Middle East

U.S. pullback costs Syrian Kurds bargaining chip

A handout picture shows Syrian government forces waving national flags as they enter the northern town of Ain Issa in the countryside of Raqqa region. / AFP PHOTO / HO / SANA

BEIRUT: A U.S. pullback from Syria has cost Kurdish leaders bargaining power with Damascus in their bid to secure their autonomy and left their fate hinging on its ally Russia. Syrian Kurdish officials said Monday a deal with Damascus that Moscow brokered centered on army troops deploying along the border.

They said the two sides would talk politics later.

“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger,” top Kurdish politician Aldar Xelil told Reuters in a message.

But the army deployment raises questions about the future of a region across north and east Syria - rich in oil, water and farmland - where the Kurdish YPG militia carved out self-rule.

Kurdish forces had emerged winners in Syria’s more than 8-year-old conflict after crushing Daesh (ISIS) alongside U.S. troops. They had hoped to shore up their autonomy within Syria.

That is now in jeopardy. Washington’s move to withdraw, which opened the way for Ankara’s offensive, left Syrian Kurds scrambling for help from President Bashar Assad and Moscow.

With the Americans set to pull out in days, Kurdish authorities have lost key leverage in their efforts to secure a political deal with Damascus that would let them retain their gains, analysts say.

Army soldiers headed toward the Turkish border Monday, entering towns that had been in YPG hands for years.

There has been no official comment from the Syrian government beyond state media reporting. “The Kurds are bankrupt. Their card has fallen. Now they want to grasp any branch as they drown,” a regional source close to Damascus said.

Despite oil trade and shared enmity toward Turkey, Damascus and the Kurds “don’t agree on anything when it comes to ruling northeast Syria,” said Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Where they are going to have big differences is over language, the schooling, the military autonomy, all the mechanisms of self-rule.”

The Syrian Kurds, long persecuted by the Baathist state, have seldom clashed with Assad during the country’s civil conflict. At times, they have even fought common enemies such as the anti-Assad rebels in Turkey’s offensive.

Previous attempts at negotiations between the sides had gone nowhere. Damascus has been loathe to cede the Kurds the level of autonomy they seek.

Assad’s government earlier this year threatened Kurdish fighters with military defeat if they did not agree to a return of state authority.

The Syrian government struck the deal with Kurdish forces to redeploy to the border as the United States announced Sunday it would withdraw its 1,000 troops from Syria in the face of Turkey’s expanding offensive.

Turkey brands the YPG as terrorists linked to militant Kurdish separatists at home.

Syrian army soldiers - with Russian oversight - will deploy from the border town of Manbij to Derik under the new agreement with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the YPG spearheads.

Xelil said a range of sticking points could be discussed once the Turkish threat subsided.

“We are in contact with the Damascus government to reach common [ground] in the future.”

Another senior Kurdish official, Badran Jia Kurd, echoed those comments: “This is a preliminary military agreement.

“The political aspects were not discussed, and these will be discussed at later stages.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 15, 2019, on page 5.

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