Pressuring Assad as Media Strategy
It is increasingly evident that the Rojava Revolution’s transition to a post-war Syria passes through a forked road: one route risks keeping a semblance of the American-led coalition forces in Rojava as leverage for enforcing a controlled and autonomous transition to life under Assad’s hegemony; the other follows, via Russian intermediation, a path of full integration into Syria and its Arab Army (SAA) and acting as an inferior but reliable partner to Assad in running Rojava and Syria in the future.
Let us cut to the chase. The first route, the American one, can take many courses. It is clear that neither Russia nor Assad will allow a full-scale invasion of Rojava by Turkey. The oil fields and refineries in Rojava, Rojava’s role as Syria’s breadbasket, the vital water sources that pass through the region and, most importantly, Assad’s intention to retain the territorial integrity of Syria (for reasons that follow, one of his main backers, Iran, will not and cannot settle for less), are all the reasons Assad needs for refusing Turkey’s overtures to aggression. But the United States will not give up the bases it has built and accrued in these very same areas, either: they are requisite to any project of containing the ambitions of Iran to run its Shiite Corridor from Iraq to Israel via Syria; to leveraging any future balance of power in Syria with regard to Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean (vis-à-vis Russian interests in Ukraine, Crimea and North Africa); and to thwarting the prospect of a couple of competitor gas pipelines vying to run to Europe through Syria (thus bypassing Russian gas and holding on to the EU’s energy future). Indeed, American generals have been rather outspoken on the subject, and have let the administration in Rojava know that, if and when it steers toward the Assad side, America might very well transfer its interests (and the control of its bases in Syria) to other actors, such as Turkey. This is also why the officials of the PYD continue to ask for an international peacekeeping force in Rojava as a means to phasing out the Turkish alternative.
Furthermore, it is not clear what the American option makes of the future of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and its hardline proxies in Rojava’s occupied canton of Afrin; recent meeting between SDF commanders put the liberation of Afrin on the agenda, but it was not made clear how the SDF might take on a frontal offence against Turkey in Afrin without the backing of Assad’s claim over Syrian territorial sovereignty. Some reports indicate that the US might opt to camp in northern Iraq instead – to provide air support to Rojava – but the longevity and viability of such a strategy are questionable in the long-term. Will the US risk maintaining extended, unwelcome military presence in this region?
Despite appearances, Rojava’s Assad-Russia options are rather similar. In a move reflective of the maintenance of PKK presence in Syria during Hafiz al-Assad’s years, Bashar al-Assad might prefer to maintain Turkey’s Kurdish problem in order to keep Turkey from backing Syria’s Sunni opposition in the future, while maintaining a mutual restraint on Rojava’s ambitions for autonomy. Assad has his hands full driving the remainder of Al Qaeda out of Syria (particularly Idlib), sourcing the necessary Iranian/Arab capital to refill the SAA’s empty coffers, and ensuring the security requisite to such vast reconstruction – and, for these reasons, reintegrating Rojava into the SAA is integral to any plan of Assad’s for retaining calm and hegemony in post-war Syria.
However, neither can he settle for life with a fully armed and organized Rojava. He has been rather explicit about the prospects of autonomy in Rojava and Putin continues to reference the Adana Accord in discussions on Syria, which explicitly rules out US presence as a party to any deal. Putin also condemns Rojava's SDF expanding into central Syria’s Arab regions. Indeed, Putin is already stirring the Arab areas in Rojava toward breaking away from the SDF, particularly those living closer to central Syria and those nearer to the oil-rich areas where the US holds its bases. This will reduce Rojava’s role as leverage against both the Syrian Sunnis and Turkey, while managing to nurture a legitimate local threat against American presence.
After a string of similar attacks went unanswered over the past year, Assad’s recent – and rather strong – response to Israel's attacks on Iranian bases near its border inside Syria also heralds the likelihood that the Iranian presence will endure in post-war Syria (though Russia and Iran may not see eye to eye on the role and place of millions of Sunni Arab refugees bound to return to Syria, who hold an unfavourable view of Iran, to say the least). As such, Assad might yet allow for a partial incursion of the TAF into Rojava’s border areas in order to get the necessity of reintegration into SAA across to the decision-makers in Rojava.
In this climate, and given the rather obsessive focus of the Rojava-oriented media on the ongoing fight against ISIS (a means to hedge Rojava’s bets against an abrupt withdrawal of America and its allies from Syria), I consider a media strategy which adds focus on Assad’s crimes and machinations in Syria to be critical. If the international peacekeeping option or the prospect of retaining autonomy in post-war Syria are to bear fruit in any way, Rojava’s hand at the negotiating table with Assad must be strengthened, and continuing to highlight the fight against ISIS cannot remain the sole strategy for accomplishing this feat. Here, the possibility for Rojava’s own official media to criticize Assad and mount international pressure on him is, of course, not an option.
The onus is therefore on the international (Left) media to take Assad to task for his old and new plans to re-establish his dictatorship in Syria. As such, a dual media strategy will be crucial to strengthening Rojava’s negotiating hand at both ends of the table. Such a campaign must also emphasize calls for an international peacekeeping force, not only to make allies of the international and regional observers wary of American imperialism in the Middle East but also because, in my opinion, continued American presence in Rojava is ultimately against Rojava’s interests. Insofar as Americans maintain bases in North and East Syria, Rojava is technically hostage to the political and logistical necessities of unwelcome American presence on foreign soil. Asking for American departure has to be coordinated, however, with weakening the legitimacy of the Assad-Russia position, in order to safeguard Rojava’s leverage to negotiate and protect its people and its revolution.
Finally, equally important is a campaign against the Turkish state’s sanctions against Rojava. Since 2012, the Turkish commercial and humanitarian embargo on Rojava has made the task of providing public goods and services difficult for Rojava's administration. Presently, in Manbij alone, such shortages have eroded public faith in the efficacy of autonomous administration and feed a growing nostalgia for the return of Assad's administration, even though areas like Aleppo which are under Assad’s control fare no better. Advocating against Turkish sanctions is all the more important once we recall that the 2014 siege of Kobane was in part enabled by the refusal of the Turkish state to allow military and humanitarian aid to enter Rojava from Kobane's border with Turkey. Pressuring Turkey to lift the embargo must therefore become a strategic rallying cry for Rojava's allies and supporters. Here, the international Left could raise the costs of the Turkish embargo on Rojava by highlighting its counter-revolutionary character, or circumvent statist actors altogether by organizing direct international aid to Rojava's people via Leftist parties and sympathizers.