies will certainly face a challenge in maintaining their autonomy amid the Great Game for Syria.