BEIRUT – Syria’s Kurds, who are preparing for a Turkish ground offensive against their autonomous northern region, face an additional threat: being squeezed by the warmer ties between their enemy Ankara and the Syrian government.
The Kurds – an ethnic minority living in mountainous regions in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – have long fought for their own homeland, and Turkey brands their separatist groups “terrorists”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed Kurdish armed groups for a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul this month, a charge they have strongly denied.
In recent days, Turkey has launched airstrikes on hundreds of Kurdish targets in Iraq and Syria and threatened a new ground operation in northern Syria, run by an autonomous Kurdish-led administration.
The region’s Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US troops, have led the fight against the Islamic State group in recent years.
Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, relations have sharply deteriorated between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose forces have retaken vast territories with the support of Russia.
But now there are signs of a Russian-mediated rapprochement between the Turkish and Syrian leaders, Erdogan said on Wednesday that he considered a meeting with Assad “possible”.
How did Turkey-Syria relations turn out?
Before 2011, Ankara and Damascus were political and economic partners, and Erdogan and Assad cultivated a personal friendship.
But at the start of Syria’s popular uprising, Turkey advised its ally to begin political reforms, then ordered Assad to “step down to prevent bloodshed.”
In March 2012, Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus and Erdogan began branding Assad a “murderer” and a “terrorist.”
Ankara has begun to host Syrian political opposition groups and support the rebels.
Since 2016, Turkey has launched three offensives in Syria against Kurdish forces and now controls a strip of border in Syria, citing its national security needs.
Turkish and Syrian forces clashed in early 2020 as pro-Assad fighters advanced towards the rebel-held province of Idlib, before Russia intervened to calm the situation.
How are the Syrian Kurds doing with Assad?
Before the war, the Kurds of Syria faced discrimination and were prevented, for example, from the Kurdish language school.
For the past decade, as Syrian troops have left the north and northeast, the Kurds have been able to establish limited self-government.
The Kurds avoided open hostilities with the Assad government, except for some skirmishes, and maintained good ties with American and Russian forces.
Damascus rejects the autonomous administration, accusing the Syrian Kurds of “separatism”.
Several rounds of talks brought few results, but, after Russian mediation, the Syrian army was able to deploy limited forces in Kurdish-led areas against the Turkish advance.
Are Syrian-Turkish relations heating up?
Turkey has softened its position towards the Syrian government in recent months, pushed by Russia.
Turkey’s foreign minister in August called for reconciliation between Assad and rebel groups, and the head of Turkish intelligence visited Damascus.
Erdogan said on Wednesday that he considers direct talks with Assad “possible”, saying that “there is no place for resentment in politics”.
Analysts say Russia, as it fights its war in Ukraine, is pushing for a rapprochement between the two neighbors, who both consider Kurdish fighters a common threat.
When the recent Turkish attacks killed around 20 Syrian soldiers, the response from Damascus was muted. His deputy foreign minister, Ayman Soussan, simply denounced “the pretexts invoked by the Turkish occupation to justify its policy in Syria.”
SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Abdi told AFP this week that he felt “Damascus’s position is weaker than during previous Turkish offensives” and also said there had been “contacts between two parts”.
How would a thaw affect the Syrian Kurds?
Abdi charged that Turkey’s goal is to reach an “agreement” with the Syrian government “to eradicate the experience” of Kurdish self-government.
Erdogan, who faces an election next year, would also like to start sending back millions of Syrian refugees, observers say.
For Erdogan and Assad “to be on speaking terms … means they can do business,” said analyst Aron Lund of think tank Century International.
“They have common enemies and rivals, like the SDF. They can exchange assets, for example, helping each other to kill or silence enemies located on the territory of the other, or organize the mutual extraditions.
Lund stressed that “for the SDF, any serious Ankara-Damascus reconciliation would be a disaster.”
“It removes its primary protection against Ankara – which is Damascus, backed by Russia – and allows Erdogan and Assad to move in concert to solve their Kurdish ‘problems’.
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