Is France trying to be YPG's new protector in northern Syria?

  • 25 Dec 2018

Following the US withdrawal from northern Syria, France shows willingness to play Washington’s role by allying with the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US, and Turkey.

French President Emmanuel Macron sees the US withdrawal from northern Syria as a wrong political move, promising that Paris will continue to support YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But sources say France can not replace the US in Syria by itself. ( Benoit Tessier / Reuters )

After Trump administration’s surprise announcement of US troop pull-out from northern Syria, some NATO partners aren't considering to follow Washington and hang in the war-affected country, where Iran, Russia, and Turkey have a military presence. 

Last week, after meeting with two top representatives of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is led by the PKK affiliate YPG, French presidential officials said Paris will continue to support the SDF despite the US withdrawal. 

Since 2014, Washington has backed the YPG to defeat Daesh, giving the group a central role in managing the SDF forces in the battle fields. The YPG-led SDF alliance now controls one third of Syria with an access to several oil fields and two major dams in northern Syrian territories.

In the absence of American backing, the YPG-SDF partnership is now in limbo.  

With France showing signs of playing the big brother role, the armed group may hope for lasting in the region a bit longer. 

France has a history of colonizing Syria. After the WWI, Syria was under French occupation for two decades until the early 1940s.  

France in present times is not the France of last century.  The country is neck deep in social and political instability, with middle class people revolting against the centrist government. It remains to be seen whether France can afford to sustain a military support to notorious armed groups like the YPG.

“The French told them [the YPG] that ‘we will look at it’. But they also said that they can not play the [political and military] role Americans have had [in northern Syria],” one Syrian Kurdish source privy to Paris-YPG talks told TRT World. 

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militants stand near food supplies on the bank of the Euphrates river, west of Raqqa city, Syria, on April 10, 2017. Behind them, a YPG flag stands on one of the vehicles.(Reuters)

The YPG claimed ‘cantons’ or autonomous regions across much of northern Syria in 2012 after the Assad regime withdrew from the region abruptly in the beginning of the civil war.  

Ilham Ahmed and Riad Darrar, who were the SDF representatives, met French presidential officials in Paris on December 21. Two days after the meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron demonstrated its resentment toward Washington. "I very deeply regret the decision made on Syria," he said, referring to the US withdrawal, during a press conference in Chad. 

"Thee current thinking in the YPG leadership is ‘if France supports us, we will continue to fight against Daesh,’” the  Syrian-Kurdish source said, during a previous interview with TRT World. 

Relations between France and the PKK have a long history, going back to the 1980s and 1990s when the late Danielle Mitterrand, the wife of former French President Francois Mitterrand, publicly voiced her support for Abdullah Ocalan, the group’s founding leader, who has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999. 

The former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand had long offered her support for Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK founder and leader. She calls for the release of Ocalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999, during a news conference in Bonn on March 11, 1999.(AP Archive)

“Abdullah Ocalan has a special place in my heart,” the former French first lady said in 1998, indicating that she had strived for Ocalan for years, being “more Apoist than Apo  [Ocalan’s nickname].” 

She met with Ocalan when he was in Rome in December 1998 before his capture by Turkish special forces in Kenya in early 1999. After Ocalan’s capture, she even suggested that Ocalan should not be tried in Turkey. 

Ocalan also had a close relationship with the Assad regime, which had hosted him in the country for nearly two decades since late 1970s and allowed him to run training camps in Syria-occupied Bekaa Valley and other locations. It was after Turkish military warned Damascus to stop hosting Ocalan and his associates or face military action that the PKK leader fled to Europe in 1998. 

In the seven-year-long Syrian civil war, the YPG and the Assad regime has also had a working relationship. 

TRT World previously reported that the Assad withdrawal from northern Syria was orchestrated in an alleged deal between the YPG and the regime, setting forth conditions that the group would prevent any Kurdish support of the anti-Assad opposition.

They are now negotiating the possibility of handing over the YPG-controlled areas to the Assad regime, if Washington completely withdraws from the region, TRT World sources said last week. 

Two weeks ago, “there was a meeting [between the YPG and representatives of the Assad regime]," the sources added. “But they are yet to receive a concrete response from Assad.” 

The sources also said that Turkish forces in the outer banks of Manbij, a contentious town located in the west of the Euphrates River, and the Assad forces located in the south of the town have recently been in close proximity to each other.