The decision by the YPG-led SDF to accept Assad’s patronage wasn’t taken overnight. It was in the works for more than a year.
The swift gains of the Turkish security forces and their allies in northeastern Syria have decimated the frontlines of the YPG, the Marxist guerrilla group, which was trying to carve out a self-ruled region.
Now the group, which is a Syrian affiliate of the PKK terrorist organisation, is engaged in talks with the regime of Bashar al Assad to ensure its survival.
American soldiers who have supported and backed the YPG for years began pulling out this week after a decision by US President Donald Trump to leave Syria.
Details of the deal between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - another name for the YPG-led group - and the Assad regime haven’t been officially announced.
However, the information that has trickled out suggests that the SDF has invited Syrian regime forces to take control of towns along the Syria-Turkish border and amounts to what some have termed a ‘surrender’.
This deal was expected
“It’s not a surprise. SDF had to make a choice between coming to terms with Turkey or working with the Assad regime,” Ryan Bohl, Middle East Analyst at Stratfor think tank, told TRT World.
“Low-level SDF officials began reaching out to Damascus last summer when President Trump said in April 2018 that the US will be pulling out of Syria.”
Unlike the impression that SDF commander Mazloum Abdi, a high-ranking PKK militant, gave in an article that the deal is a matter of last resort, it was actually in the works for more than a year.
(Abdi's real name is Ferhat Abdi Sahin, and he has been behind many deadly attacks in Turkey.)
The SDF hopes that the presence of Syrian regime forces, which are backed by Russia’s air force and Iranian militias, will deter Turkey from pushing ahead with the offensive.
But Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already made it clear that Turkey won’t back down despite sanctions from Washington and deteriorating relations with the EU.
What does the SDF get out of it?
The SDF has asked Syrian troops to remain outside the towns, which it wants to keep under its administrative control. But such an arrangement won’t work for long.
Bohl said it’s unlikely that the SDF/YPG will get a high level of autonomy in the northeastern parts of Syria in the future. “Right now, they are just trying to be useful to the Assad regime. They will attempt to improve Kurdish rights in a post-civil war environment, but even that is a long shot,” he explained.
Assad has proven to be an uncompromising politician who believes in the centralisation of power rather than its devolution.
“If Assad decides to dole out rights, it would be out of a special dispensation it won't be out of leverage. SDF doesn't really have any leverage at this point of time,” said Bohl.
On the other hand, Turkish forces have driven the YPG from the border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras Al Ayn amid heavy fighting in which more than 630 terrorists have been killed.
Turkey has taken control of part of the crucial M4 highway, which runs across from the border with Iraq and serves as a key supply route.
For years, Ankara warned that the presence of YPG, which is a Syrian affiliate of the PKK terrorist organisation, was unacceptable as it posed a threat to Turkish border towns.
The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey in which more than 40,000 people have been killed. It is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and its Nato allies, the United States and the European Union.
Some Western media outlets have tried to downplay the PKK-YPG relationship, but both groups take inspiration from their jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan’s pictures adorn the YPG offices, and US officials have officially conceded that the two groups are nearly indistinguishable.
The US aligned with the YPG a few years back and armed its militants with heavy weapons to fight Daesh, which swept through parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
In 2016, Turkey cleared the border town Jarabblus of Daesh militants and stopped the SDF from moving any further towards Afrin.
The main points of the SDF-Assad deal in circulation:
- West and northwest of Tal Abyad, where Turkish forces have expelled the YPG: the SDF has agreed to let the Syrian regime enter and take control from Tabqa up to Ain Issa, and the Syrian regime will take control of Manbij to Ayn al Arab also known as Kobani.
- East and Southeast of Ras al Ayn, where Turkish forces have cleared the YPG: the Syrian regime will enter and take control of Tal Tamer, Qamishli and everything south.
- The chunk of land between Tal Abyad and Ras al Ayn, where Turkish forces have cleared the YPG, is ‘for fighting’ to take place.
- The SDF has pledged to preserve the unity of Syrian territory under the leadership of Bashar al Assad - which effectively means the SDF will be fighting as a force loyal to the Syrian regime.
The details of this deal have appeared online, which in reality is a ‘memorandum of understanding’, and has only been signed by SDF executives, not by Syrian regime officials. The SDF shared the same MoU yesterday, but today are casting doubt on it.