New Developments in Northeast Syria: What Can They Lead to?

Three developments have led to a radical change in the situation in Northeast Syria: 1. The withdrawal of US troops from the region; 2. The invasion of Turkish troops and the so-called “Syrian National Army” (SNA) in the north-eastern regions of Syria; 3. The agreements reached by Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.

The withdrawal of American troops was perceived by the Turkish president as a call to action. The invasion with the goal of “suppressing terrorists”, by which he meant the Syrian Kurdish People’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), was executed by the Turkish army and its SNA proxies almost immediately after the Americans left. Turkish troops, together with the SNA, advanced into Syrian territory across 100 km of Turkey’s southern border, between the cities of Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad, for some time occupying both cities and moving 35 km deep into Syrian territory, the distance that Erdogan had previously declared a “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border.

The Kurds considered this an existential threat, and the departure of the Americans a betrayal. Damascus meanwhile, considered it a direct, aggressive invasion of the country. This brought the Assad administration and the Kurdish leaders of de facto autonomous “Rojava” closer together and forced them to compromise by agreeing on joint action.

The fact is, that Russian politicians believed that the contradictions between the Kurds and Damascus were not intransigent and at least over the past two years they have been patiently negotiating with both parties at different levels, trying to convince them to come to some kind of compromise, albeit a temporary one. However, both sides took uncompromising positions: among the Kurds, these were stimulated by the hope that they would be protected by the Americans, while Damascus reasoned that it was winning the war anyway, and the Kurds would not go anywhere.

This may seem like a paradox, but Erdogan with his invasion managed to do what Moscow had sought to achieve for years: convince the Syrian government and the Kurds of the need for joint action. Examples of such joint action have already appeared.

But the situation was heating up and the threat of direct military clashes between the regular armies of Turkey and Syria was growing sharply. Throughout the Syrian conflict, both Damascus and Ankara tried to avoid a direct confrontation. Such a development was also seen in Moscow as extremely dangerous.

Hence the idea of ​​a meeting in Sochi, initiated by the Russian leadership. This meeting bore fruit in the form of terms that were acceptable to all three parties: Damascus, Ankara and the Syrian Kurds. That is, none of the parties experienced joy, but all of the biggest threats were eliminated.

What happened in the end, and what does it look like today?

1. The Syrian army took up positions along the border with Turkey from the eastern suburbs of the city of Jarabulus to the easternmost point at the intersection with the border of Iraq, except within the 100 km zone mentioned above. In general, this is a significant and unforeseen success – one that was not presumed by Syria or Russia at this stage of the conflict. In essence, this is a strategic change in terms of restoring the territorial integrity of the country.

2. The Turkish side received what it was seeking if its goal was indeed to ensure the complete security of its border with Syria. The north-western part of the border is located in the zone of Turkish occupation, and the north-eastern part is in the joint patrol zone of the Turkish and Russian military police. Moreover, Russian military police will guarantee the prevention of any attacks on Turkish territory from Syria, as they are routinely patrolling the security zone. It’s true that this territory is only 5 km deep rather than 35 km, as the Turks initially wanted; as a result, dissatisfaction is expressed by Turkish generals: they say, “we were deceived.” But there can be a reasoned answer to this: first, what did you want –– security or territory?; second, this is Syrian territory, and the depth of the security zone should be discussed in direct negotiations with the Syrian government. Be thankful that Damascus showed goodwill and agreed to 5 km.

3. The Kurds received a guarantee against defeat. But not only. In fact, during joint operations with the Syrian army, they recaptured the city of Tel Abyad; conflicting information is coming about Ras al-Ayn, apparently the fighting is continuing there. The nuance is that the Turkish army in this area prefers to use mercenaries from the SNA, and they become the legitimate target of both the Syrian army and the Kurds.

Regarding statements President Assad made on the Kurdish issue during his recent interviews, they are often considered a one-sided interpretation. In fact, what he said is far from unambiguous. In particular, when criticizing the Kurds for their cooperation with the United States, he at the same time noted that some Kurdish armed groups had joined the Syrian army and are fighting in its ranks against the invaders.

In fact, the Kurdish-Syrian reconciliation is far from simple, mutual alienation and distrust have not been overcome, and ideas about how relations will be built in the future still differ significantly. But the process has already begun, part of the SDF is fighting in close coordination with the Syrian army.

And the last thing. The return of some of the American troops “to protect Syrian oil” has generated justifiable indignation in Damascus and in Moscow, and is seen as blatant robbery. But in my opinion, this, like many other actions of Donald Trump, has been caused solely by pre-election considerations. In this case, we are talking about appeasing a part of the American military elite.

Syrian Kurds Facing Strategic Choice
Boris Dolgov
The Syrian government has proposed that Kurdish armed groups join its army amid the ongoing conflict with Turkey. Concerning the security situation in northern Syria, the fact that the Kurdish troops are joining the Syrian government army, taking control of the region and suppressing the remaining radical Islamist groups can help restore the rule of law, ensure a peaceful life and improve the security situation.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.