ERBIL, Iraq – Syrian Kurdish fighters recently secured U.S. backing, independent of the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), for the battle in Raqqa. But now that the offensive is well underway – with no guarantee of U.S. support once the so-called Islamic State is defeated – Syrian Kurdish political officials are looking to secure foreign backing that extends beyond the militant group’s defeat.
Kurdish political allegiances have been fickle throughout the conflict in Syria – with their main goal to preserve their autonomy and control over territory they gained in the north. However, the Syrian conflict’s playing field is becoming increasingly complex, drawing in foreign proxies closer to direct confrontation.
In response, Syrian Kurdish political officials are publicly positioning themselves against other potential threats to U.S. interests, at the risk of burning the bridges of former alliances.
Though the White House administration says that fighting ISIS remains its top priority, the U.S. recently hit Syrian army and pro-government targets in defense of its interests. Last month, U.S. jets hit Iranian-backed militiamen in southeastern Syria, and shot down a Syrian regime jet the coalition claimed had “dropped bombs near SDF fighters” after attacking an SDF-held town.
According to its official statement, the coalition acted to defend its partner forces but “does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them.” A few days later, however, the Trump administration took on a more vocal position against Iran’s presence in Syria.
“Nor can we allow Iran to jeopardize our gains and fuel instability in ISIS’s wake, by placing foreign proxies anywhere near the border regions with Jordan and Israel,” Brett McGurk, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, said at a conference in Tel Aviv on June 22.
With tensions rising between U.S. and Iranian proxies on the ground and amid ISIS’ weakening in the region, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish officials have taken on an increasingly anti-Iran rhetoric.
In May, Iran-backed militias in Iraq reached the border with Syria and expressed their willingness to link up with their counterparts across the frontier, which would strengthen Tehran’s position in the region and with the Syrian government.
Though the SDF, which controls the other side of the border, said they would not allow this link up of Iran-backed forces, some suggested that Tehran would work with the Kurdish political units. However, Ilham Ahmed, a top Syrian Kurdish official told Syria Deeply, the Kurdish political groups “do not agree with such kind of ethnic projects in this area.”
“We think that this power [Iran] prevented the [President Bashar al-] Assad regime from accepting our project for democratic change in Syria,” she added.
In an interview with the Saudi Riyadh newspaper, the co-head of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim said there was an Iranian-Qatari-Turkish alliance to undermine the Kurds in Syria. “This alliance with its tools is dangerous for all the people of the Middle East, and for all the humanity,” he told Riyadh.
The PYD’s statement left some in Washington surprised. In the past, Syrian Kurdish officials opposed Saudi influence in northern Syria, since Saudi backed the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition. But things are now changing.
“I don’t know what to make out of it, Salih Muslim and PYD officials don’t really put out statements unless they are reacting to something, the PYD is a very pragmatic organization,” an anonymous U.S. official told Syria Deeply. “This could worsen the relationship with the regime and Iran. Maybe they do that to get more popular within the U.S.”
If Saudi Arabia decided to align itself with Turkey, Kurdish official Ahmed said, “There would be no chance for these of kinds of relations.” But for now, she added, “there is no direct conflict between us and Saudi Arabia.”
Sam Heller, a Beirut-based analyst and fellow at the Century Foundation, told Syria Deeply that this change in political stance was already in the works. Syrian Kurdish officials have recently shown more support for Saudi Arabia since its conflict with Qatar broke out and Turkey aligned itself with Doha, even sending Turkish army units last month.
“Qatar’s Syria policy has been closely intertwined with Turkey’s, even if the two allies have occasionally diverged. So, to the extent that Turkey is the PYD-YPG’s [People’s Protection Units] prime strategic adversary, then it makes sense for the Kurds to do what they can to weaken the Qatari-Turkish axis and to reach out to this rival regional coalition,” he said.
A strong alliance with Saudi Arabia could also benefit Syrian Kurds in negotiations about Syria’s political future. In 2015, Riyadh played a key role in establishing the main Syrian opposition bloc, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which, until recently, was the main opposition delegation invited to international peace talks.
At Turkey’s request, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party was not invited to negotiations. Sihanouk Dibo, the PYD presidential adviser in the city of Qamishli, told Syria Deeply that he thinks Saudi Arabia could use its leverage to help get the Kurds a seat at the table.
The potential for an alliance with Saudi Arabia to also extend to Riyadh’s allies is high.
“Moreover, some members of this anti-Qatar bloc – because of their anti-Islamism and hostility to Turkey – are natural allies for the PYD-YPG. In particular, the Emirates seem interested in forging closer ties … so the Emirati role in supporting the PYD-YPG and mediating between local Kurdish and Arab forces seems likely to be significant going forward,” Heller said.
This anti-Islamist and anti-Turkish stance helped Kurdish groups forge a relationship with the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt even before the Qatari-Gulf crisis, senior Kurdish officials told Syria Deeply.
The SDF is fighting ISIS in Syria alongside the Syrian Elite Forces, the all Arab faction in the U.S.-led coalition, with strong ties to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. On June 10, several opposition groups including SEF leader Ahmad Jarba’s political party, Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, visited Ramalan to discuss with Kurdish officials the future of Syria.
Both a position against Iran and one that supports Saudi Arabia and its allies could make a future partnership with the Syrian Kurdish political unit an attractive option for the U.S., Nicholas A. Heras, Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) told Syria Deeply.
“The Trump team also wants a Gulf Arab presence for stability operations in post-ISIS Syria … [and] doesn’t want this to be just an American operation … and the SDF areas of Syria offers them that opportunity,” he concluded.
It remains to be seen whether or not these potential alliances will become the reality on the ground. What is clear is that the Syrian Kurdish new political stances have enforced the PYD’s reputation as a “very pragmatic organization,” the U.S. official said.
“A lot of our people see the PYD just as a regime ally, but this is inaccurate and simplistic,” he said. “They play everyone off against each other.”