Russia and Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding in Sochi on 22 October whereby the leaders of both countries agreed to suspend Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria to create a safe zone at a depth of 32 kilometres inside Syria. Russian military police and Syrian border police will enter the area on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey to facilitate the removal of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters and weapons there.
The operation should last 150 hours and finally the area will be free of Kurdish weapons which disturb Turkey’s security and cause Ankara to take war decisions that fan the flames of combat in the region.
In the following days, YPG forces began withdrawing from this area, but the ambiguity of the Turkish-Russian deal, and previously the Turkish-US agreement (in which Washington abandoned its Kurdish allies in Syria), made this area open to more military expansion. The Kurdish withdrawal was accompanied by the advance of regime forces, Russian promises to send more soldiers, the US changing its mind about withdrawing from north Syria and expansion of control by opposition factions backed by Turkey.
The Kurdish declaration that it will hand over territories to the regime came as a surprise to the opposition. Kurds described the regime as an ally, not a partner; their political leader Saleh Muslim described Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as “The Master”. In response, the opposition returned to believing that Kurdish forces are part of the regime’s structure and not in the opposition camp.
The Kurdish hand over of the territories went without incident, combat or skirmishes. Regime forces advanced towards the border with Turkey in some areas and the Syrian flag was once again raised on police stations on the border that were once under Kurdish control. Turkey did not obstruct this advance which appears to be part of its understanding with Russia. The Syrian army sent reinforcements to strategic border areas, which independent observers describe as the largest deployment operation in the north since the regime lost control three years ago.
Russia, meanwhile sent 300 more soldiers to the Syrian-Turkish border who were previously deployed in Chechnya, and Moscow said it will send more military reinforcements later. Based on the agreement with Ankara, Russian forces began patrolling the border with Turkey, to avoid a vacuum created when US troops withdrew from the area that is now under regime control, with Russian backing.
The US, which said it will withdraw from Syria, has changed its mind and the US defense secretary said it is planning to reinforce its military presence in northeast Syria to protect oil fields there from coming under Islamic State (IS) control once again. Washington announced that IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed on 27 October, and that its presence will be bolstered by their Kurdish partners.
Opposition figure Saeed Moqbel told Al-Ahram Weekly: “Russian forces are sometimes accompanied by Kurdish fighters. US troops are also supported by Kurdish fighters. Regime forces are sometimes accompanied by Russian soldiers. And sometimes there is friendly takeover and handover with Kurds. Turkish forces are coordinating with US and Russian troops, as well as the regime’s border police, metres away from Turkish troops. Thus, everything is mixed up and it is hard to know who are friends or foes in northern Syria. This situation will continue for some time until US plans for the coming period become clearer.”
YPG Commander Mazloum Abadi said his troops support a German proposal to send international troops (France, Germany, UK) to create a “safe zone” in northeast Syria, but no one else is interested in the suggestion. Abadi said this would limit violations and Turkey’s incursion, but added this would need US and Russian support.
The Kurds expected a reward for their sacrifices in fighting IS with support from the US-led international coalition, but instead of support for their political plan the US began withdrawing from Syria which stunted the ambition of the Kurdish minority in Syria to gain autonomy. This could be why they immediately began coordinating with Russia, the regime and others, just as they did in 2011 when they became allies of sparring parties: Russia, Iran, the regime, Hizbullah, France, the US and others.
Moqbel added: “The Russian-Turkish agreement did not clearly indicate what will follow on the ground, and it is clear that the international plan (US-Russian-Turkish) is to temporarily divide roles and share responsibility and eventually gradually eliminate all armed enclaves which contradict a political solution in Syria based on (UN Security Council) Resolution 2254.”
However, this would mean eliminating all forms of armed factions, militias and military forces outside the remnants of the regime army and the national army, which is Turkey’s ally. This would help revive a united Syrian state eventually.
Overall, if the status quo continues, then Al-Assad will recover one third of the country’s territories without firing a single shot, the US will blatantly control Syrian oil, Russia will control the country’s northern border and will have the most geographic influence, while Turkey will guarantee the collapse of the Syrian Kurd separatist plan. Everyone wins except for the Syrian opposition, which has not drawn a precise and long-term plan or built strong and significant international relations.
Abdel-Basset Sida, former chairman of the opposition Syrian National Council, told Al-Ahram Weekly: “The biggest loser in everything that is happening are Syrian Kurds who paid a high price beyond their means. It is the price of many victims and maimed, as well as a large number of refugees. The game was out of their league and unwillingly they became tools in the hands of other plotters.”
Sida continued: “All of the Syrian people also lost. After all their sacrifices, the destruction of their country, and displacement of more than 10 million Syrians who left their homes, cities and villages, and became refugees inside and outside Syria, international and regional unanimity is moving towards rehabilitating the regime with conditions that conform with past and current conditions.”
All these machinations removed Iran from any problem-solving role east of the Euphrates. It seems that arrangements on the Syria-Turkey border were made between Russia, Turkey, the US, Kurds, Syrian regime and opposition, while Iran was excluded. The absence of the third guarantor, Iran, from the recent Sochi meeting between Russia and Turkey shows that there are Turkish-Russian-US understandings regarding ending Tehran’s role in Syria.
There may yet be surprises in north Syria, especially in the presence of ideological, nationalist and colonialist plots by several parties. Meanwhile, Syrians also have a plan to arrange their priorities and build a citizenship-based state. The conflict in north Syria will continue until one of these schemes wins the day.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.