Threatened by an imminent Turkish invasion from the north following Monday’s US withdrawal from the Syria-Turkey border, Syria’s Kurds and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus have separately hinted at possible coordination.
US President Donald Trump appeared to greenlight a long-threatened Turkish operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria on Sunday night, despite the SDF’s role as America’s key ally in the ground war against the Islamic State group (ISIS).
Ankara, a long-time backer of Syria’s armed opposition, appears primed and ready to invade territories east of the Euphrates River, where Kurds have built an autonomous administration of their own – independent of the Syrian regime.
Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the backbone of the SDF – as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group fighting the Turkish state for political and cultural rights for Kurds.
Although the Syrian Arab Republic suppressed the Kurdish language and identity prior to the 2011 uprising, the SDF never clashed directly with regime during the eight-year civil war.
Without a US presence to deter a Turkish invasion, the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime in Damascus could be the Kurds’ best hope of survival.
“If America vacates the area, and especially the border area, for certain we, as a self-administration and as the SDF, will be forced to study all the available options,” Badran Jia Kurd, an adviser to the Autonomous Administration of North and South Syria (NES) told Reuters on Tuesday.
“At that time we may hold talks with Damascus or the Russian side to fill the void or block the Turkish attack, so this may develop and there could be meetings and contacts in case of a vacuum,” he added.
Mazloum Abdi, commander of the SDF, likewise told NBC on Monday that a partnership with Assad is “one of the options that we have on the table”.
The Syrian regime has been accused by the UN and Western states of indiscriminately killing civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons over the course of the country’s grinding civil war, causing millions of refugees to flee abroad.
Calls for Assad to step down have largely evaporated, however, since the regime clawed back territory and began reestablishing diplomatic ties with several Arab states.
Damascus has repeatedly called on both the US and Turkey to withdraw their forces from Syria and vowed to retake every inch of territory from the Kurds and the remaining armed opposition in Syria’s northwest.
Sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Kurds and the US, Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad urged the SDF and the NES administration to return to the “homeland”.
“Anyone not loyal to the homeland and who sold it out for cheapest price will be thrown out of history. We have warned multiple times against these conspiracies against the homeland and the people of Syria,” Mekdad told the pro-government al-Watan daily on Tuesday.
However, “in the end, the homeland welcomes all its sons and we want to resolve all the Syrian issues in a positive way and away from violence but in a way that preserves every inch of Syrian land”.
Several NES delegations have met with Damascus officials in recent few years hoping to reach a settlement that would preserve Kurdish self-governance under a federal system – similar to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Preoccupied with its on-and-off operation against the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the northwest province of Idlib, Damascus has largely left the Kurds to their own devices. However, it continues to covet the oilfields and fertile cropland currently under Kurdish control.