Damascus-SDF deal denies Turkey victory but at cost for Syrian Kurds

The agreement calls for the abolishment of all Kurdish parties and militias, including the SDF and YPG, since, by Syrian government law, parties cannot operate on ethnic grounds.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Big winner. A Syrian government soldier raises a Syrian national flag atop an electrical wiring pole by the border with Turkey in the town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, in northern Aleppo, October 17. (AFP)
Big winner. A Syrian government soldier raises a Syrian national flag atop an electrical wiring pole by the border with Turkey in the town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, in northern Aleppo, October 17. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The Syrian government recaptured large reaches of land east of the Euphrates River handed to them by Kurdish militants fleeing the military offensive by Turkey and its proxies of Syrian rebels.

It was the single largest territorial gain for the Syrian government in nearly nine years. This was made possible because of three factors.

First was the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw 1,000 troops from north-eastern Syria, hoping to end to what he labelled “endless wars.”

Second was the Turkish invasion that followed, dually aimed at driving Kurdish separatists from the border area and occupying the Syrian towns of Ras al-Ayn, Kobane and Tal Rifaat.

Third was the Russia-sponsored negotiations between Damascus and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which resulted in a surrender of all the cities and towns in the area to Syrian authorities.

By October 14, the Syrian Army had rumbled into Manbij, west of the Euphrates, which the SDF had liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2016. The army also entered Ayn Issa in Raqqa governorate, liberated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominates the SDF, in 2015. Syrian flags were raised in both towns, with live reports on state-run television.

Syrian government troops then headed to the demolished city of Raqqa on the north-east bank of the Euphrates, once the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, and the major cities of Qamishli and Hasakah, east of the Euphrates. They aim to retake Malkieh, in the north-eastern tip of Syria, defining the triple borders of Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

“The Turkish regime is not a victor,” insisted Kurdish analyst Hosheng Ossi. “The aim of their operation was not just to dismantle the Kurdish self-administration but, rather, to occupy it in full. That objective has not been met.”

The agreement calls for the abolishment of all Kurdish parties and militias, including the SDF and YPG, since, by Syrian government law, parties cannot operate on ethnic grounds.

The fate of their US-supplied weapons is yet to be discussed, whether those would go to the Syrian or Russian armies. Additionally, no decision has been made on whether Kurdish fighters would be incorporated into the government army, police and intelligence services.

The deal keeps 12,000 ISIS fighters in Kurdish jails under control of the Kurdish militants, rather than the Syrians, which means they will be able to keep some of their arms.

In exchange for their surrender, the Kurdish militants have been verbally promised “full rights” in the new Syrian Constitution, whose talks are to start October 30 in Geneva.

Because of a strong veto by Turkey, the Kurds are poorly represented on the Constitutional Committee, with only three out of 150 members and only one of them on the 45-member Drafting Committee. Damascus now promises to stand up for them in Switzerland, without specifying how that would be done, since it flatly rejects any form of federalism for north-eastern Syria.

Before the Turkish invasion, the Kurds had dreamed of a federal state east of the Euphrates, although their cities are separated by geography and none had a 100% Kurdish majority.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan jeopardised his country’s reputation after insisting on moving ahead with his mission, causing tremendous friction with the United States, the European Union and the Arab League.

Approximately 6,000 Turkish troops were in the battlefield, along with an additional 6,400 Syrian proxies on the Turkish payroll. A Syrian faction of the Turkish proxies killed Hevrin Khalaf, a 36-year-old Kurdish politician — on camera — in an apparent bid to terrify Kurdish fighters.

Syrian state-run news agency SANA reported October 13 that the Syrian Army was heading to “confront” the Turkish Army but no confrontation took place, raising speculation that the Damascus-SDF deal might have been approved by the Turks, through Russian mediation.

Erdogan ended the speculation October 14, saying: “The regime entering Manbij is not very negative for me. Why? It’s their lands after all. What is important to me is that the terrorist organisation does not remain there.”

In other words, he didn’t really care who took over from the SDF; what mattered to him was that the Kurdish militias were dismantled and the borders were 100% YPG free.

In 2016, Erdogan’s forces occupied the Syrian border towns of Jarabulus, Azaz and al-Bab and, in 2018, the Turkish Army marched into Afrin, west of the Euphrates, driving the Kurdish militants out.

Erdogan had hoped to create a 460km-wide, 35km-deep Kurdish-free safe zone, where he could relocate millions of Syrian refugees who have been in Turkey since 2011. The United States made it clear that it would only tolerate a zone that was 80km in length and 15km deep but the Americans would not allow Erdogan to go after the Kurds in Syria.

Last February, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to revive the Adana Agreement of 1998, which allows Turkey to enter up to 5km into Syrian territory in pursuit of Kurdish separatists if, and only if, Syrian authorities failed to do the job. At a summit on September 16, he offered to expand that territory and to deploy Russian troops along the Syrian-Turkish area, creating a double buffer that would safeguard Erdogan’s interests, without calling it a “safe zone.”

“We need to reach a decentralised system in north-eastern Syria, which preserves integrity and sovereignty of the country,” said Sami Khiyami, a former ambassador to London who serves on the recently formed constitutional committee.

“The SDF needs to act in a wise manner to reach a viable power-sharing formula with all Kurdish parties, the government and Arab tribal notables from north-eastern Syria. They need a national conference from which they elect a new leadership for the entire area.”

That won’t happen, however, before Syrian troops redeploy throughout the entire area, which will be time consuming, given that they have been absent from that space since 2014.

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