Could the War on Gaza Pull Rojava into a Regional Conflict?

By Theo Mitchell

There are certain inflection points in history around which decades are defined, and October 7th was one of them. The Hamas incursion into Israel, and the subsequent Israel bombing and ground invasion of Gaza, have escalated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an intensity unseen since 1948. Events of such historic importance are seldom contained to their point of origin, and the war has widespread regional ramifications. Already, Western powers are becoming entangled in the war, increasing the possibility of escalation, their desire to arm and fund the Israeli war effort, and their attempts to manage their enormous domestic pro-Palestinian protest movements. The Arab states have scrambled to try and create a coherent position and to contain the reactions of their own citizens, which, particularly in Egypt, threaten an already fragile political order.

Most significantly, the so-called ‘Resistance Axis’, composed of an alliance of anti-Israeli and anti-Western armed groups and states under Iranian leadership (most significantly in the Middle East: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and its Palestinian allies, the Houthis, and an amalgamation of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria) has threatened to escalate the invasion of Gaza into a wider regional war. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, for example, warned that if Israel’s invasion of Gaza continued, “other fronts will be opened.” While Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s November 3rd speech was relatively contained, conflict on the Israel-Lebanon border has intensified, with the US Department of Defense judging Israel to be risking bringing Hezbollah fully into the war through its escalatory actions in Lebanon.

It is the issue of the ‘Resistance Axis’ where the principal risk lies for NE Syria / Rojava and the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). While Hezbollah may be tied down on the border with Israel, the Shia militias that traverse the Iraq-Syrian border have also escalated militarily. Following the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza, there have been dozens of attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq with short-range rockets and makeshift armed drones. This has already resulted in at least 56 injuries and 25 traumatic brain injuries. The US response has so far been muted, with only the occasional retaliatory airstrikes on IRGC and militia targets.

The militias involved are those grouped under the ‘Islamic Resistance in Iraq’ (IRI), a coalition of pro-Iranian militias, some of whom are among the strongest sub-sections of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces such as Kata’ib Hezbollah (not related to Lebanese Hezbollah) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Those attacks that have happened east of the Euphrates in Deir ez-Zor also put SDF troops in danger, yet the primary danger is political rather than military. The SDF is not a weak force, as demonstrated by its standing alone against ISIS for years before US intervention and, more recently, dealing with a large regime-backed rebellion in Deir ez-Zor without American help.

The larger threat is political. If the risk to US forces in the region increases (if American troops start dying, for example) or if the US feels Israel may become overstretched (for instance, if Hezbollah ‘fully’ intervenes in northern Israel), then Washington may feel compelled to intervene directly. Yet, with a close election approaching in the US, there will be a strong incentive to utilise on-the-ground partners such as the SDF rather than expend American lives.

A continued pattern of escalation between Israel, the US, and the whole ‘Resistance Axis’ therefore risks dragging the SDF into conflict with Iran and its non-state allies.

The timing of the Gaza conflict is especially unfortunate for NE Syrians, as it intersects with two difficult events faced by the AANES: the mass bombing of civilian infrastructure in the north by the Turkish Air Force in early October and the continuation of clashes following the regime-backed tribal uprising in Deir ez-Zor led by Ibrahim al-Hifl. Thus far, the SDF and AANES leadership have taken a policy of strict neutrality, but there are potential incentives that could be used to bring the SDF leadership on board. US assistance in the taking of Al-Bukamal, where Iranian-backed militias have organized attacks against US and SDF positions, for instance; alternatively, a buffer zone west of the Euphrates against regime-backed tribal incursions which continue to take the lives of SDF soldiers.

Nevertheless, the consequences of taking sides in the Gaza War if it were to ‘go regional’ could be catastrophic, albeit primarily for political rather than military reasons. The state of Israel is not popular among Syrians, including those in the North-East. This is not only because of the strong feelings throughout the Arab world towards the Israel-Palestine conflict but also because of Israel’s occupation and annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights.

In a 2007 poll, 51% of Syrians supported peace with Israel only after the return of the Golan Heights to Syria; 75% still supported financial assistance for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. In a more recent 2023 poll, only 19% of Syrians supported normalization with Israel (compared to 81% against it). It goes without saying, then, that going to war in favor of Israel would be extremely unpopular and would deprive the AANES of a great deal of legitimacy.

Furthermore, it would imbue Syrian regime propaganda against the SDF and AANES by casting them as Western-backed puppets who do not represent the Syrian people. Being dragged into this conflict, no matter the level of escalation, would therefore pose an existential threat to the AANES and critically damage the ongoing transformation of its image from a Kurdish entity into a Syrian one. It would risk mass popular protests against perceived collaboration with Israel and would provide fertile ground for Damascus to sow unrest against the leadership of the AANES and SDF. Compared to this, the potential benefits of involvement are meagre.

After all, it is Turkey, not the Syrian government nor the Iranian-backed militias, that poses the biggest threat to the security of NE Syria and Rojava.

