Three forces are fighting each other in northern Syria:
- The Islamic State
- The Islamist rebels (supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia)
- The secular rebels (supported by the US and Russia)
The second group (the Islamist rebels) includes so many different factions, but the most important of those are Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. Both of those follow the same jihadi ideology, the difference between them being that the first pledges allegiance to Al-Qaeda while the second does not. (Turkey sought for a long time to convince Jabhat an-Nusra of breaking its formal ties with Al-Qaeda, but that did not work.)
The third group (the secular rebels) consists of the Kurdish YPG forces plus various regional allies (in Hassakah province it includes the Arab tribal Sanadid الصناديد militia and a Syriac Christian militia, in Raqqa it includes the Arab Front of Raqqah Revolutionaries جبهة ثوار الرقة , in Aleppo it includes the Arab Army of Revolutionaries جيش الثوار).
The US prefers to support the third group, and it has already provided considerable support to that group. (Recently the US announced that it is sending additional 250 Americans troops to support that group. Some people in America made a fuss about that announcement, and I do not understand why. Those American troops will only train and support the Syrian forces that have already achieved big successes against the Islamic State and Assad.)
Turkey refuses any support to the Syrian Kurds and considers such support an aggression against Turkey. However, Turkey does not have any logical justification for its position. Turkey claims that the Syrian Kurds plan to establish an independent Kurdish state, and that state would later expand into Turkey. This is a fairy tale. The Syrian Kurds (like the Turkish Kurds) are only demanding some form of limited autonomy. They are not looking to set up a separatist entity like Iraqi Kurdistan (which is supported by Turkey). All that they want is a regional autonomy that is not based on nationalism.
The ruling Kurdish party in Iraq is the PDK. That party is a far-rightist, racist, separatist party based on a personality cult of Barzani, who is one of the worst tyrants in the Middle East. The Kurds in Syria are dominated by the PYD, which is an offshoot of the Turkish PKK. The PYD and PKK are far-leftist parties. They are far removed from racism and isolationism. They do not seek an independent Kurdish state. They only demand a form of regional autonomy.
In Syria, the supporters of PDK accuse the PYD of abandoning the Kurdish cause, because that cause in the viewpoint of PDK means establishing a national Kurdish state.
It is ironic that Turkey supports in Syria the PDK, which is truly the separatist Kurdish faction. Turkey supports this faction for two reasons:
1. This faction is too weak in Syria to achieve anything with regards to Kurdish rights. Supporting it can only weaken the PYD, which Turkey views as the real threat.
2. The PDK in Syria takes its orders from Barzani of Iraq. There is a long-standing agreement between Turkey and Barzani on the following point: Turkey will recognize and support the separatist Kurdish entity in Iraq as long as Barzani fights against any autonomy for Kurds in Turkey, and by extension, in Syria, because the Turks do not distinguish between the Kurds in Turkey and Syria.
The Syrian followers of Barzani claim that they support autonomy for the Syrian Kurds, but their behavior during the Syrian war (and particularly during the last Geneva talks) speaks otherwise. It is obvious that Barzani has directed them to ignore this matter. Barzani wants to keep his traditional alliance with Turkey, and so he will not push for autonomy for the Syrian Kurds.
The PYD has proven in the areas under its control that it does not wish to establish a nationalist Kurdish entity à la Iraqi model. The administrations that have been set up by the PYD are multiethnic. They grant equal rights to all ethnicities.
However, the PYD administrations are not democratic, because the PYD is a communist party.
Nobody in Syria is democratic, but the PYD has the advantage of being secular and less prone to human rights violations. (Turkey accuses the PYD of large-scale human rights violations, but such accusations are without merit). Another advantage of the PYD is their military (and civil) discipline which has enabled them to defeat the Islamic State and successfully govern large swathes of territory.
Given all that, it is not surprising that the US has supported the PYD and its allies, despite the strong Turkish objections.
Turkey had threatened that it would attack the Syrian Kurds in case they advanced west of the Euphrates river into the so-called ‘Manbij pocket.’ It seems that the Americans were hoping that the Russian intervention in Syria would allow the Kurds to violate that red line of Turkey, but that did not happen. The Kurds did achieve some gains in the northwestern part of Aleppo province (around Afrin), but the Manbij pocket itself remains under the control of the Islamic State. Turkey has brought jihadis from Idlib province to the area of Azaz and directed them to advance into the Manbij pocket, in an effort to put the area under the control of jihadis whom Turkey regards as moderate. That effort seems to has faltered. The moderate jihadis could not take much territory from the IS, and they could not keep much of the territory which they took.
The superiority of the Kurdish militias to the moderate jihadis was also demonstrated in the defeats of the moderate jihadis around Afrin. I am sure that Turkey has been urging the moderate jihadis to attack the Kurds in Aleppo Province, but whenever such an encounter happened it ended with a Kurdish victory. (N.B. The Kurds in Aleppo Province have Arab allies, the Army of Revolutionaries جيش الثوار).
I think that the US prefers a complete victory for the Kurds and their allies over the jihadis (whether moderate or non-moderate), but the Turks have announced recently that there would be a joint Turkish-American intervention to support the moderate jihadis in northern Aleppo province. If that is true, it would mean that the Americans are going to divide northern Syria between the moderate jihadis and the Kurds and their allies. Such an arrangement will serve to appease Turkey, but I wonder how it will be possible in the future to unite northern Syria. There are great differences between the moderate jihadis and Turkey on one side and the Kurds and their allies on the other side.
The division plan which Turkey is pushing for may lead the Kurds towards isolationism. It is strange that Turkey wants to draw borders for the Kurds inside Syria while at the same time it opposes Kurdish independence.
Turkey’s policy on the Kurds in Syria is contradictory, like its policy on Assad. Turkey calls for the ouster of Assad from Damascus, but at the same time Turkey supports jihadis. How can supporting jihadis be helpful in removing Assad? The stronger the jihadis become, the stronger Assad becomes. Everybody seems to understand that except Turkey.
The division plan has another big disadvantage: the Kurds and their allies are the only force that can (theoretically) take Aleppo from Assad. The moderate jihadis cannot take this city or govern it (most of the inhabitants of Aleppo hate the jihadis and prefer Assad’s rule, even if they despise Assad). Keeping the Kurds and their allies away from Aleppo means that Assad will never be pushed out from that city.