Russian President Vladimir Putin recently held a summit to discuss the peace process in Syria. He invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Notably, there were no U.S. officials in attendance. Although finalizing a peace settlement in Syria is not imminent, the United States needs to ensure that it plays an active role in these peace discussions. A peace agreement solely created by Russia, Turkey, and Iran will not adequately represent U.S. interests in Syria. In addition, it is likely that a peace agreement created by these countries will negatively impact the Kurds, who have been an invaluable ally to the United States in the fight against the Islamic State and in stabilizing the region. Both Turkey and Iran are hostile to Kurdish interests, thus in any Syrian peace agreement, the United States must push for the establishment of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan.
Both Turkey and Iran have a history of oppression, harassment, and violence with the Kurds in their respective nations. Neither nation would advocate for Kurdish autonomy, despite the Kurds’ prominent role in the fight against the Islamic State. In December, President Erdogan announced plans to attack both the Islamic State and the Syrian Kurds. Despite the tenuous connection, Turkey believes that the Syrian Kurdish minority is a front for a domestic Kurdish terrorist organization within their own state. The United States was able to deter the Turkish government from carrying out this attack, but these plans clearly demonstrate the consequences of unrestrained Turkish hostility to the Kurds. Iran is also hostile to the Kurds. In September, the Iranian military launched a missile attack on a base in Iraqi Kurdistan in an effort to dismantle Iranian-Kurdish independence movements.Turkish and Iranian militaries have discussed coordinating attacks on both the Syrian Kurds and the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish state. Clearly, without U.S. involvement in the Syrian peace process, there will not be acknowledgement of the crucial role the Syrian Kurds played in the fight against the Islamic State and they will be victimized by both Turkey and Iran.
Similar to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region in Iraq, using the peace process to create an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan would allow the Kurds to govern themselves and maintain their own armed forces while ultimately being under the authority of the Syrian government. Syrian Kurds have already done much of the hard work to create their own autonomous state, through declaring the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) and creating a constitution, holding elections, and forming the basis of a functioning democratic government. Unlike in the past when the United States has attempted to build or rebuild entire countries, advocating for an independent Syrian Kurdish state would utilize the government infrastructure already in place. In addition, the DFNS, although nascent, represents many of the values the U.S. government promotes abroad. DFNS is democratic and holds fair and free elections, supports free speech and a free press, is welcoming and open to non-Kurdish ethno-religious groups, supports environmental conservation, and is a strong advocate of gender equality. In addition, an autonomous Kurdish region would provide protection for Kurds and other minorities in Syria from future persecution. They have clearly demonstrated their dedication to fighting Islamic extremism and their ability to work well with the United States. The DFNS have been instrumental in many key battles, and are one of the main forces currently working with the United States to take back the final towns held by the Islamic State in southeast Syria and have so far been very successful.
Finally, supporting this initiative would be in line with U.S. interests. During the Obama and Trump administrations, the U.S. Department of State has been very supportive of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish state. U.S. support for the DFNS demonstrates a consistent policy and loyalty to its allies in the Middle East. If the United States remains aloof from the Syrian peace process and does not advocate for its Kurdish allies, there will be severe consequences for the United States and for the Kurds. If the United States abandons the Kurds once the fighting has ended, U.S. credibility will further deteriorate in the Middle East. In the future, it will become more difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to build future anti-terrorism coalitions. In addition, it may give the United States another enemy in an already fraught region. The Kurds, in turn, will face continued attacks from Iran and Turkey, and likely further aggression from a re-unified Syrian government.
Despite the backlash from Iran and Turkey, the U.S. government needs to advocate for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria to remain in-tact under any new Syrian peace agreement. Doing so will preserve U.S. credibility in the Middle East and create some stability in a new Syria.
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Emily Weber is an M.A. candidate in International Affairs focusing on International Security Studies and U.S. Foreign Policy at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She currently works in government relations.