Syrian Kurdish gains under threat as Russia, US try to placate Turkey / Fehim Tastekin

The Russian and US policies of appeasing Turkey have averted a new Turkish ground operation in Syria for now, but they both lay the ground for a gradual undoing of Kurdish gains in the north.

Turkish plans for a ground operation against Kurdish-held areas in Syria have been stalled by Russian and US objections, but a strategy of sustained pressure seems to be taking shape to incrementally undo Kurdish gains on the ground.

The proposals that Moscow and Washington have reportedly made to appease Ankara would both shrink the area of control of the de facto Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northern Syria, though they would prevent any Turkish boots on the ground. Moreover, Turkey’s talks with Russia are premised on the prospect of Ankara normalizing ties with Damascus and the Russians using that prospect to pressure the Kurds to compromise with the Syrian government.

Syria was high on the agenda of Turkish-Russian talks in Istanbul on Dec. 8-9, led by the two countries’ deputy foreign ministers and attended by the Kremlin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentyev. “No ground operation has been launched yet, which means there has been a positive result already. We will press on," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said during the talks. The topic was also discussed in a Dec. 11 phone call between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Moscow and Washington have not officially revealed their proposals, but some details have leaked.

According to a Turkish official speaking to Al Jazeera on Dec. 7, Ankara has demanded that Moscow and Washington press the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to withdraw from Manbij, Tal Rifaat and Kobani within two weeks or face a ground offensive. The Americans responded with a proposal to restructure the SDF and give its Arab components a larger role in the three towns, the official said. Turkey, however, insisted that SDF control of oil facilities should end before it considered any American proposal.

The Russians, for their part, proposed in Istanbul that the SDF withdraw from Kobani and Manbij, while the Asayish — the internal security force of the self-rule administration — remain on the condition of being incorporated into government forces, Asharq al-Awsat reported. The Turkish side requested time to assess the offer, reiterating that no SDF elements should remain in a 30-kilometer-deep strip along the entire border. The SDF has reportedly accepted the proposal.

Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish forces as a national security threat and equates the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the backbone of the US-backed SDF — with the Kurdistan Workers Party, the armed outfit that has fought Ankara since 1984 and is designated as a terrorist group.

A Kurdish source told Al-Monitor that, officially, the SDF had withdrawn from the areas cited in a 2019 deal between Russia and Turkey, but stressed that the deal did not cover the Asayish. “The SDF is not against the Russian proposal, which is based on the 2019 deal, but the Asayish should be incorporated into the regime forces,” he said. Turkey reportedly insists that the Asayish, too, should go.

Damascus, the source said, remains intransigent on formal autonomy for the Kurds and continues to press firmly for the pullout of US forces in the Kurdish-held areas and the control of oilfields, but it is unlikely to reject the proposal on the Asayish. “A middle-way formula could be found on the Asayish. Some contacts have taken place, and the impression is that the regime could be flexible on that,” the source said. Unlike its rigidness on political matters, Damascus has been more amenable in the military field, the source noted. “The Asayish and regime forces have gained experience working side by side in Qamishli and Hasakah. Moreover, regime forces are now present all along the border. There is ongoing coordination on security,” he added.

In remarks to Asharq al-Awsat last week, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi ruled out the withdrawal of the Asayish. Referring to the 2019 deals, he said, “We did not agree to the return of regime institutions. We only agreed on the border guard and the presence of the regime on the border.” Asked about Russia’s proposal for the SDF’s pullout from Manbij and Kobani in favor of government forces, he noted, “The regime has more forces there than we do, nearly double ours. The regime is deployed in Kobani, Manbij and Tal Rifaat. An attack on Kobani and Manbij will be more of a problem for the regime than us.”

The SDF is not opposed to becoming part of the Syrian army, but that would require a constitutional solution, Abdi said, adding that he would be ready to go to Damascus for talks once the conditions are ripe for a settlement.

According to the Kurdish source, “Damascus is reassessing things in light of Turkey’s normalization offer. Should it make a deal with Ankara or reconcile with the Kurds? Because Ankara would not meet Damascus’ conditions, the regime is testing the waters on our side. It might eventually opt for a deal with the Kurds.”

A second Kurdish source said the armed forces that had moved to the north in the face of increased Turkish strikes since Nov. 20 could retreat back in line with the 2019 deal should proper assurances be provided. In any case, the military councils to which the Asayish is affiliated will stay on, the source added.

In Ankara’s eyes, the YPG and the military councils are all the same, hence its claim that the 2019 deal — which required the YPG’s withdrawal from border areas as well as Manbij and Tal Rifaat — has not been honored.

According to the second source, Washington is not opposed to the Kurds discussing their future status with Bashar al-Assad’s government, and Abdi is willing to go to Damascus to pave the way for a solution and jumpstart negotiations against the prospect of Turkish-Syrian intelligence contacts evolving into a political dialogue. “Assad could turn to the Kurds, but Russia and Iran are obstructing that,” the source claimed.

In the event of an SDF withdrawal in favor of government forces, the normalization pace between Ankara and Damascus is expected to accelerate. The prevailing view among the Kurds is that an eventual Turkish-Syrian reconciliation would rest on the goal of fully undoing the Kurdish gains, so reaching a deal with Damascus before that happens is seen as vital.

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