It took just seven days for the Syrian Democratic Forces (led by the Kurdish YPG) to strike a protection agreement with Bashar al-Assad in the wake of Donald Trump’s decision to effectively green-light Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long-threatened incursion into northern Syria.
On Sunday, less than a week after Trump told Erdogan, in a phone call, that the US would remove the 50 special operators whose presence with the YPG had deterred Turkish aggression along the northeastern border, Assad sent his troops north to reinforce the Kurds.
Here is the official word from SANA (Syria’s state-run news agency):
Syrian Arab Army units began moving north to confront Turkish aggression on Syrian territory.
Upon the announcement of this news, the people of Hasaka began celebrating in the neighborhoods of the city, welcoming this move to confront the Turkish aggression.
This movement comes to confront the ongoing Turkish aggression on towns and areas in the north of Hasaka and Raqqa provinces, where the Turkish forces committed massacres against locals, occupied some areas, and destroyed infrastructure.
The SDF issued a statement announcing the deal with Assad.
“An agreement has been reached with the Syrian government — whose duty it is to protect the country’s borders and preserve Syrian sovereignty — for the Syrian Army to enter and deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to help the SDF stop this aggression”, America’s former allies said.
This comes after Turkey-allied forces committed a series of what certainly appeared to be war crimes on Saturday along a key stretch of highway, where the execution of a bound soldier was caught on tape by fighters backed by the Turkish military. In a separate incident along the same roadway, Hevrin Khalaf was murdered along with her driver, an aide and three others.
On Sunday, Mark Esper announced that Trump had ordered the full withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria after learning that Erdogan planned to extend his offensive further south and west than he previously indicated. Esper also said the US was aware that the SDF was on the verge of an agreement with Assad and, ultimately, Russia.
The alliance between the SDF and Damascus means that assuming Assad can hold off the Turks, he will effectively control cities that have been administered by the Kurds for years.
“US officials declined to confirm local media reports that troops had pulled out of the towns of Manbij and Kobani, where local officials confirmed they had agreed to allow Syrian troops to deploy”, The Washington Post writes, adding the following color about the SAA’s arrival in Qamishli:
Witnesses said celebratory gunfire erupted in parts of the town of Qamishli as Syrian troop reinforcements flew into the local airport, according to a Kurdish security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. He said local Kurdish forces had been ordered not to confront Syrian troops, who arrived to bolster a small contingent of government forces that had remained in the city after Kurdish forces took it over in 2012.
US troops in Manbij and Kobani were cut off from supply routes on Saturday when Turkish-backed Arab militias took control of the highway where the atrocities mentioned above were committed. One US official told WaPo that the shelling of US troops in Kobani first reported by Newsweek on Friday likely was not an accident.
On Sunday, multiple reports indicated that a Turkish warplane targeted (deliberately or not) a convoy of journalists and civilians near Ras al-Ain. At least one reporter from France 2 (Stéphanie Perez) was in the convoy. She survived to tell the story.
Over the weekend, an unnamed UN official told the media that at least half of the aid workers in areas formerly controlled by the SDF have left and the remainder will likely evacuate as well.
Meanwhile, ISIS detainees and their relatives are in the proverbial wind.
“The American military was unable to transfer about five dozen ‘high value’ Islamic State detainees out of Kurdish-run wartime prisons before the Pentagon decided to move its forces out of northern Syria and pave the way for a Turkish-led invasion”, The New York Times said Sunday, citing a pair of American officials.
“In the same area, hundreds of Islamic State sympathizers escaped from a low-security detention camp in the region, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the Turkish ground invasion and the accompanying strikes”, the Times went on to say, noting that “a Kurdish official [saw] the ISIS flag raised in the countryside between the camp and the Turkish border”.
ISIS has already claimed two attacks (one in Qamishli and another in Hasaka) since the new fighting broke out.
It’s not entirely clear whether Trump intends to pull the US forces out of Syria entirely, or just away from strategic towns and cities and other areas on the border targeted by Erdogan’s forces and their allies.
Europe is on the verge of adopting a series of punitive measures after Germany and France banned arms sales to Ankara. “EU government envoys in Brussels discussed on Sunday the draft of a decision adopting punitive measures against Turkey over Syria, as well as its drilling activities off the coast of Cyprus”, Bloomberg reported, citing a copy of the draft communique.
Under intense international pressure, Erdogan is not folding.
“How can you recommend sitting down at the same table with terrorists?”, he asked nobody in particular on Sunday, responding to demands that he cease and desist from committing genocide in a neighboring country. “We will not let a terrorist state be established in northeast Syria”.
In striking a deal with Assad, the Kurds will almost surely lose the autonomy they won during the more than eight-year civil war. The SDF reportedly secured no guarantees related to sovereignty from Damascus. Better that than to be slaughtered, though.
Badran Jia Kurd said Sunday that the US had left the Kurds with no choice. America’s “betrayal” of the YPG “has obliged us to look for alternative options”, he said. AP notes that it is “not clear what Russia’s role was in cementing the agreement, but Russian officials have been mediating low-level talks between the Kurds and Damascus”.
Suffice to say that where Assad’s army goes, so go a few Russian special operators as well as a handful of Hezbollah fighters. It’s difficult to imagine that Moscow would allow those troops to be killed without at least trying to close off the airspace to Turkey.
In their coverage, WaPo quotes a Kurdish woman who is among the more than 100,000 people displaced this week in the Turkish offensive.
“For the [Assad] regime to intervene and deploy its forces on the Turkish border is a comforting thought”, she said, from Qamishli where she took up residence. “If a deal with the regime is what it takes to stop these massacres, then so be it. At the end of the day, we are all Syrians, and the regime is Syrian, too”.