Current trends indicate the US is not willing to stymy Turkish aggression in Syria beyond preventing an outright invasion; for instance, there was only a muted reaction in Washington to Turkey’s mass bombing campaign of vital civilian infrastructure all across Rojava in October 2023. The Biden Administration’s Middle East strategy is already facing extreme challenges with the conflict in Gaza and the subsequent potential failure of the Gulf-Israel peace process and Turkey has played a key role in mediating grain exports to much of the global south during the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It is unlikely the US will risk damaging its relationship with such a key ally, meaning the incentives for participation in a regionalized Gaza War remain low for the SDF and AANES.

This is especially true when the Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential election will likely be Donald Trump, who is polling around equal to Biden (typically just ahead of him at the time of writing) and could return to the US Presidency next year. Trump, who unilaterally ordered the withdrawal of US forces from the Syria-Turkey border in 2019, leading to Operation Peace Spring and the ethnic cleansing of a strip of Rojava in Syria from Serê Kaniyê to Girê Spî, is evidently not a reliable partner for the SDF. Leaning too far towards the US to the point where the SDF loses potential counterbalancing partners would be a highly risky move. It would be a repeat of the period of time between Operation Olive Branch, when Russia was temporarily discredited as a security guarantor, and Operation Peace Spring, when the SDF was forced to return to balancing between Russia and the US after both were revealed to be unreliable. Just as this period ended in territorial loss and military defeat thanks to an eclectic President Trump, so may it end if the SDF were to become solely reliant on the US for security under a second Trump Presidency.

As far as Turkey’s role in the Israel-Hamas war goes, there are both potential benefits and risks for NE Syria. Erdogan has offered Turkish mediation in the conflict and with the US becoming increasingly critical of Israel’s strategy of war, it is possible the West will begin pushing for a negotiated conclusion to the conflict by the new year. If Turkey is to take a leading role in mediating negotiations, it could lead to a rejuvenation of US-Turkish relations and long-term harm to the prospects of survival for the AANES. Turkey’s relationship with the US may be increasingly transactional under Erdogan, but bringing about a peace favorable to Israel would be a favor the US would have to repay. At the same time, the Turkish leadership has not thus far positioned itself as a credible mediator. Erdogan’s AKP’s Islamist ideological leanings and domestic anti-Israeli sentiment have persuaded Erdogan to take a line hostile to Israel and sympathetic to Hamas. If the Turkish government continues down this path, it may provide an opportunity for the AANES since worsening US-Turkey relations would incentivize Washington to take a more pro-SDF stance in its defense against Turkish aggression.

The historical intertwining of the Kurdish and Palestinian liberation movements makes the SDF’s intervention less likely. The Palestinian and Kurdish liberation movements have long and deep connections, the legacy of which remains in the thinking of the current Rojava Kurdish leadership. After the PKK leadership’s flight from Turkey to Syria in 1980, it was the Palestinian quarter of Damascus that covertly sheltered PKK militants, and it was the Palestinian Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine who provided a lifeline for the PKK and gave them training in guerilla warfare. It was there in Lebanon, fighting alongside the Palestinians, that the PKK saw some of its first combat deaths—not against Turkey but against Israel. Others would later be captured and interrogated by both Israeli troops and Turkish intelligence officials. This mutual solidarity will not be forgotten.

While Hamas’ former political leader Khaled Mashal would praise Turkey’s invasion and ethnic cleansing of Afrin, both left-wing Palestinian groups and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have vigorously opposed Turkey’s instrumentalizing of displaced Palestinians in its efforts to ethnically cleanse northern Syria. Likewise, the PA has cooperated with the AANES on the repatriation of Islamic State family members. On the Kurdish side, both the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) and SDF leader Mazloum Abdi have condemned Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians and have supported the establishment of a Palestinian polity (whether as a state or a democratic confederation) and senior figures in Rojava such as Polat Can have written of their opposition to Zionism.

The AANES and SDF leadership have rejected the division of the Palestinian and Kurdish struggles caused by the instrumentalization of the Palestinian cause by both Turkey and Saddam’s Iraq to settle Palestinian refugees into Kurdish lands. This historic and mutually reciprocated solidarity between the Palestinian and Kurdish left serves to undermine the divide-and-conquer tactics of the region’s ethno-states and the whole imperial architecture of the Middle East which relies upon them.

In conclusion, while the Gaza War’s regionalization is not yet inevitable, there exist multiple avenues through which the US and other parts of the Middle East could be drawn into a broader war, whether it be through Israeli provocations against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon or through IRI attacks against American bases in Syria and Iraq. For that reason, there exists the potential for NE Syria to become embroiled in a regional conflagration between the US and the Resistance Axis. Moreover, it is my estimation that any potential benefits the SDF could derive from getting pulled into the war, are far outweighed by the risks of doing so. Therefore, the most beneficial path for key NE Syrian decision-makers in Rojava to take is to continue down the path of strict neutrality, even if the war ‘goes regional’ and even if the US puts significant pressure on the SDF leadership to defend American interests in the region. Fortunately, the SDF has remained neutral so far in the conflict and, in part because of historic Palestinian-Kurdish ties, will likely continue to do so.

Author

  • Theo Mitchell

    Theo Mitchell holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of York and is currently completing an MA in Global Politics at the London School of Economics. In 2021, he worked with Think Pacific to help develop an environmentally conscious education system in Fiji. His main areas of research include Kurdish politics, Middle Eastern Studies, Conflict and Genocide Studies, and Critical Political Economy.

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