Event Reports

What Future for the Arab-Kurdish Relations in Northeast Syria?

by Maha Haddad

KAS, Atlantic Council and Foreign Policy Research Organize Workshop on Arab-Kurdish Relations in Northeast Syria

To facilitate a dialogue about governance, political reconciliation, the role of outside actors, and the future of Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria was the focus of a two-day workshop in Erbil, Iraq organized by the Syria/Iraq Office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) together with Atlantic Council and Foreign Policy Research.
Atlantic Council, Foreign Policy Research and KAS Discussing Arab-Kurdish Relations in Northeast Syria
Atlantic Council, Foreign Policy Research and KAS Discussing Arab-Kurdish Relations in Northeast Syria

The United States remains at war with the Islamic State (ISIS) in northeast Syria and as a result, the counter-ISIS coalition’s military effort is dependent on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella organization of Arab and Kurdish militias. The SDF’s most important militia is the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units, or the YPG. The YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has fought in south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades, first for a Kurdish independence, and then for a decentralized government.

The Arab-Kurdish relationship is critical for post-war stabilization operations and the management of local service provision, which together contribute to the stability needed to combat potential ISIS resurgence. The maintenance of political order and stability in northeast Syria is, first and foremost, a humanitarian imperative to try and ease local suffering. More broadly, the local efforts will have repercussions for global interests, like the migration of people from Syria or the resettlement of internally displaced people. The issue could also factor into broader political negotiations and play a role in reintegrating communities and local governance arrangements into a post-war Syrian state.

To capitalize on the counter-ISIS coalition’s military gains, American, Arab, and European leaders need to better understand the current state of Arab-Kurdish relations within the SDF and between the SDF and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The issue is of considerable importance for the international community: the territorial defeat of the Islamic State may give rise to an ISIS-led insurgency, which preys on ethnic grievances to win support from local populations. To mitigate this threat, the international community has an interest in understanding regional dynamics in Syria’s northeast.

The workshop was split in five sessions. Session one discussed the future role of outside actors in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular. Specifically Russia, the United States, the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS and the role of Turkey in Syria’s Northeast was discussed. The second panel discussed the efforts, successes, and key challenges that resulted from the interaction of the Syrian Democratic Forces working alongside civilian entities inside the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The third panel expanded on the themes discussed in panel two, with an emphasis on the security and political challenges the SDF will have to contend amidst uncertainty about the future role of the United States. In panel four the potential for political reconciliation and what the different actors active in the Northeast will demand as part of a peace settlement were tackled. In the last panel researchers focused on the role of outside actors in shaping any post-war reconciliation and whether a common approach is possible given the differing ambitions of each country involved in the war.

The purpose of this workshop was to lead to a better understanding of the intra-ethnic and political dynamics in this important part of Syria, bring relevant actors into dialogue, and report on lessons learned from dealing with the current governance. The project will provide policy recommendations for international actors involved in stabilization efforts to help minimize intra-ethnic strife, improve quality of life, and prevent the re-emergence of radical actors.