Turkey’s interests in French Muslims sees Paris rapidly build its relations with Syria’s Kurds.
A Syrian Kurdish delegation went to Paris on July 19 to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron. France bets on the Kurdish question to have some kind of role in Syria, to pressure Damascus and to curb Turkey’s significant influence.
During his meeting, the French President insisted on “the need to continue work in favor of the political stabilization of northeastern Syria and inclusive governance.” For his part, one of the Kurdish leaders, Berivan Khaled said that the meeting had focused on “France’s support for the recognition of the Kurdish autonomous administration by the international community.”
Ending its relations with Damascus when it closed its embassy in March 2012, France wants to play the Kurdish card to have some kind of influence in Syria. Paris is effectively hoping to unite the Kurds who are traditionally divided along political and tribal lines.
In northeastern Syria, the dominant force is the Party of the Democratic Union (PYD), whose armed wing is the People’s Protection Units (YPG). However, there are also about another twenty competing parties, many of whom are still loyal to Damascus.
Meetings between French and Kurdish officials have increased in recent weeks though. Last May, a delegation from the Danielle-Mitterrand Foundation and the Paris City Hall visited the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, which was first founded in the 1920s by Assyrian genocide survivors from the Ottoman Empire. Damascus strongly condemned this trip as “another direct implication of France in the aggression against Syria.”
In June, Leïla Mustafa, the Kurdish mayor of Raqqa, went to Paris at the invitation of her counterpart, Anne Hidalgo. In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, she said: “Despite our military cooperation with France within the framework of the international coalition, the deepening of relations in the civilian field is still lagging behind.” However, France has provided more than 100 million euros worth of aid since ISIS were expelled from Raqqa in 2017. Paris even promised on July 19 that it “would continue its humanitarian action.”
Regardless of aid given to the Kurds, France’s priorities in Syria are its geopolitical interests. By supporting Kurdish forces, Paris is preventing the unity of the Syrian State. Syria however intends to liberate the jihadist stronghold of Idlib, the northern border occupied by Turkey, and territories east of the Euphrates that are controlled by Kurdish contingents.
French special forces are still present in Kurdish-held areas. There are also 900 American soldiers training and supervising Kurdish troops. Support for the separatist Kurds of Syria is largely because of the Franco-American initiative.
This will prove to be problematic as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad constantly reiterates that all Syrian territory will return to government control. Since the start of the Syrian War, the Kurds have never been his main enemy but rather a nuisance as they allow Western occupation of the country instead of focusing on the collective Turkish threat.
The main issue for Damascus is that the illegal foreign presence in areas of Syria that the Kurds control prevents products from this oil and agricultural rich area from reaching government-controlled parts of the country. This has only exacerbated the effects of Western sanctions against Syria. Despite the U.S. not really needing Syrian oil, they are occupying the oilfields with their Kurdish allies as a means of pressure against Damascus.
Although the Franco-American alliance in Syria is clearly against Assad, from the French perspective their interest in their former colony is to also prevent the expansion of Turkish influence. Since 2016, Turkey has launched three military operations in Syria. The 2016, 2018 and 2019 operations were all aimed at expelling the YPG from the Syrian-Turkish border.
Turkey uses their decades’ long struggle against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to project its domestic policy beyond its borders. Ankara fears the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous or independent entity on its border can escalate into greater calls for autonomy or independence in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated east. American and French support for the YPG, which Turkey says is the Syrian branch of the PKK, is one of the many reasons for the breakdown in relations that the two western countries are experiencing with Ankara.
The Franco-Kurdish meeting in Paris received an immediate response from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, with a spokesperson saying that “the meeting was held between Macron and elements of the so-called Syrian Democratic Council guided by the PYD/YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist organisation.”
The Kurds would like Rojava, the name they gave to the Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, to be internationally recognized. What the French and the Americans are doing amounts to de facto recognition but not de jure because this would pose innumerable problems with not only Assad, but also Turkey.
Just as Turkey is trying to rally the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslims in France to turn against Macron and the country, France is also making their counterattack by hosting and supporting Kurdish elements in Syria, knowing full well that it will stoke Turkish paranoia of Kurdish separatism in their own country’s eastern provinces.
The fact remains that the YPG never existed until the Turkish-supported war against the Syrian government began in 2011. Turkey created the very conditions for the YPG to emerge in Syria as there was an urgent need for Kurdish populations to be protected from Turkish-backed jihadist forces. Now the French appear to be using the very “Frankenstein” that Ankara forced into existence, to counterpressure the Turkey.