The plain of northeastern Syria, where the Trump White House vacillates over whether to dig deeper or pull up stakes, has become an archipelago of mass graves. During the three years that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria dominated the remote landscape, it massacred thousands of civilians and captive Syrian government soldiers without allowing their families to bury them. Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, noted that the former capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, had “at least nine mass graves, each one estimated to have dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, making exhumations a monumental task.” Four hundred bodies were unearthed at Raqqa’s municipal zoo, and it will take months for families to identify the decomposed corpses. Other towns and villages in the Kurdish-administered zone are discovering similar grisly mementos of Islamic State rule.
The mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which receives vital support from the United States and an estimated 2,000 special operations forces troops based in the northeast, made the unusual gesture on July 30 of returning to the Syrian army the remains of 44 soldiers who had been executed by the Islamic State in the village of Ain Issa in 2014. Ten days earlier, local officials had uncovered four mass graves near what had been the headquarters of the 93rd Brigade, and the Kurds used the occasion to help mend fences with President Bashar al Assad. The process of reintegrating the largest Kurdish-controlled region into the rest of Syria is underway, and the United States can do little to stop it.
The Seeds of Reconciliation
The Kurds and al Assad regime are in regular discussions — both in Tabqa on the Iraqi border and in Damascus – on restoring Syrian sovereignty to the large zone where they have exercised autonomy with American help for much of the seven-year war. The armed wing of the SDC, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has turned over the Tabqa Dam, which it captured from the Islamic State last year, and is cooperating with government administrators in the provision of vital services. Although the Syrian government withdrew most of its troops to fight elsewhere, it maintained a civilian presence in municipalities, schools and hospitals throughout the northeast. It also continued to pay the salaries of civil servants and maintained flights between Damascus and Qamishli, the large, mainly Kurdish and Assyrian Christian town near the border with Turkey.
While fighting the Islamic State, the Kurds were careful not to engage Syrian government forces. Syria’s Kurds, unlike their brethren in Iraq, have not called for independence. At a recent SDC conference in Darbasiyah, co-chair Ilham Ahmed called for broad participation in what she called “this Syrian-Syrian political track,” emphasizing the Kurds’ Syrian nationality. She nonetheless seeks a “decentralized, democratic Syria,” a goal that al Assad’s government may resist.
An Unlikely Decentralization
Syrians have rejected decentralization in the past. When France occupied the country between 1920 and 1946, it imposed four statelets — an Alawite state in the northwest, a Druze state in the south and states for Aleppo and Damascus — a scheme the Syrians forced them to abandon by waging vigorous guerrilla wars. Al Assad, like his father a student of history, is unlikely to imitate the failed French model. The Kurds, about 10 percent of the Syrian population, are in a weak position to demand a ministate. The regions in which they predominate are scattered in the Jazira, the large agricultural and desert zone they now control in the northeast. They are Ain al-Arab, or Kobani, to the northeast of Aleppo with about 120 villages and the mountainous Kurd Dagh, or Afrin province, which the United States and Russia allowed Turkey to capture from Kurdish forces last year. Many Kurds live in Damascus and Aleppo, where they have mostly assimilated and have sought neither autonomy nor independence.
Turkey’s hostility toward Syrian Kurdish autonomy, which might serve as an example to its own Kurds, is exacerbated by the close links between the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party and Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which are the backbone of the SDF. The United States, for the moment, remains committed to the SDF. On June 7, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told journalists, “We will not simply cast that organization aside.” The Kurds have heard American promises in the past, mainly in Iraq, where the United States twice abandoned them to Saddam Hussein, once in 1975 and again 1991. Fearing the eventual departure of U.S. forces and support, the Kurds have turned to Damascus while they still have cards to play. The outcome is not certain, but the auguries point to the Syrian flag flying over an American-free northeast.