In mid July 2021, the Syrian Democratic Times reached out to David Pollock, Director of the Fikra Project at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, for his views on North and East Syria. Pollock responded to inquiries via e-mail.

Syrian Democratic Times: Under what circumstances would Turkey change its policy toward Syria and the Kurds?

David Pollock: I think Turkey’s hostile policy toward the Syrian Kurds is very unlikely to change significantly, at least until there is a change of government inside Turkey. Moreover, even if that change happens, most of the internal Turkish opposition, unfortunately, shares the hostility of Erdogan and the AKP toward the Syrian Kurds, falsely accusing them as being the same as the PKK. In fact, Turkey’s own hostile policy is one of the major reasons preventing some anti-PKK Syrian Kurdish factions from joining the Autonomous Administration.

It is true that in the 2013-2015 period, Erdogan moved toward negotiating and even cooperating with the PYD and YPG. Some people ask, if that happened once, why couldn’t it happen again? But my view is that such a realistic and constructive policy no longer suits Erdogan’s domestic political calculations, so it will almost certainly not be repeated.

Nevertheless, I can imagine some adjustments on the margins that could be helpful. For example, Turkish restraint could be solidified in not attacking the Kurds much beyond the current lines, and not encroaching much militarily (or with its proxy militias) into the major Kurdish cities near the border. Possibly some mutually beneficial economic relations could be encouraged among Turkey, Turkish-occupied zones in Syria, and the Kurdish-led AANES.

In this context, US bargaining with Turkey could be important. The problem, however, is that the US is now more focused on trying to work with Turkey in other areas far afield, from Afghanistan to Ukraine to Libya, leaving Syria and the Kurds a distant, much lower priority. In practice, Turkey coordinates its Syria policy much more closely with Russia than with the United States. So perhaps a change in Turkish policy toward the Syrian Kurds might result if Russia pushed for it. But that would surely involve concessions to the Assad regime, as the price of any deal.

SDT: What is your perspective toward the border crossings of Yaroubiah and Bab al Hawa? Why have these border crossings been so politicized? Why do you believe that Bab al Hawa has been supported by the US more than Yaroubiah, even though Bab al Hawa has been associated with HTS?

Pollock: Regarding the border crossings, the politicized (as you correctly put it) focus on Bab Al-Hawa stems from precisely this international context. The US and the EU want UN authorization and practical implementation for cross-border humanitarian relief and/or trade – which they believe requires Russian, Turkish, and Assad regime acceptance. The HTS problem is perceived as secondary — if only because other Turkish or Assad-regime clients, highly problematic as they may also be, are considered in greater control of the border area. 

By contrast, the eastern crossings lack that international diplomatic imprimatur. Indeed, Russia, Turkey, and the Assad regime would all object to a full-fledged crossing into Kurdish-controlled territory; and they would probably hold any other crossings hostage to that. Eastern crossings would also require coordination with a complex and volatile mix of neighboring players: the KRG, the Iraqi government, various local militias, international NGOs, and probably others as well. And they are geographically much further away from Idlib and other locations where most of the IDPs and other needy Syrians are concentrated, with no clear logistical supply line from the remote eastern border.

My own view is that this should not be an either/or proposition; there are good reasons to activate many different crossings. Yet I sense that the western crossings will continue to take precedence among international donors and players. For that reason among many others, it is crucial for the Syrian Kurds and their local partners to maintain the best possible working relations with the KRG and its access to the Habur crossing, even if that is of limited volume by comparison.

SDT: What is the future of Afrin?

Pollock: As for Afrin, I fear that Turkish occupation is becoming permanent, or at least indefinite. That means ethnic cleansing, abuses, and proxy militia oppression, very unfortunately. For the time being, neither outside powers nor the Assad regime are prepared to challenge this occupation, and the locals are mostly powerless to do so either. It reminds me of the modern history of Turkish control over neighboring Antakya and Hatay Province, ever since 1938, or of northern Cyprus since 1974.   

SDT: What leverage does the the US have over Turkey, and how should the Biden Administration best use that leverage?

Pollock: Nevertheless, the US does have some leverage over Turkey, especially if it exerts that leverage in a coordinated fashion with other NATO nations and with the EU. The leverage is mainly economic, whether through sanctions or through positive trade and investment incentives. In addition, I think Turkey still values American security support, to balance Russian ambitions. And Erdogan probably still desires the political benefit of a decent working relationship with the White House.

There are so many issues on the bilateral agenda, however, that it is difficult to translate this potential leverage into actual policy outcomes without a much clearer order of priorities, and a willingness on both sides to trade one issue against another. When it comes to Syria and the Kurds, a possible tradeoff, one that I suspect may already be underway, would be for the US to offer Turkey a freer hand against the PKK — both inside Turkey and inside Iraq — in exchange for Turkish restraint in dealing with (or confronting) the Kurds and their allies inside Syria.

SDT: If you could advise the AANES and the SDC on their next steps, what would you say?

Pollock: That brings me to the question of advice for AANES and the SDC.  I think they would be well advised to keep their distance as much as possible from the PKK. This is not so much a matter of convincing Turkey, which as I argued above is likely beyond reach. Rather, it would help relations with the US, the KRG, and some Kurds and others inside Syria itself.

Improving all those internal and external relations just mentioned is another urgent counsel I would suggest. I understand the deep historic links and contemporary rivalries at stake, and the justified uncertainties about the intentions or resolve of all these players. I also understand the resulting temptations to make deals with Russia, with Assad, and perhaps with others beside.  But none of those parties can be trusted to keep their word. As a result, I hope the Syrian Kurds and their local partners continue to prioritize their friendship with the US, and their relations with the relatively successful autonomous Kurdistan Region right across the border in Iraq.

Also, inside Syria, the AANES and SDC should put a high premium on maintaining the smoothest possible partnerships with neighboring Arabs, religious or ethnic minorities, and friendly international guests in their area — including of course the small but highly valuable American presence there. Good governance, tolerance of some dissent, sound economic development policies, inclusive educational and social practices: all are essential to the longer-term future of this fragile flower in a very tough neighborhood. Frankly I think this domestic challenge and opportunity is more important than achieving formal international recognition.

SDT: If you were invited to visit North and East Syria, would you go?

Pollock: Concerning my own personal plans for responding to invitations to visit this area, I would certainly like to do that if security and health conditions permit.  At the same time, I know that my daily outspoken criticism of Turkey, Iran, Assad, and other adversaries in this arena — on television and radio, in print, and online — could make me a target for retaliation.  So any such travel would need to be carefully coordinated with the appropriate American and other authorities, before my home institution would even consider it for approval. I trust this caution is well understood, especially among friends.