The ceasefire in northern Syria offers an opportunity. Europe must seize it and offer the warring parties control of the planned buffer zone.
Mission accomplished? Mike Pence negotiated at least a temporary ceasefire Photo: dpa
Ceasefire in northern Syria? Sounds good. But this is only a window of five days, if it holds, in which to succeed in what has not worked for months: finding a solution for the Syrian-Turkish border area that everyone can agree to. Leaving the 30-kilometer-deep zone to Turkey without a fight so that it can settle 2 million Syrian refugees there is out of the question for the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) and their political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The area is home to centers of Kurdish self-government such as Qamishli and Kobane, which the Kurds believe should not end up as Turkish protectorates. The YPG are only willing to withdraw from the border if the region is controlled by allies. The crucial question is therefore: Who will take over if the Kurdish militias withdraw?
Four players come to mind. The United States, which is on the way out. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is already advancing into the northeast. Russia, whose military police are putting themselves between the Assad regime and Turkey as a buffer to prevent escalation. Or a European-led observer mission, which has so far failed due to their indecision.
Currently, the most likely but worst scenario is the return of the regime. It would mean the end of Kurdish autonomy and civil society work in the northeast. With its nationalist Baath ideology, the leadership in Damascus would crush the Kurds’ new self-confidence and help Arab tribes loyal to Assad to gain more influence. The border region would be Arabized, and the Kurds would be fobbed off with cultural rights. Activists critical of Assad would have to flee arrest and forced recruitment.
Foreign jihadists as bargaining chips
IS members are also afraid of the torture regime in Damascus and want to leave before Assad’s henchmen take over their camps. His intelligence services could use the foreign jihadists as leverage to extort money from the West for reconstruction and normalization of relations. So Assad in Rojava brings disenfranchised Kurds, more refugees, and uncontrollable terrorists.
Despite the agreed ceasefire for northern Syria, the Turkish air force has again flown airstrikes there, according to activists. At least five civilians were killed in the attack on the Syrian village of Bab al-Cheir, east of the border town of Ras al-Ain, on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. (afp)
If Russia alone negotiates the deal between Ankara, Damascus and the PYD, Assad will also win in the end. Moscow wants to assert its interests without taking responsibility, because President Vladimir Putin cannot afford the costly role of a mandated power. Instead of stationing Russian military forces permanently in the border area, he will allow Assad’s troops to march in and assure Erdogan that this will contain the Kurds.
The Americans are not to be reckoned with in view of their errant president. After all, they are 10,000 kilometers away, unlike Europe, which is within reach for refugees and IS fighters. It therefore depends on the Europeans, who should form a "coalition of the far-sighted" as quickly as possible. States that already have a military presence as part of the anti-IS alliance, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, would have to offer their NATO partner Turkey control of the planned buffer zone. European soldiers would be welcome in Syria’s northeast – the Kurds would feel protected, the YPG would be ready to withdraw, and their party PYD could be persuaded to adopt more "good governance." More freedom of expression, space for other actors as well.
This is called vision. Something that Europe has so far been incapable of in the Syrian conflict. Now there is a last chance. Ankara does not see the ceasefire as an end, but rather as an interruption of its offensive. Should Erdogan occupy the border area with the help of his Islamist mercenaries, the region would be lost – for the Kurds, for Syrian civil society and for Europe.