Leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces were under no illusions that their alliance with the United States as anything more than one of convenience. Even as the SDF took and held territory in northeast Syria, its commanders had always publicly reiterated that the solution lay in dialogue with the government and that they were ready to give up fighting, so long as there would be no return to the political and security status quo before 2011.
At the same time, the political and military gains they achieved were meant to be used as leverage with the regime. This was apparent when a delegation from the SDF’s Syrian Democratic Council went to Damascus to negotiate with Director of National Security Major General Ali Mamlouk in August 2018. It was established that any talks with the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria should be within the framework of Article 107 of the Local Administration Law, which discusses the nature of the relationship between the country’s centre and peripheries.
So why, after the Turkish military operation in northeast Syria, has the SDF handed over all its bargaining chips to Russia and the Syrian regime despite having known from the start that its alliance with the U.S. was temporary? And what has happened to its army of over 70,000 fighters with massive capabilities in the form of U.S. weapons and vast oil fields that make up Syria’s biggest source of revenue?
Still, America’s sudden decision to withdraw, leaving behind a vacuum that prompted Turkey to carry out Operation Peace Spring, had not figured into the Kurds’ calculation. In an interview with Saudi newspaper Okaz on 14 September 2018, SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi spoke of an excellent relationship with the United States and a strategy in place for 2019. There was also talk circulating about a security agreement between the SDF and US military command in Syria and Iraq for mutual protection for the next 10 years. This has plainly been completely torn up, and the Kurdish sense of betrayal is real.
So far, no one can say what the fate of the SDF will be. Despite some internal obstacles, its leaders entered into a security agreement with the Syrian regime and Russia, though its political addendum remains unclear. Opposition to this move within Kurdish and Arab circles in northeastern Syria does not bode well for the SDF, whose primary and perhaps sole viable option for halting Turkish attacks on Kurdish areas is to work with Damascus.
At the height of SDF power and US support, the Syrian regime refused to grant the Kurds any political privileges, instead seeing them as rogue militias and collaborators with the Americans. Assad would never have accepted Kurdish elements joining the ranks of his army and disrupting its national and ideological structure. There was talk of absorbing some SDF forces into a Russian-monitored 5th Corps, but he chose not to do this, even with factions that were in favor of reconciliation with the regime.
What does this mean then for forces that are on the brink of war with Turkey? Assad now believes that he holds the solution to the predicament of the Kurds in Syria and that his conditions will have priority in any compromise, since the SDF’s only alternative is to confront Turkey on its own. For now, however, he is bowing to pressure from Moscow to remain silent until a settlement satisfactory to the Turks and Russians is reached, one which will provide few benefits to the Kurds other than the upholding of civil peace.
It was once possible to discuss autonomy along with the retention of military power under certain conditions. Yet America’s withdrawal has compelled the SDF to turn hastily to the regime and subsequently Russia for protection. It has no realistic chance to stipulate its own terms and has emerged powerless to stymie Turkish aggression.
General Mazloum Abdi has said his goal is to protect Kurds from war with Turkey, an indication that he is willing to cede influence and power for the greater good of his people. It was a bitter pill for Abdi to accept the presence of Syrian regime forces and Russian military patrols, who themselves abandoned the Kurds in Afrin. Still, the US has left the Kurds with little choice.
Kurds in the Middle East have now had three major setbacks for their political ambitions in short order. The first occurred when the Popular Mobilization Forces captured Kirkuk, Sinjar, Bashiqa, and Khanaqin in October 2017 after a rogue referendum for independence in Iraqi Kurdistan. The second was the takeover of Afrin by the Turkish military and armed factions in February 2018. And then there is last month’s Turkish offensive.
This will push the Kurdish people to the brink of political collapse. General Abdi does not wish history to record a resounding Kurdish loss on his watch. His objective in Syria is now at the very least to avoid a major defeat and keep the Kurdish cause alive.