Great powers trade Kurds and territory in Syria’s splintering conflict

A three-way deal has seemingly been reached in the complex web of Syrian politics.
Sunday 25/02/2018
A convoy of pro-Syrian government fighters arrive in Syria’s northern region of Afrin, on February 20.(AFP)
Counterweight. A convoy of pro-Syrian government fighters arrive in Syria’s northern region of Afrin, on February 20.(AFP)

BEIRUT - A three-way deal has seemingly been reached in the complex web of Syrian politics, allowing the Turkish Army to possibly move into Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, side by side with US forces, in exchange for letting the Syrian Army or allied military groups enter Afrin instead of Kurdish militias.

Implicitly, the Russians see this as a green light to march on the last remaining enclave of the armed opposition in Ghouta, the agricultural belt around Damascus, which they started doing — raising international outcry — on February 20.

There is nothing Syrian about the agreement, reached on their behalf by the Russians, Americans and Turks. Apart from that, all sides seem satisfied with it, with the exception, of course, of the Syrian opposition.

The Manbij deal was hammered out by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during the former’s visit to Ankara. It allows the Turks to march on Manbij, a multiethnic city overrun by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 and liberated by the nearly all-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2016.

The Turks had begged the United States to let them finish off ISIS in Manbij and Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital, but both honours went to separatist Kurdish militias, labelled “terrorist militias” by the Turkish government. They have now been satisfied with a threshold in Manbij but, in return, are obliged to halt their offensive on Afrin, west of the Euphrates, deep within Russia’s sphere of influence in Syria.

The Afrin operation, which started January 20, has been extremely slow, complicated and generally not good for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He had expected a swift victory but more than one month after his forces started pounding Afrin, the city remains firmly in the hands of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The Turkish death toll is rising and Erdogan is coming under immense pressure for targeting civilians, arresting anti-war demonstrators and using internationally prohibited weapons on the Kurds of Afrin.

Desperate for a way out, Erdogan agreed to let Syrian government troops march on Afrin, ending Kurdish aspirations in the contested city. They will be prevented from linking Afrin, administratively and politically, to their territorial ambitions west of the Euphrates, in Hasakah and Qamishli, where US troops are based.

Afrin would have theoretically returned to the hold of the Damascus government and in return for amputating Kurdish ambitions, the Turks will look the other way as Russia and Syria begin a massive battle against their Syrian proxies in Ghouta, where the armed opposition has been in control since 2012. That changed after the Turkish government welcomed the deal, under the belief that the Kurds would march out as the Syrian were marching in. When it was clear that the Kurdish armed groups would not leave, the Turks turned sour, claiming they had been deceived.

Turkish officials claimed they don’t mind seeing Afrin restored to Syrian officialdom, arguing that their only red line is government troops aiding Kurdish separatists. The Kurdish parties claim this is what they had wanted all along, after a senior delegation visited Damascus hours before the Turkish operations started, asking for Syrian Army protection. They offered in exchange to let government troops establish “symbolic presence” in Afrin, such as setting up schools and raising the Syrian flag.

Damascus said no, arguing that Afrin was a Syrian city rather than a Kurdish one and that its armed groups would be subjected to the terms of the reconciliation agreements reached with warring factions since the Russians intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015. The Kurds would get to keep their light arms but surrender heavy weaponry obtained from the Americans. They would also be entitled to patrol and police their city, side by side with the Syrian Army. At the time, the Kurds refused, thinking that the Afrin operation would not happen, due to earlier promises from the Russians, who had entered Afrin in mid-2012.

On February 18, however, a senior Kurdish delegation, headed by Sipan Hamo, commander of the YPG, went to Aleppo to meet with Syrian and Russian generals. This time, he was given a new offer: substantial Syrian government presence in Afrin rather than symbolic in exchange for full support of the Russian and Syrian Air Force against the Turkish onslaught. Government troops would deploy in Afrin and fight off invading Turkish forces but the Kurds would have to dismantle all military and political institutions once operations ended and agree to full regime control of Afrin, with no linkage to the Kurdish entities east of the Euphrates.

Seeing that the agreement has received the implicit blessing of the Americans, the Kurds said yes, unable to say no to the Trump administration. They are the only militants on the Syrian battlefield still receiving arms and funds from the United States, with an additional $550 million allocated for the SDF in the Pentagon’s 2019 budget.

Assurances have been given that they would face no similar scenario in cities fully under their control, like Hasakah and Qamishli, a promise that might be hard to believe after all sides abandoned them, first in Iraqi Kurdistan when they went to the polls last September, and more recently, in Afrin itself.