Syria Weekly: Does Turkey's offensive mean the end of Kurdish self-rule in Syria?

Syria Weekly: Does Turkey's offensive mean the end of Kurdish self-rule in Syria?
Turkey has agreed to halt military operations against the Kurdish YPG, having captured a new stretch of Syrian territory.
7 min read
18 October, 2019
The YPG are still in control of large parts of Syria [Getty]

Turkey on Thursday agreed to put on hold its military campaign in northern Syria against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), with another stretch of Syrian territory now under its control after just a week of fighting.

The truce was struck following meetings between a high-level US delegation and Turkish officials in Ankara, with the offensive in northern Syria leaving scores of civilians dead and forcing at least 300,000 people to flee their homes.

Analysts claim that it is a "ceasefire" in name only and an attempt by Trump claim credit for ending the fighting, although the agreement has been to the benefit for Turkey, who launched Operation Peace Spring on Wednesday.

Trump has faced huge criticism from all sides for the messy withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, which led to the collapse of the SDF and fears that the turmoil could lead to a new Islamic State group (IS) insurgency.


The first stage of the offensive has concluded with Turkey effectively in control of a buffer zone running between the border towns of Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ain, up to the M4 highway, which now serves as a de-facto demarcation line.

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Although clashes between Turkish-backed Syrian fighters and Kurdish militias continued on Friday, the SDF is effectively paralysed as a fighting force having lost US patronage. 

Ankara and Damascus are looking at this opportunity to end the Syrian-Kurdish experiment with self-rule for good.

Once American troops withdrew from Kobane and Manbij this week, Syrian regime forces swooped in – the SDF deciding it better to surrender the towns to Damascus rather than see Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) move in.

The decision has put the future of the "Rojava project" into question and marks one of the major turning points in the war.

Protests have been held in the Raqqa and Deir az-Zour provinces due to fears that the SDF could hand over their towns and villages to the regime too.

Any departure from the Adana Agreement is a red line for the Russians.

Turkey has little appetite for the Syrian National Army (SNA) to move deeper into Syria, nor does Damascus want to launch a new military campaign in eastern Syria just yet, sources have said.

Any departure from the Adana Agreement is a red line for the Russians

New dynamics

The US ceasefire agreement sees Turkey's main goal of clearing key parts of the border of Kurdish militants met.

The remaining villages between Tal Abyad with Ras Al-Ain are expected to come under Ankara's control for the coming days with Ankara allowing Kurdish forces to retreat as part of the truce.

The SDF might have a different view on the conditions of the truce, but as the weaker partner in the agreement they have few options but to retreat.

The surprise SDF handover of Rojava and Manbij to the regime has shown that other actors have also benefited from the Turkish campaign, Yury Barmin, Middle East and North Africa Director at Moscow Policy Group, said.

"Probably Assad and the Russians benefited the most because they moved in. They had this plan for a while and had held talks with the YPG to move into the northeast," he told The New Arab.

"This opens a whole new chapter in the Syria settlement. There will be another series of land grabs which is always beneficial for the Russians, politically, and despite the fact that the constitutional process is ongoing, the status quo and land grabs will always benefit the Russians, so I imagine they will try to capitalise on that."

Despite Trump's alleged approval of the SDF's capitulation of Manbij and Kobane to Damascus (and maybe more towns to come), there are tensions between regime troops and Turkish forces – which contains thousands of former rebel fighters.

Russian military police were present in the regime convoys that moved into these towns this week and they have also established a buffer zone between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and regime troops, which will likely deter any direct confrontations.

Russian troops based in southern Syria and Damascus were told to move north for the operation at short notice and it is not clear how long they will remain in the buffer zone.

The role of the Russian military police is to monitor the touchline separating the Syrians and Turkish forces, but having been deployed at short notice from Damascus and southern Syria, it is not clear how long they will remain.

Along with continued Turkish and YPG militias skirmishes, there are also tensions between Damascus and the SDF, which will force Russia to hold talks between the two sides.

"In the future I can imagine that the [Russian troops] down the line could be involved in Damascus-SDF military processes in helping to avoid an escalation, as there are still tensions between the two sides, so I should imagine they will act as a buffer between the SDF and Damascus."

Adana Agreement

Ultimately, Moscow wants an agreement that leads to the regime taking full control of Syria, but also ensures that Turkey – its partner in the Astana Process – feels secure.

Moscow sees the re-activation of the Adana Agreement, signed between Turkey and Syria in 1999, as a solution to this.

Re-activating the agreement should end Kurdish militancy in the north and give the Assad regime sovereignty over the former SDF territories, although relations between Damascus and Ankara remain bitter.

For now, Barmin believes that elements of the Adana Agreement could feature in upcoming talks between Turkey and Russia.

While it is not clear if Ankara would accept a re-activation of the 1999 agreement as a basis of a long-term settlement to the Kurdish question and remains opposed to the Assad regime in principle.

Ankara appears to have signalled it would pause its military campaigns in northern Syria if Kurdish fighters withdraw from the border, but Damascus demands a complete end to Turkey's military presence in the country.

"The next step is re-negotiating the [Turkey-SDF] ceasefire when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin meet in Sochi on October 20. Any departure from the Adana Agreement is a red line for the Russians so I think they will try and get Turkish commitment to this one way or another," said Barmin.

He believes that the US ceasefire will be renegotiated to include elements of the Adana Agreement, which guarantees Turkey's right to defend itself from cross-border attacks by Kurdish militants.

It is not clear if this would allow the SDF to keep its territories further south.

"The bottom line for the Russians is that any settlement in the northeast should be happening between the state actors, between the Turkish government and the Syrian government," Barmin said.

"The SDF is obviously an important actor but any agreement should be between the two governments, this has been Russia's position from the get go."

Russia said that the current deal between Kurdish authorities and Damascus applies only to Manbij and Kobane, with no plans for the regime to take over more SDF territories in Raqqa and Deir az-Zour.

"Now with the ceasefire, the upcoming meeting between Erdogan and Putin, and Turkey allegedly ending its operations, things might start to change," Barmin said.

With IS prisoners fleeing camps in northern Syria during the turmoil, taking control of more SDF territories could lead to Russian troops potentially bogged-down in a new battle with insurgents, something Moscow would want to avoid.

"I don't think Russia is really willing to deal with that problem," Barmin said.

That will lead the last remnants of the SDF and possibly US troops, who have pushed further east closer to the Iraqi border, forced to confront the potential problem of a new IS insurgency.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin