The Assad regime had tolerated the YPG in Syria while they had a common goal in fighting Daesh. But with Daesh now defeated, the regime seems to be shifting its stance.
In November 2016, pictures showed the Syrian regime and the YPG/PYD raising flags together after capturing a building from rebels in eastern Aleppo. After a month, Aleppo’s rebel-held east completely fell into the hands of the Syrian regime, as a result of the regime’s brutal response to rebels, since the uprisings began in 2011. Opposition forces left the city, but the YPG is still in Aleppo.
Facing air strikes and forces on the ground, the civilians living in the rebel-held areas were often left with no option but to surrender during nearly seven years of the Syrian war. But regime leader Bashar al Assad’s response to the uprisings wasn’t as brutal as it was in the cities where the main opposition had revolted.
The regime handed over most parts of the Kurdish-majority northern town of Qamishli to the YPG in 2012 after a month-long uprising. This was actually the first time that regime and YPG flags were seen together in Syria after the uprising began. It didn't stop there. Through the following years, the YPG gained more territory, and it now controls nearly one-fourth of the country.
While the co-leader of the PYD, Saleh Muslim, never advocated for overthrowing the Assad regime, as other opposition groups did during the war, the regime had not carried out extensive operations in the areas where the PYD is mainly based.
Shifting alliances under Daesh
When the Syrian war began in 2011, the main opposition groups in the country got international support from countries such as Saudi Arabia, the US and Syria’s neighbour to the north, Turkey.
But when Daesh spread into Syria from Iraq in early 2014, it caused a shift in alliances and changed the international parties’ level of involvement in the war.
An international coalition of 68 countries led by the United States was founded to fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq in August.
The US-led coalition used the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, as their main allies on the ground to fight against Daesh. That move shifted the focus of the civilian war from targeting Assad to targeting Daesh. The move angered Turkey.
Ankara has been proposing to use the umbrella opposition group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to fight on the ground against Daesh instead of supporting the YPG.
The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the European Union. However, the US rebranded the group and called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the YPG, instead of giving them up.
Turkey refused to fight along with a group affiliated with the YPG in Syria, while fighting both Daesh and the PKK within its borders. Instead, it kept supporting the FSA.
Russia's stance on the YPG issue
The Assad regime has received strong support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards since the beginning of the war. In September 2015, Russia also stepped in to support the Syrian regime to secure Assad’s position in the country.
The Assad regime, its supporters, and the US-led coalition bombed Daesh-held areas, but regime air strikes targeted more opposition-held strongholds.
Russian involvement in the war as a regime-backer strained its relations with Turkey. As the main supporter of the opposition, Ankara considered the YPG to be co-operating with the regime. And Russia’s limited support for the YPG, especially in Afrin, has been criticised by Turkey.
But Turkey's real concern was US financial and military support for the YPG, and that continuing support caused its alliance to be questioned, as well.
Although supporting the opposing sides of the war, in late 2016, Turkey agreed to lead Syria talks in the Kazakh capital Astana with Russia and Iran, something the trio called "a complementary and supportive action to Geneva". Meanwhile, although not actively arming the YPG as the US did, Moscow occasionally continued its support for the PYD.
As the war in Syria comes to an end, Russia is now spearheading new talks in Sochi, which will focus on a possible constitution and the future of Syria. Russia wants all parties in the war to be present at these talks, which is called the Syrian National Dialogue Congress.
That's why Moscow invited the PYD to participate in the Sochi peace talks, in a move that caused Turkey to react. Although the PYD said it would participate, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Turkey agreed with Russia that the PYD won’t be involved in the talks, since "there cannot be a solution where terrorist organisations are at the table."
What we have seen during the war in Syria is that capturing a city from Daesh doesn’t mean returning it to the Assad regime. YPG-led councils took over the administration of the cities where the SDF became the main force driving Daesh out. And the Russia-backed regime was silent about the situation. It has never fought the US-backed YPG in those areas.
A new chapter in Assad-YPG relations?
But now, it may have changed with the defeat of Daesh in Syria in late 2017, as the relationship between the two is not stable anymore.
In September, the chief commander of the SDF, Mazlum Kobane said in an interview to al-Monitor that the SDF is ready to engage with Damascus.
It was the last of a series of statements by the PYD that reveals their openness to co-operate with the regime. One of the first was PYD co-chair Saleh Muslim's interview with Al Hayat magazine in July 2015, where he said the YPG forces would join the regime forces.
One month after Kobane's comments, Syria's regime foreign minister Walid Moallem signalled a possible negotiation with the YGP saying that their will for self-administration within Syria is “something can be discussed” after defeat of Daesh.
Russia has been signalling for that, as well. After the second round of Astana talks in January 2017, where Turkey had barred PYD participation, Russia invited various groups from Syria, including the PYD to a meeting for a draft constitution.
The document had included a provision on “autonomy of Kurdish regions.”
Despite Russia's stance on the YPG and the regime's indirect co-operation so far, the first signs of the end of their dance came with the battle for Deir Ezzor in September.
Both the SDF and Syrian regime forces were fighting against Daesh, but in different areas of the province. On September 10, the regime's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad targeted the group saying "The actions by the United States and the coalition led by it have no justification."
He also called the US to withdraw its military personnel.
The inconsistency continued with Moallem's comments in November. But the final words have been said by Assad.
Daesh’s loss of Deir Ezzor, its last urban territory in Syria in November has changed the rhetoric on the YPG. On December 18, blaming again “the groups working for Americans”, Assad called the YPG “traitors”.
The Assad regime has occasionally tolerated the YPG during the fight against common foes such as Daesh and opposition groups, and benefited from its links to the PKK to threaten Turkey during the Syrian war. It made YPG a smaller threat for Assad among opposition groups in the country, even until the common foe is defeated. But it’s not the first time that the Syrian regime changed its stance against the YPG, and it’s not certain if Assad will become friendly to the YPG again in the future.