Abandoned by their American allies, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been left with one option: doing a deal with the devil. Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria has succeeded where all previous tactics have not: it has created the conditions for the two main enemies in the Syrian civil war – the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad regime – to come together.
Even more ironically, this has happened because the SDF reached out to Russia, currently Turkey’s biggest international ally in Syria, for help. It is a measure of their desperation that the SDF is now relying on Bashar Al Assad’s backers for protection.
The Russians indicated that the only way out for the SDF was to do a deal with the Syrian regime. The SDF agreed on condition that the deal was brokered and guaranteed by Moscow. Following separate negotiations, the two parties came together at Hmeimim, a Russian air base in Syria, to sign an initial agreement. Details are scant, which has allowed both sides to put their own spin on it. But what is clear and unchallenged by either side is that regime forces are deploying to areas that are likely to be targeted by Turkey. Sources on the ground confirm that regime troops have been deployed to parts of Raqqa, Ein Issa, Manbij and other towns on the border, including Kobani. The regime and the SDF will apparently also be working together to clear Turkish forces from former SDF areas in northeast Syria and Afrin in the northwest.
What happens to the SDF and its associated administrative structures is much less clear, however, with each side claiming a different outcome. On the one hand, the SDF insists it will remain in charge of governing and of internal security in the areas it holds. Its only concession so far is to agree to raise the Syrian flag, rather than the alternative “independent” Syria banner. On the other hand, the regime claims state institutions will be restored gradually in the SDF’s northeastern strongholds.
One measure, according to sources close to the regime, is to abolish the independent structure of the SDF and incorporate its fighters into the 5th Corps, a volunteer military force that is officially part of the Syrian army but was formed at Russia’s urging and is still largely under Russian command.
These contradicting perceptions of what has happened and the very different ideas on the core issue of what becomes of the SDF indicates that the two sides are nowhere near agreement and that even if a deal were struck, it might be broken sooner or later.
More importantly, it is possible that the deployment of regime forces will fail to halt the Turkish assault on the border region. Operation Peace Spring ostensibly is about establishing a 30 kilometer “safe zone” along a stretch of Syrian territory adjoining Turkey. In reality it is about crushing the Kurdish fighters who Ankara insists are linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been a thorn in Turkey’s side for more than 30 years. The offensive launched on October 9 by Turkish forces with back-up from Syrian rebel groups targeted areas that have been under Kurdish control for seven years and Turkey does not want to waste the chance to flush the Kurds out for good.
Despite the announcement of an agreement between the SDF and the regime’s forces, Turkey reportedly is still negotiating the fate of both Manbij and the northeastern city of Kobani. On Monday, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he had had positive discussions with Russia about the future of those cities and that “they are at the stage of implementing our decision.” Shortly after, the Syrian National Army – actually a rebel force backed by Turkey – announced the beginning of an offensive to capture Manbij, despite the presence of the regime in the city.
It is not clear if Ankara will send its forces to assist the Syrian National Army, but local sources in Manbij and Al Bab confirmed that Turkey’s artillery is actively shelling targets in the region. While the attack still is in its early stages, it strongly suggests that the presence of regime forces will not be enough to deter it, especially if the agreement with Russia, which President Erdogan implicitly referred to, was indeed reached. This is mainly due to the fact that Turkey does not trust the Syrian regime to eliminate the Kurdish threat along its border. Turkey also is extremely wary of a revival of the 20-year alliance Bashir Al Assad’s father, Hafez, forged with the PKK party, which allowed the latter to launch operations against Turkey from Syria.
Whatever the strengths or shortcomings of his army, Al Assad’s avowed intent is to recapture and reinstate his full and unchallenged authority over “every inch” of Syria. His long track record of reneging on his promises, as attested by dozens of ceasefires agreed to and then broken by his regime, do not inspire trust. The common assumption even among SDF officials is that even if Al Assad protects them from Turkish attack, he will turn on them eventually. That alone suggests the new allies might soon be enemies again.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.