The political and military leadership of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has appeared to be in a shaky situation since the withdrawal of US troops from Syria’s north and the start of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. Since the start of the US invasion of Syria, Kurdish armed groups, primarily the People’s Protection Units (YPG), relied on foreign power to fend off the ISIS offensive and expand their control across northern and eastern Syria. The US military, political and financial support made Kurdish leaders believe that Kurdish armed groups were a kind of “integral” part of Washington’s strategy and that they had a voice to decide their future under a US protectorate. This illusion predetermined the YPG-SDF stance towards cooperation with the Damascus government and its allies.
In January-March 2018, YPG forces in Afrin were defeated by the Turkish Army and pro-Turkish armed groups and were forced to flee towards Syrian Army positions near Aleppo city. Prior to Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, YPG leaders once again rejected Syrian-Russian proposals to settle their status and re-integrate into the Syrian state. Instead, they repeatedly asked the US and the so-called ‘international community’ for help – help which was not forthcoming.
The very same approach led to the start of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in northeastern Syria in 2019. On January 19, the so-called Autonomous Administration of Eastern Syria, a political body created by the SDF/YPG to manage the seized areas, issued a de-facto ultimatum to the Damascus government. Besides formal claims about the need to keep the unity of Syrian land and ensure rights to minorities, the 10-point long list included such demands as:
- to accept the Autonomous Administration as a legal part of the Syrian political system;
- to guarantee the Autonomous Administration representation in the Syrian Parliament;
- to use the Autonomous Administration flag alongside the Syrian flag;
- to allow the Autonomous Administration to conduct its own independent foreign policy;
- to allow SDF units to keep control of the Syrian border;
- to keep the SDF security force Asayish as the main security force within northeastern Syria;
- to distribute “Syrian wealth to the Syrian regions in a fair manner.”
Summing up these claims, the SDF demanded Damascus should legally recognize a de-facto independent US-backed pseudo-state and its military force within Syria and fund this state from the Syrian state budget. This behavior undermined Damascus attempts to launch a real political dialogue to settle differences and the SDF became even more dependent on the US amid open preparations of Turkey for a military action in northeastern Syria. So, when US troops withdrew and the Turkish Army crossed the border, there was nobody to protect the Kurds. President Donald Trump turned up the heat even more by advising the Kurds, if they want US protection, to resettle into oil areas, control of which its administration sees as one of its main priorities.
Therefore, the SDF leaders rushed to reach a protection agreement with Damascus and Russia. Syrian Army troops and Russian Military Police were deployed along the border and the M4 highway limiting the Turks to the area that they had already captured. Moscow negotiated with Ankara a safe zone agreement. The Turkish Army limited its actions to the aforementioned chunk of the border. Rescued SDF units started withdrawal from a 30km zone away from the Turkish border.
Despite this, the SDF and its political representatives continue insisting that the agreement with Damascus is solely a security agreement and political terms and conditions are yet to be negotiated. The group also expressed hopes that it will be able to ‘restore’ dialogue with the US to the level that they had before the troop withdrawal. The SDF even criticized statements by the Syrian Defense and Interior Ministries suggesting SDF members should settle their legal status within the Syrian state and join the army if they want. The SDF claimed that it will not accept any deal that would not “recognize and preserve” the group’s “privacy and structure.” These actions demonstrate that at least a part of the Kurdish leadership has learned little from the Afrin and northeastern Syria cases and still believes that it is in a position to use the language of ultimatums. The involvement of Kurdish leaders in the US-run oil smuggling operations also play a role. It is likely that they do not want to lose revenues from their illegal cooperation with the foreign power that is looting Syrian natural resources.
These factors add additional instability to the situation in northeastern Syria and complicate its further de-escalation. Developments south of Ras al-Ayn where clashes between Kurdish and Turkish-backed fighters have recently erupted, are a result of the lack of coordination in the implementation of the safe zone agreement additionally to the aggressive behavior of both sides.
Nonetheless, the SDF will have to find a kind of political understanding with Damascus because the main and most likely alternative is the resumption of the Turkish offensive.
The Kurdish armed groups known as the SDF have recent experience of betraying the Syrian nation. In the most precarious situation, they abandoned Syria and made a pact with the US, the foreign power that seeks to undermine the country’s territorial integrity and, at that stage of the conflict, was supporting the actions of al-Qaeda in Syria. There were – as there ought to be – consequences and the SDF suffered them. Washington abandoned its proxies, when it was deemed of higher value to the US to enable Turkey to carry out its offensive, than it was to protect them.
The US is not leaving Syria and the SDF is once again demonstrating that it may be prepared to sell its loyalty for American coin if a proposal were to come their way. However, if such a proposal is made and the SDF sabotages the reconciliation with Damascus, what guarantee is there that the US won’t abandon them once again?