Bottom Line: The retaking of rebel-central Homs last week by the Syrian regime marks a turning point in the conflict, while a secondary battle between the Kurds and radical Sunni jihadists in the north rages. If anyone continues to insist that this is anything but a regional conflict, the evidence is piling up to the contrary. From Israeli strikes to Hezbollah’s involvement to Turkey’s tricky engagement in fighting in the north, this is beyond Syria.
Analysis: Last week, Syrian regime forces recaptured the central city of Homs, which has until now been deemed the bastion of rebel forces. In all of this the Kurds are driving for autonomy and engaged in major clashes with radical Sunni forces—the Iraq-al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front--in the North. It’s easy to accuse the Kurds here of aligning themselves with the Syrian regime, but that is not the case. They are fighting for an autonomous enclave and had warned the rebels to stay out. Kurds comprise around 15% of Syria’s population, and the majority live in the North. The Kurds had already won a bit of a coup in mid-2012 when Syrian troops withdrew from the Kurdish areas and handed security over to Kurdish militia. Now our intelligence points to the beginnings of the formation of a Kurdish autonomous government, even if only embryonic and unofficial. While most media reports focus on Turkey’s insistence that an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria would not be acceptable, there are quiet talks going on between the Turks and some very powerful Syrian Kurds. Turkey will deal with Syria’s Kurds for two reasons: to ensure that its fight with Sunni rebels in the form of jihadists doesn’t undermine the fight against Assad, and because of burgeoning relations (read: oil and gas) with the Kurds of Northern Iraq.
Recommendation: The US may intervene beyond training and arming rebels if the Syrian regime manages to build on its Homs success. Right now Washington is just supplying the rebels with enough new weapons as a bit of an experiment to see where those weapons actually end up, but the loss of Homs is a significant loss that the rebels may not be able to recoup, and Washington cannot afford the wider implications at this point of “losing” to the Assad regime. The only other way to stop this conflict is to Balkanize it and carve up the country—central and southern areas going to the regime, the north going to the Kurds (who are managing to stave off the Sunni radicals, but only just) and the rest going to the “rebels”. This will have interesting implications for the oil and gas ambitions of Northern Iraq and be a major boost for Iraq’s Kurds to have another autonomous Kurdish enclave on the border.