More than anything else, the US decision to partner with and arm Kurdish-led forces to fight ISIS in Syria – despite significant concerns about potentially fuelling secondary conflicts between Syrian Arabs and Kurds – seemed to underline how fixated Washington was on only on eliminating ISIS as quickly as possible, with no concern for the consequences.
But a recent agreement – initiated and brokered by the US between a Free Syrian Army faction and the Kurdish-led forces – indicates that the US is finally attempting to deal with the complications of its anti-ISIS policy.
According to well-informed Syrian sources I have spoken to, the US initiated negotiations to allow the FSA faction al-Muatasim Brigade to peacefully take over 11 villages in northern Syria controlled by its rival the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led multi-ethnic coalition sponsored by the US to fight ISIS. The general outlines of this unprecedented agreement were announced on 10 May by al-Muatasim and state that the US-led coalition delegated to al-Muatasim the task of being in charge of and administering the designated villages. Al-Muatasim is known to be a strong ally of the US, which is why it was chosen to be in charge of the designated villages, yet it’s not clear yet what the SDF would get in return. It is possible, though, that Washington’s recent decision to directly arm the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) within the SDF might have been used as leverage.
The SDF captured the villages included in the agreement from rebel forces in February 2016 during an offensive led by the Syrian regime against rebel groups in northern Syria. Many Syrian Arabs saw the SDF’s attack on rebel-held areas as a sign that the US-backed forces were acting as an ally of the Syrian regime, and also interpreted the offensive as a Kurdish pretext to take advantage of US support and expand their territories in areas where Arabs are a majority. The Kurdish groups also mistrust the Syrian rebels, whom they perceive as an existential threat because of their affiliation with Turkey – Ankara views the Kurdish forces as a security threat and has armed some of rebel groups to control the Kurdish expansion.
This agreement was, therefore, brokered by the US to de-escalate tension between Syrian Kurds and Arabs. ‘The main reason behind this agreement is to avoid a secondary conflict between Arabs and Kurds, which will be disastrous for all sides. Such peace should start with confidence building measures that allow people to go back to their homes,’ Mustafa Sejari, the head of the Political Office of al-Muatasim Brigade, told me.
The SDF and the US have yet to comment publicly on the deal. ‘The agreement was mysteriously leaked which is why we had to prematurely announce it,’ said Sejari. ‘The parties involved are working out the final technical details of the deal and will sign it as soon as possible.’
Earlier leaks about the agreement indicated that negotiations started around mid-March 2017. They were unsuccessful however, due to disputes over details around, among other aspects, the number of designated villages and the withdrawal schedule and mechanisms. A recent breakthrough though was reached by the negotiating parties under three main conditions: 1) weapons in the designated villages will be confined to the al-Muatasim; 2) local civilians, including unarmed FSA personnel, can return to their homes; and 3) Kurdish civilians can enter and reside in these villages. The agreement would allow tens of thousands of displaced Syrians to go back to their villages.
Some Syrian analysts expressed their support for this agreement but their expectations of its impacts varied. ‘This agreement is too little too late, as tension between Arabs and Kurds reached a level where confrontations seem inevitable,’ said Syrian journalist Manhal Barish. Other Syrian analysts think that it can achieve a positive impact limited to this area. ‘This agreement can have a positive impact on relations between Arabs and Kurds, but that could only happen if it is implemented correctly. That said, its positive impact is likely to be limited to the areas included in the agreement,’ said Assaad al-Achi, a Syrian civil society activist and executive director of Baytna Syria.
The US seems to be aware of the limited positive impacts this deal may have for Arab–Kurd relations in Syria. Thus, there are talks about possibly duplicating this process if proven successful in other disputed areas controlled by the SDF where Arabs are a majority. According to Barish, the US has previously offered to delegate the control of other disputed areas to al-Muatasim – such as the Arab majority city of Manbij, which was captured from ISIS by the SDF in August 2016.
Mustafa Sejari also confirmed that different groups in Manbij, some of which are part of the SDF, have contacted al-Muatasim to show their willingness to support a similar deal. But he did not mention whether these groups have independently contacted them or whether they were motivated by the US. He, however, did say that the priority now is to focus on finalizing and implementing the first deal before replicating the process elsewhere.
It is still not clear whether this agreement will be implemented, as the final draft of the agreement has not been signed. But this deal indicates that the US acknowledges some of the ramifications of its anti-ISIS policy in Syria. To achieve its objectives, this agreement has to be part of a broader strategy aimed at addressing the violations and grievances of both groups, in order to successfully mitigate tensions between Arabs and Kurds across Syria.
Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.