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Russia to mediate deal between Syrian Kurds and Damascus

With the Syrian Democratic Forces having handed over control of the Syrian-Turkish border to Damascus, the Kurds say Russia has promised to mediate a new round of negotiations between them and Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia May 17, 2018. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - UP1EE5H1HAAE8

After leaving locals in northeastern Syria in the dark until two days before the end of a six-day day cease-fire, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) released a statement on Oct. 27 agreeing to the most controversial term of a Turkish-Russian agreement worked out in Sochi and signed Oct. 22: The SDF would withdraw 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Turkish border. Immediately after the announcement, the SDF began to redeploy from positions along the 273-mile Turkey-Syria border to make room for joint Russian-Turkish patrols 10 kilometers (6 miles), inside Syrian territory, while Damascus took control along the border.

The decision to withdraw came as a surprise. Only one day before, Fanar al-Gait, deputy co-chair of foreign relations for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), had told Al-Monitor, “The Turkish-Russian deal includes a number of conditions we refuse to fulfill, such as the withdrawal of our security forces 30 kilometers from the border.”

When initially faced with the threat of renewed Turkish aggression, the SDF had put the need to prevent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s further expansion into Syrian territory first, Nisren Abdullah, commander and spokesperson for the Kurdish Women's Protection Unit, told Al-Monitor. “It was a difficult decision, as we were not consulted when Russia struck the Sochi deal with Turkey,” she said. “However, we have to protect our people and chose diplomacy over war.”

Gait added, “Now that we have agreed on the military aspects of the deal, Russia is to facilitate a new round of negotiations between the Autonomous Administration and the Syrian regime. We expect them to start once the SDF’s withdrawal is complete.”

NES has for now made sure that local administrations and Asayish, the Kurdish internal security force, remain in place within the area evacuated by the SDF. For residents, this means that their daily lives have not been significantly disrupted thus far. In the long run, however, Damascus wants to reestablish its authority over the totality of Syrian territory.

Negotiations between Damascus and the Autonomous Administration have been ongoing, but inconclusive, said Gait. “During our attempts, we submitted a number of concrete proposals for a decentralized Syria, but Damascus did not take us seriously. This is why we need an intermediary,” he asserted.

Since US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northeastern Syria, Russia has emerged as the main mediator in the Autonomous Administration's conflicts with Ankara and with Damascus. The Kurdish leadership, however, remains cautious about Russia’s new role as sole mediator. The Kurds regard the Sochi deal negotiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan as highly detrimental to their goals — for instance, maintaining a certain degree of internal autonomy within Syria and liberating areas currently occupied by pro-Turkish militias (Ras al-Ain, Tell Abyad — and Moscow remains Damascus’ closest ally.

“We would prefer to include more parties in the negotiations, such as the United Nations,” said Gait. “We consider this a safer and more stable option, but although we have been in contact with a number of countries over the last two weeks, they did not take any substantial action.”

The most concrete effort came from Germany, where on Oct. 22 Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer proposed establishing an international security zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. Her idea was met with resistance both at home and abroad and was ultimately put on ice after German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Ankara on Oct. 26. The Autonomous Administration’s main objective remains to avoid losing internal autonomy.

“Although we are accepting the regime’s mandate to protect the integrality of its borders, we do not agree with direct interference in our affairs” Hikmet Habib, deputy co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, told Al-Monitor. “We want the democratic autonomous administration to stay in place, as a part of the Syrian nation.”

Meanwhile, Abdullah asserted, “The government has to enshrine the rights of the country’s minorities in the constitution. During the war, we protected our country’s borders. Our martyrs are Syrian, and the Syrian government should acknowledge their sacrifice.” 

The launch of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva on Oct. 30 represents a disappointment for the Kurdish leadership. The Autonomous Administration has, so far, been excluded from the political process to amend Syria’s constitution.

“Millions of Syrians are excluded from the debate, which is led by Ankara, Moscow and Damascus,” Gait remarked. “But to secure peace, the constitution should be a consensual text.” 

“To this day,” Gait added, “[Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad is pushing for the return of the central administration to northeast Syria pretty much as it was before the war started in 2011. To reach that objective, we are afraid that certain decision-makers in Damascus still favor the military solution over the political one. We hope that they are not strong enough to go down that road and that we will avoid an armed conflict.”

According to Abdullah, at the moment, the regime’s military strength is being tested by Turkish-backed forces in the northeast. Since the SDF’s decision to withdraw as per the Sochi agreement, the regime's military has been struggling to resist assaults by the militias trying to expand beyond Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad.

“The Syrian regime is now in charge of protecting our borders, however, Turkish-backed militias continue to take over more Syrian territory,” said Abdullah. “This shows that Ankara doesn’t respect the regime’s military forces.”

For the last two days, the Syrian army has suffered a lot of casualties given the superior military equipment of the pro-Turkish militias. Abdullah remarked, “Russia brokered the deal with Turkey. The Assad regime agreed to come in and take over the border. Now we will see if Russia is able to guarantee that the deal works on the ground.”

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