Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 June 2019

Caught between Damascus and Ankara, the Syrian Democratic Forces are weighing up a return to the regime

As the fight against ISIS has wound down, the Kurdish-led coalition has found itself manoeuvring in ever-smaller circles

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are running out of options. Delil Souleiman / AFP
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are running out of options. Delil Souleiman / AFP

Last month, representatives of the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria went to Damascus with a potential road map for the future of the region. After US President Donald Trump's announcement in December that his troops were leaving, the Syrian Kurds, concerned that the departure of American soldiers would be swiftly followed by the arrival of Turkish ones, met the Assad regime in Russian-mediated talks, armed with a plan.

Their proposal was this: that the Syrian Democratic Forces, the majority of whom are fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, would be incorporated into the Syrian army and would be tasked with protecting the northern border with Turkey. The Kurdish region would become legitimately autonomous, fly its own flag and there would be a fairer redistribution of the country's wealth.

The plan was the SDF's attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of apparent defeat. For as the fight against ISIS has wound down, the Kurdish-led coalition has found itself politically manoeuvring in smaller and smaller circles. As other players in the Syrian war, most of whom have more leverage and power, set out their own positions, the Kurds have been forced to carve out a policy in the small spaces between the political lines drawn by others. With the US withdrawal and the threat of a Turkish assault, their position has been weakened and they are running out of options.

Successive Turkish attacks have shrunk the territory the Syrian Kurds hold. For both the Americans and the Russians, protecting Kurdish ambitions has taken a very much secondary (indeed tertiary) place to, for the US, defeating ISIS and getting troops out, and for the Russians, protecting the military base at Khmeimim and the Assad regime.

The Kurds have been forced to carve out a policy in the small spaces between the political lines drawn by others

That leaves an uncertain future for the SDF and the border region. The Turks have made it clear they do not want a contiguous Kurdish-controlled area along the border because of the YPG’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it designates a terrorist organisation operating inside Turkish borders. Ankara’s position is that it would carve out a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border, which it would police alone and clear of the YPG. As defence minister Hulusi Akar told the Munich security conference last week: “Only Turkey should be present”.

Other players, however, have different ideas and have been outlining the over the past week.

It started with Russia in the resort of Sochi last week, where the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia had gathered to discuss Syria’s fate. The Russians made it clear that any military presence on the Syrian border must have the approval of Damascus. Without the assent of Damascus, Russia will not agree to allow the SDF to patrol the border.

Then, a few days later at the Munich Security Conference, the secretary-general of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the bloc's position was that neither European nor Turkish forces should be deployed at the border. Instead, he said, the SDF should do it as they are “indigenous forces”.

The position was complicated somewhat, because he called on Bashar Al Assad to “moderate” his position, apparently referring to the oft-repeated statement from Damascus that all territory must be brought back under Syrian control. Reading between the lines, it appeared he meant that Damascus should leave the area under Kurdish control and allow the SDF to patrol it.

On Sunday Damascus weighed in, with Mr Al Assad addressing his parliament and warning the Kurds that “nobody will protect you except your state”. He added: “If you do not prepare yourselves to defend your country, you will be nothing but slaves.” That suggests the regime will expect the Syrian Kurds to fight for the state, most likely against Turkey, but in what capacity remains unclear.

And then this week came something of a fatal blow for the Kurds, when the American commander of the US-led coalition against ISIS said that if the SDF allied themselves with the regime or Russia, the US would be forced to sever its military assistance.

All of this leaves the SDF in a precarious position. With the US leaving, the SDF is at the mercy of an attack by Turkey. Only the regime can protect them from that but for that to happen, the regime would exact a price, which is almost certainly a return to its control.

What this might look like is questionable. It could mean, as the Kurds have suggested, incorporating the SDF into the Syrian army; it could be limited autonomy for the Kurdish region, or it could be the complete disarmament of the region and replacing the border guards with Syrian regime soldiers.

The SDF, therefore, has almost no option that doesn't include some return to a relationship with the regime.

But doing that, the US has now signalled, would immediately end any America backing or assistance, giving the Kurds even less leverage in negotiations with the regime.

Kurdish leaders might have hoped that their efforts in fighting ISIS would broaden their support base and secure their future. The departure of US troops, however, brings an end to that aspiration.

Stripped back, the dilemma of the Kurdish-led SDF is choosing between Damascus and Ankara. And that, unfortunately, for the Kurds who hoped the war might grant them distance from Damascus, means returning to the fold in some form.

The Kurds have taken a long route over the past eight years of the conflict, seeking autonomy and deploying their fighters to help the Americans, only to find all paths are now shutting down and they have little choice but to head back to Damascus.

Updated: February 19, 2019 06:24 PM