The United States has not been clear about its exit plan in Syria, and will still need boots on the ground after ISIS has morphed into a nonstate actor. Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of United States Special Operations Command, said that it would be advantageous for the coalition to stay in Syria and support the Syrian Democratic Forces as long as there “is a CT [counter-terrorism] threat to deal with”—suggesting that the United States will remain there for some time to come.
Likewise, in an interview for the pro-government Daily Sabah, which had undertones of being a prepared interview with the intent of sending a signal to the United States amongst others, retired Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakki Pekin almost admitted Turkey’s acknowledgement of Syrian-Kurdish autonomy east of the Euphrates. He said that the United States’ “only purpose is to create a Kurdish region northeast of the Euphrates. They are working toward this goal and don’t want Turkey to intercept their efforts there.”
Although no one can know the end-game of the Syrian Civil War, there are several factors that point towards the possibility of Syrian-Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria. And while the Turkish state may have acknowledged this fact, it is highly unlikely that Ankara will refrain from attempting to distort or challenge any type of Kurdish autonomy—especially due to the links between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, and the growing interconnectedness of the Syrian and Turkish Kurds. Exploring the various policy options Turkey may consider—and has at its disposal—is therefore instrumental in understanding what impact Syrian-Kurdish autonomy can have for Turkey, the region and the already fragile relationship between Turkey and the West.
Turkey’s most immediate and potent nonmilitary response to any settlement where it feels threatened by Syrian-Kurdish autonomy would be to keep its border with Rojava shut off. The effect of the economic blockade would be contingent on whether the Syrian-regime would join in on the isolation or not.
The first scenario is autonomy established under the imagined American-patronage, and without Syrian government consent, an economic blockade would be far more effective. Rojava would turn into a landlocked political-entity bordered by hostile countries and state-like entities, Turkey to the North, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to the East and the Syrian regime to the South and West, closing off any potential trade routes and connections to global markets, thus deepening its dependence on American patronage and also hindering any serious, sustainable development of the region.
However in the second scenario, without the isolation of the Syrian regime, the Kurds of Northern Syria would be given free passage through a federal Syria, access to a larger, domestic market, neighboring countries and connected to the global economy through the ports of the Syrian west coast. This scenario would also mean a far speedier recovery for Rojava, economic integration into Syria and provide a sustainable economic model for Rojava to become a leading economic hub in the country, catering to a domestic and war-torn economy—even under a Turkish blockade.
Rojava allegedly accounted for 55 percent of the Syrian GDP in mid-2016, and due to the fact that the region has seen less destruction than most other parts of Syria, its infrastructure and ability to produce and export remains intact. The region has in other words become an economic beacon of Syria, and would be able to benefit from its pole position in a post-conflict scenario. Jazira Canton is nicknamed the “breadbasket of Syria” producing almost one fifth of the country’s grain output and is in control of several of the country’s oilfields, including the major center of oil production: Rmelan. Likewise, Afrin has become the country’s new industrial powerhouse after many businesses migrated there from the destruction in Aleppo. It is home to some four hundred textile workshops with about seventeen thousand employees that supply all of Syria with textiles. Therefore, it is safe to say that in order for a Turkish blockade of Rojava to cause a serious blow to Rojava’s economy, it requires regime cooperation.
Also, a joint KRG-Turkey blockade of Rojava, with or without the Syrian regime, could lead Turkey to accept KRG’s desire for independence, as a way for Turkey to garner legitimacy, uphold intra-Kurdish disunity and tie the KRG to Ankara—hastening the Iraqi-Kurdish independence in the process.