Turkey and the US declared a 72-hour ceasefire in the Turkish Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria on 18 October, along with the withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) affiliated to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) with their heavy weapons and the destruction of their military fortifications to a depth of 32 km along the 440 km of the Turkish border with Syria.
There was no official response to the deal from the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, while the Syrian Kurds and opposition hurled accusations at each other in the absence of a unifying vision that would bring them together as Syrians and not as conflicting minorities.
Syrian state media focused on violations of the ceasefire by the Turkish forces, and Turkey’s intermittent strikes in areas east of the Euphrates River. A Russian news agency published a statement by Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Al-Assad, who said the ceasefire was “obscure” and referred to the 1998 Adana Agreement between Turkey and then Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad.
This agreement allows Turkey to enter Syrian territory to a depth of five km to ensure its security, she said. “The border issue can be resolved if [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan truly wants to resolve it,” she said.
“Damascus will never accept anything like Iraqi Kurdistan in Syria... Erdogan is a dangerous man, and he is spreading the Muslim Brotherhood ideology in the region and in Europe.”
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), affiliated to the PYD, described their withdrawal from the area as a “victory” because they had previously resisted the Turkish army for ten days before consenting to the withdrawal. However, the PYD issued a statement describing the deal as a “betrayal of the martyrs” and saying “the battle continues,” stirring up a controversy about the position of the Kurdish forces.
A member of the SDF Military Council in Manbij, which is composed of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, but not of Turkish Kurds, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the benefits of the withdrawal for the Kurds and whether Kurdish troops would in fact withdraw from the areas mentioned in the Turkey-US agreement.
“The Manbij Military Council agreed to the Turkish-US deal and will honour it for the duration of the truce,” he said. “The positive outcome of the ceasefire is that it allows citizens to return to their homes, shields them from more death and destruction, and reduces the number of victims.”
Responding to the locally positive response to the removal of the Kurdish forces, he said that “we all know there are many political currents in Syria, each of which has its own opinion. The majority of people in Manbij welcomed the withdrawal of the YPG and other outsiders, while leaving the local military personnel in place.”
“The Manbij Military Council was formed in April 2016 and is composed of military groups from northeast Syria, in cooperation with the autonomous Kurdish administration. The opposition has accused the council of implementing the agenda of the PYD, an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Syria, to gain cover to cross to the west of the Euphrates River,” he said.
The Weekly also spoke with the Arab side, which is heavily present in the area and opposes the presence of the Kurdish militias. Hussein Hassan, a leader of the Manbij Tribal Council, doubted that the Kurds would keep their side of the bargain.
“The aim of this deal is clear,” Hassan said. “It is to create a safe zone while Manbij and Ain Al-Arab [Kobane] are kept hostage to the Turkish-Russian agreement.”
“The PYD will not honour the agreement because its leaders in Syria take their orders from the Turkish PKK leadership in Qandil. The PKK does not care if Syrian cities are razed to the ground because it controls towns that are mostly Arab and not Kurdish, and it does not care what happens to their residents.”
The opposition National Army could play a role in securing the area after the withdrawal of the Kurdish forces, he said. “It is chaotic right now, and there is no regular army, but there is an attempt to form a National Army and military institution. There have been many mistakes, but we still expect to raise awareness and monitor the actions of the National Army.”
The biggest surprise, however, came when the Kurds announced that they would hand over Manbij and other towns to Syrian regime forces, which local people reject even more than the Kurdish forces.
Manbij is the home to more than 29 clans and a population of 650,000 as well as 350,000 refugees. The majority of these do not want regime forces to enter the area, even if the clans are under pressure to accept them.
Nawras Al-Ajlani, tribal leader of the Ajlan bin Saeed clans in Manbij and spokesman for all the Manbij tribes, told the Weekly that “Manbij could be on the edge of a volcano if the regime army cooperates with Russia and the Kurdish forces to enter the city after the Americans leave.”
He feared that withdrawing Kurdish troops would take revenge on local residents because they had not supported them. “There are more than one million people from across Syria in Manbij, and more than 100,000 of them are wanted by the regime because of their opposition or defection from the army. More than 20,000 young men are wanted for conscription, and everyone is under siege and not allowed to leave,” Ajlani said.
“The people of Manbij, Arabs and Kurds, want to run the city without the tutelage of Russia or the regime and want to implement a peace map with the National Army and the people of Manbij. We have suffered much under the SDF, which imposed conscription, tariffs, taxes, robbed antiquities and confiscated the property of anyone who opposed them and opened the prisons in the name of terrorism for anyone who opposed their plans.”
“The Kurds are not the PYD or the PKK: the people of Manbij are the brothers of all, Arabs and Kurds who do not belong to this party and Turkmens and Circassians. Everyone wants to rescue Manbij from a horrible future,” he said.
However, the rejection by the locals of Kurdish troops, especially non-Syrians, does not mean accepting the Turkish presence. All these troops are outsiders and occupiers of their land and violators of their sovereignty. However, they must find a solution to a dilemma caused by the Kurds and compounded by Turkey’s military intervention.
The residents of northern Syria want all the foreign forces to withdraw, and on social media they describe them all – Turks, Russians, Americans and PKK Kurds – as “occupiers”. They want a Syria made up of autonomous administrations, even if this is a vanishingly small possibility.
They have never previously had problems with the Kurds or other ethnicities in the area, and for decades they all lived together peacefully, forging inter-marriages between Arabs and Kurds and good relations and unity.
However, the war has triggered national and ethnic strife, and this has been compounded by Turkish Kurds moving their war with Turkey to Syria. It has been made worse by the Syrian opposition’s exclusionary policies towards the Kurds and Turkey’s direct military intervention.
The area today is on the verge of erupting amid regime oppression, a failed and bitter experience with the Kurdish forces, and multiple foreign interventions from Russia, the US and Turkey.
It is difficult to predict the future of Arab-Kurdish relations in northern Syria until there is a clear view of what the Americans want for the Turks and Russians and what the Russians want for their own forces, the regime and Iranian forces.
But none of them has in mind a viable or robust homeland for the Syrians.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.