Syria has undergone more drastic and chaotic shifts within the past month than it probably has throughout the past nine years of its conflict. The House of Assad now suffers from a rift caused by the president’s own cousin – the influential wealthy businessman Rami Makhlouf – who took to Facebook last week to voice his treatment by the regime, which froze his assets late last year and has kept him under house arrest in an unknown location within the country ever since. By voicing his grievances, Makhlouf did the unthinkable: he spoke out and challenged his cousin, taking on the only undisputed figure within the regime and his British-born wife.
Bashar Al-Assad’s ally Russia has also been giving him a hard time in recent months, with Russian media calling Al-Assad “weak”, the former envoy to Syria slamming Al-Assad’s actions and saying that his regime has become a burden on Russia, and with a report revealing that Russia, Iran and Turkey had allegedly agreed to remove the Syrian dictator. This only added to revelations of other humiliating details coming to light about Russia having sent its defence minister to Damascus in March in order to prevent Al-Assad from re-launching the offensive – at the request of the UAE – to capture the north-west province of Idlib following a ceasefire deal.
With his allies questioning Al-Assad’s very credibility to rule after the ongoing nine-year civil war, the rampant crime subsequently taking place throughout the country and the lack of reforms, the regime and its reputation has been dealt a blow.
Another shift has been taking place in the ravaged country, however, and has largely gone unnoticed by many in the international community or even in the region itself, barring Turkey. At the beginning of May, a French delegation visited north-east Syria to secretly hold talks with the Kurdish militias of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), People’s Protection Units (YPG) and other Kurdish political groups.
The delegation’s reported goal was to bring together the various factions and parties in order to form a united front, which would include the competing Syrian Kurdish National Council (ENKS), Kurdish National Alliance in Syria (HNKS) and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – affiliated with the designated terror group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
This visit was also preceded by a trip by senior US Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS William Roebuck on 26 April, who met with Kurdish representatives in the country’s north-east and informed them that he was pleased with recent efforts towards unity between the factions.
Turkey, predictably, quickly condemned the meetings earlier this week, saying that rather than bringing unity to the region, the talks were in fact creating “international representation space” for the “terrorist organisation in northern Syria”, in reference to the PKK.
Ultimately, the French delegation’s plan failed after Syrian Kurds themselves under the Syria’s Independent Kurdish Association (SBKR) rejected the unity talks between the ENKS and the PYD, telling the latter group to withdraw from the territory in north-east Syria. A statement released by the SBRK said the meetings are “contrary to the will of the people who are suffering the worst under the authority of agents, forced military recruitment and dragging their children to death,” referring to kidnappings and forced recruitment of young men that the Kurdish militias were reported to have committed during Turkey’s ‘Operation Peace Spring’ late last year.
Abdulaziz Temo, the president of the SBKR, stated: “When we established our association body our aim was not to let PYD represent all Kurds in Syria on international platforms. Our enemy is the Assad regime, not Turkey, as the PYD claims. They have been used as mercenaries in the pretext of fighting Daesh.”
Although the French plan to unite the factions did not work this time, it is not the first instance in which Western delegations have visited the Syrian Kurds for the same reason, with US delegations having made trips to north-east Syria over the years for much the same purpose. Indeed, the US’ latest such trip to Syrian Kurds at the end of April saw US envoy Roebuck call on the factions to unite to form a joint civil administration and a Kurdish delegation which would take part in international talks on the Syrian conflict.
One thing that remained consistent with all of these delegations, however, was the lack of a stated aim of why exactly they wanted to unify the Kurdish factions.
Moves to strike up Kurdish unity are not simply a geopolitical effort to gain a French or American foothold or a greater role in the ongoing conflict, but are part of a direct effort to groom the Kurds with the aim of further dividing Syria. The country has long been divided, practically speaking, with the regime’s crackdown on protests and the ensuing civil war having cracked open sectarian tensions and resulted in a patchwork of alliances and enmities.
By making secret overtures to the Syrian Kurds in the name of unity, however, Western powers such as France and the US seek to use them as one of their cards in the Syrian crisis. This is not to say that they aim to establish any notions of an independent Kurdistan or to ignite a separatist movement in the eastern Euphrates region of Syria, but by pandering to the factions and attempting to be their mediators they are placing themselves in a position in which those could potentially be options in the future.
France, along with the US, is enacting the oldest colonial method in the book by trying to manipulate the Syrian Kurdish factions. Like any colonial power, it does not directly lend its full support to one player in a conflict but rather gives some support to different players, so that whichever one emerges the strongest and the most victorious will already be in the colonial power’s trust.
The prelude to a Sykes-Picot 2.0 may well be underway, in which the Kurds could play a part, under Western patronage. Syria and the region will not be more united, though, but ever more divided.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.