Syria’s Kurds forge ‘costly deal’ with al-Assad as US pulls out

Damascus has much to gain from deal with Kurds, but its ability to halt Turkey’s push depends on Russia, say analysts.

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are pictured together near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province
Kurds may lose administrative autonomy over territories controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces following deal with Damascus [File: Rodi Said/Reuters]

In a renewed shift in alliances, the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria announced on Sunday a deal with President Bashar al-Assad‘s government to allow Syrian troops to deploy along the border with Turkey to stave off a military offensive by Ankara. 

The pact, brokered by Russia, came hours after the United States announced it was pulling its troops from Syria to avoid getting caught in clashes between the Turkish military and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

Mazloum Abdi, the SDF’s commander in chief, said his people were forced into an alliance with Washington’s foes, Syria and Russia, because the US’s pullback had left them vulnerable to a Turkish assault.

Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters who form the backbone of the SDF – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – to be “terrorists” linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist movement on its soil. The Kurdish-led forces, however, were Washington’s main ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) in Syria. And over the course of the years-long battle, the Kurds – who have long campaigned for self-rule – built an autonomous administration in northeast Syria. 

“If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people,” wrote Abdi in an op-ed for Foreign Policy. “The Russian and Syrian regime have made proposals that could save the lives of millions of people who live under our protection.”

Working with Damascus and Moscow requires “painful compromises”, he wrote. But the SDF has little choice: “Our people are under attack, and their safety is our paramount concern.” 

Ankara, for its part, says its military action is against the YPG, not the Kurdish people, and is also aimed at creating a “safe-zone” to resettle Syrian refugees

While the details of the Syrian-Kurdish pact to repel the Turkish offensive are unclear, analysts said it was likely “very costly” for the SDF. 

Kurdish autonomy

The deal has helped deter Turkish advancement into Kurdish-controlled areas east of the Euphrates River, with Syrian troops taking over Manbij on Tuesday.

But al-Assad, who wants to reassert his rule over Syrian territories lost during the course of the country’s eight-year-civil-war, was unlikely to allow the Kurdish-led administration to maintain autonomy in those areas, said Amer Mohamad, a Syria security expert.

“This understanding [between the Kurds and al-Assad] is very costly for the SDF but cost-free for al-Assad,” he said. For al-Assad’s government, deploying troops to the border was “only a symbolic deterrence against Turkey”, he added, dismissing the likelihood of a military confrontation between Syria and Turkey.

But for the Kurds, the deal “would have involved a lot of compromises,” said Mohamad. 

“A few months ago, the SDF was in a position to try to maintain everything [it had gained]. But now, being completely under [the authority of] the Syrian government, they will be trying to just maintain the safety and security of their people and towns.”

It was the US’s troop withdrawal that weakened the SDF, said Marwan Kablan, director of policy analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies. 

“The Syrian regime is exploiting the situation to its maximum and will not accept autonomy for the Kurds,” he said. 

“Damascus will impose its own terms because the YPG is now much weaker than they were before the US withdrew … While it may accept things like cultural rights and local councils for the Kurds, Damascus will not grant them autonomy.”

For the Syrian government, the deal was also strategic as it could allow al-Assad to regain control over resource-rich areas in northeast Syria without entering into a direct confrontation with the Turks.

“This deal will allow Damascus to recover most of the territories east of Euphrates – including Qamishli, Hassakeh and Deir Az Zour – which are rich in oil and gas,” said Kablan. 

Russia’s stance

However, the success of Syrian government forces in repelling a Turkish advance and reclaiming the Kurdish-controlled north depended on Russia’s stance, analysts said, noting the YPG had struck a similar deal with al-Assad last year for the Syrian army to enter the western city of Afrin and deter a Turkish attack. 

But that deployment was thwarted after a conversation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, a major military backer of al-Assad, alongside Iran.

“A similar deal between the YPG and Syrian government during Turkey’s January 2018 Afrin offensive failed to significantly alter the trajectory of that Turkish offensive, in large part because Russia did not utilise its own leverage to pressure Turkey to end it,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group.

“Thus far, it is unclear how Russia will handle the current situation,” she added.

Mohamad agreed: “It all comes down to the sort of understanding that will be reached between Turkey and Russia, and this will be reached bit by bit. They will talk about Kobane and Manbij and then Qamishli.

“And so, when it comes to conflict developments, as we saw in Afrin, a deal [between al-Assad and the Kurds] did not last. And so the deployment of Syrian government troops doesn’t mean that Turkey will not advance.”

Still, things may be different this time. 

Russia’s defence ministry on Tuesday said its forces were patrolling the dividing line between Turkish and Syrian forces in Manbij. 

“It is difficult to know the dynamic of the Russian-Turkish understanding,” said Kablan. “The Russians were not against the Turkish operation at first because they wanted the Americans out. Now that the Americans are withdrawing … the Russians may start calling on Turkey to stop its incursion into Syria, calling it an invasion of a sovereign state.”

Source: Al Jazeera