The SDF’s Post-American Future

Why the Syrian Kurds Must Make a Deal With Assad

General Chiya (L) of the SDF speaks with U.S. Army Lieutenant General Paul Funk in Syria's Euphrates Valley, July 2018. Reuters

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed militia led by the Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units (YPG), is now involved in a high-stakes geopolitical standoff involving the world’s two strongest military powers, Russia and the United States. The SDF has spearheaded the U.S. war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, but as that war has slowed down following the near territorial defeat of ISIS, hard questions about the group’s future have been brought into focus. The SDF must now consider how to prepare for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, the likely victory of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war, and continued antagonism with neighboring Turkey. And although the answers to these questions have yet to be determined, the basic fact is that the SDF, surrounded by hostile adversaries, has a real interest in reaching a modus vivendi with the Assad regime.

Making a deal will be hard. The SDF wants to preserve its hard-fought autonomy in the Kurdish regions of eastern Syria, while the regime will be looking to reassert centralized control over the entire country. And as a nonstate actor dependent on a finite U.S. security guarantee, the SDF cannot risk a direct military confrontation with the regime or its two allies, Russia and Iran. Instead, it will have to use what leverage it has, while it has it, in order to reach a negotiated settlement.

At the moment, the trajectory of the war is advantageous for the Syrian Kurds. The regime and its allies are preparing for an offensive to recapture Idlib Province, Syria’s last major opposition stronghold. This campaign will prevent the SDF from having to make any hasty decisions and, in the event of a long and costly fight, could improve the group’s negotiating position. The United States and its Kurdish allies will thus have the most leverage immediately after the battle concludes, when the regime will be militarily weakened. As Assad’

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