The contours of the situation in northeast Syria are growing clearer by the day in tandem with the phased withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in accordance with the Russian-Turkish agreement reached at Sochi after a six-hour negotiating marathon. We can now see who is in control over what.
The strip from Qamishli to Ein Diwar is under US influence despite Washington’s decision to withdraw its forces (although it appears that it is changing its mind again). This development resulted from talks between Kurdish fighters and US military personnel following concerns raised by Washington that oil fields in eastern Syria could fall into the Islamic State (IS) group’s hands again. On Sunday, 3 November, the Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported that the US, in the framework of the international coalition, was hastily building three military bases in the area.
The stretches from Qamishli to Ras Al-Ain and from Tel Abyad to Ain Al-Arab (Kobane) are controlled by the Russians. Along that corridor the east of the Euphrates, Russian and Turkish forces began their first joint patrol, on 1 November, in the framework of efforts to create a “safe zone”.
The area from Ras Al-Ain to Tel Abyad is nominally under Turkish influence in alliance with its army of militias. A growing presence of Syrian regime forces is to be found in and around Qamishli while the areas between the Abu Rasein-Tel Tamer and Tel Tamer-Ras Al-Ain axes as well as the area between Ain Eisa and Tel Abyad are experiencing ongoing skirmishes between SDF and Turkish-backed forces.
On the ground in Syria, away from the prevailing triumphalism in all quarters of the Erdogan regime and press in Turkey, the US and the Russia pretty much monopolise control over the border region. As the Russian-Turkish patrol set off to the west of Qamishli, a US patrol began rounds to the east of the city that the Syrian Kurds had declared the capital of the autonomous region east of the Euphrates in 2014.
SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi believes that, ultimately, Syria’s problems can only be resolved through diplomacy and dialogue. In interview with the Italian daily Repubblica (2 November), General Abdi admits that he has little trust in the Syrian government and the Russians but that, “we can only solve Syria’s problems through politics. We must negotiate.” Talks would not include Turkey, naturally. Asked what he thought of Erdogan’s latest demand for the US to arrest him and deport him to Turkey, the SDF leader said: “You cannot expect anything different from a person who does not hide from the world his project to massacre our people, and threatens whoever does not help him carry out his project.”
Meanwhile, after intensive pressures from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, including blackmail using the refugee card, the UN has decided to consider the “Turkish plan” to transfer Syrian refugees in Turkey to a “safe zone” in Syria. At the same time, Secretary General Antonio Guterres, during his visit to Turkey last week, stressed the need for Ankara to respect “the basic principles relating to the voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees”. Erdogan has repeatedly vowed that the return of Syrian refugees would be voluntary and involve no coercion whatsoever. In late October, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported that the Turkish government had “forcefully deported” many Syrian refugees to Syria in the months preceding the Turkish invasion of northern Syria.
That the UN has agreed to consider the controversial Turkish plan does not necessarily mean it will be implemented, observers say. A senior US State Department official has described Erdogan’s plan as “probably the craziest idea I’ve ever heard”. Erdogan envisions resettling a million— and perhaps as many as two million — refugees in northeast Syria, hundreds of miles from their original homes. It is a project designed to engineer a dramatic demographic shift that would wreak massive displacements, renewed violence and an incalculable humanitarian toll. The good news for the Syrian people living in that area is that the plan is contingent on Turkey’s ability to seize and occupy the large swathe of land that Erdogan had set his sights on in northeast Syria. This has not happened yet and is unlikely to happen at all now that Ankara has announced the end of its “Peace Spring” operation which Turkish officials claim achieved its goals. It therefore seems that Erdogan will have to limit his territorial/population transfer ambitions at least for the time being.
To the people of northern Syria, even a limited Turkish presence on their land is unacceptable. Tens of thousands marched in Qamishli last weekend to protest the “Turkish occupation”. Simultaneously, more than 5,000 Kurds and other political activists in Paris staged a march in solidarity last weekend, Saturday 2 November, calling on European countries to impose concrete economic sanctions against Ankara to compel it to withdraw from Syria. Protesters carried signs saying, “You let Turkey massacre the Kurds. Is this how you thank them for defeating ISIS?” Another sign was more succinct: “Erdogan=IS”.
Agit Polat, spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Council in France (CDK-F), warned that the Turks “do not respect their agreements (with the Russians and Americans) and continue to invade and expand their presence in northern Syria”. His organisation has voiced a proposal that appears to be gaining support abroad: the creation of “an international interposition force to maintain border security”. He said that such a force could be European, international or sponsored by the UN. What was essential was to “deploy this force on the border at all costs because we know very well that Turkey will not limit itself to a few dozen kilometres”.
As anti-Turkish protests continued over the weekend, a car bomb was detonated in the Turkish controlled border town of Tel Abyad on Sunday, 3 November. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 14 people — pro-Turkish fighters and civilians — were killed in the explosion. The Turkish Defense Ministry released a statement blaming the PKK.
The situation for Turkey in the northern Syria quagmire is growing more complicated by the hour. If Erdogan is contemplating a renewed offensive, it will only yield further disaster.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.