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The fresh violence came days after Syrian war planes bombed in and around the Kurdish stronghold of Hasakeh for the first time on Thursday, forcing the US to scramble jets to halt any regime strikes that might endanger the 300 US military advisers aiding Kurdish forces.
“We’ve informed the Russians where we’re at … [they] tell us they’ve informed the Syrians, and I’d just say that we will defend ourselves if we feel threatened,” said Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the US commander for Syria and Iraq, in comments to CNN on Sunday.
Not since the war began five years ago has the US taken such direct measures to protect Kurdish fighters on the ground.
The escalation prompted Russia to launch a mediation bid on Sunday, and the renewed violence overnight came amid conflicting reports on whether a ceasefire had been agreed; Kurdish forces have denied Syrian military and state media reports that a deal was reached.
While the Assad regime and the Kurdish forces share a common enemy in the Islamic State (IS) group, last week’s clashes reflect the increasingly fraught state of play in a country being ripped apart by multiple opposing campaigns. Until the clashes in Hasakeh, regime forces have mainly been fighting rebels in the west while the Kurds have concentrated on IS group targets in northern Syria.
“Previously, it seemed that the Assad regime saw the Kurds as the least of its problems and hence, there was not much confrontation between the two,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.
“Indeed some elements, including Turkey, even accused the Kurds of cooperating with Assad,” she told FRANCE 24.
Russian and US forces are both battling the IS group in Syria but often work at cross purposes. Moscow believes a strengthened Assad offers the best counterweight to IS group advances while Washington says perpetuating the Assad regime quashes any hope of bringing long-term stability in Syria.
As allies of the United States, the Kurds have been a key part of the US-led coalition campaign in Syria and make up 60 percent of the Syrian Democratic Forces helping to fight the IS group on the ground.
But the expansion of Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria has wider implications for how the US and Russia pursue their joint goal of defeating the IS group, Lindenstrauss says. Russia may now increase pressure on the US to rethink its strategy against the jihadist group, especially if Turkey expresses serious objections to further Kurdish advances in the north.
Some believe that the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria have close ties to the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), which both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the US government classify as a terrorist organisation. Ankara fears that the Kurdish push against the IS group is partly aimed at carving out a Kurdish autonomous region along Turkey’s southern border.
So far, Turkey’s position has been to distance itself from the developments on the ground in Syria. But on Saturday, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced a possible change of tack, saying Turkey will be taking on a greater role in Syria to stop it from being split along ethnic lines.
“In the six months ahead of us, we shall be playing a more active role,” Yildirim said. “It means not allowing Syria to be divided along ethnic lines … ensuring that its government is not based on ethnic [divisions].”
Yildirim went on to reiterate that there was no future for Assad in Syria. “The United States knows and Russia knows that Assad does not appear to be someone who can bring [the people] together,” he said.
“There may be talks [with Assad] for the transition. A transition may be facilitated. But we believe that there should be no [Kurdish rebels], Daesh or Assad in Syria’s future,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for the IS group.
“Yildirim may be implying a growing cooperation between Turkey, Russia and Iran towards a settlement of the Syrian civil war that will emphasise maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria,” said Lindenstrauss.
But Turkey-US relations could also be put to the test if Erdogan continues to reach out to Tehran and Moscow, she added.
The Kurdish question
In another sign of the growing animosity between Kurds and the Assad regime, Syria’s army recently described the Kurdish fighters as a branch of the PKK, a notion the group rejected on Saturday.
“Pro-Assad fighters see any independence movement as threatening the security of the regime,” said Muzaffer Senel, director of the Center for Modern Turkish Studies at Istanbul Sehir University.
He added that US forces’ current policy of backing Kurdish militias in Syria will not be enough to defeat either the IS group or the Assad regime. “Instead they are fostering the fragmentation of Syria,” said Senel.
Turkish-Kurdish peace talks collapsed following elections in June 2015, when the liberal and pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) secured 13% of the vote to deny Erdogan’s ruling AKP party its single-party majority for the first time in more than a decade. But in subsequent months a wave of terror attacks by Kurdish separatists weakened the party’s political legitimacy.
Turkish analysts like Mehmet Kaya, chairman of the Dicle Communal Research Center in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, have called for a new round of reconciliation talks to improve the security situation inside Turkey. “Attacks in cities like Elazig, where the Turks and the Kurds coexist, are laying the foundation for a possible Turkish-Kurdish confrontation,” Kaya said in an article in Deutsche Welle. “The government must take steps to diffuse this very dangerous development and end the conflict.”
Senel believes some Kurdish groups are capitalising on the prominent role Kurds have played in fighting the IS group, which “has given them the confidence to attack Turkey”, he said.
He added that US and Turkish interests are diverging on the issue of Syria, which could also further complicate Turkish-Kurdish relations.
Lindenstrauss notes that the continuing violence between all parties to the Syrian conflict and “the complexity of the situation” make it difficult to find a more coherent approach.
“Unless a complete ceasefire is achieved, there will continue to be inherent contradictions in US and other countries’ policies,” she said.