Kurdish-led SDF’s policy shifts during and after the US presidential elections 

Commander-level meeting held by the SDF and the Global Coalition against Daesh (Syrian Democratic Forces)

Commander-level meeting held by the SDF and the Global Coalition against Daesh (Syrian Democratic Forces)


Enab Baladi – Zeinab al-Masri

Pertaining to its foreign and domestic policies, the so-far rigid stance of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) — the military wing of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES)— have witnessed essential shifts over the past few months, particularly after the 2020 US. Presidential elections were called in Joe Biden’s favor.  

Such shifts included the SDF’s confession that fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) exist in Syria and its readiness to negotiate with Turkey, requesting no prior conditions to move in this direction. This is the second time the SDF declares such intentions this year, though Ankara has not yet officially responded to the two calls. 

PKK fighters in Syria 

The Head of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi (also known as Mazloum Kobani), addressed the presence of trained foreign PKK-affiliated fighters in north-eastern Syria in an interview with the International Crisis Group (ICG) on 25 November. These fighters reportedly came to fight against the Islamic State (IS).

PKK is a designated terrorist organization by the US, the UK, the European Union (EU), Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Australia, though not by other countries such as Russia and China, or the United Nations (UN). 

Providing further details, Abdi said that thousands of PKK-trained Kurdish fighters, and volunteer conscripts, traveled to Syria to participate in the combat. “Hundreds were killed in the fight, some left, others stayed, and many pursued a civilian life,” Abdi said. 

He explained that through the U.S. mediation and as part of SDF’s talks with the other Kurdish groups, including the Kurdish National Council (KNC),  non-Syrian fighters are withdrawing gradually from their current positions, and ultimately from Syria, noting that there is no timeline set for their full withdrawal. 

The said fighters are locally referred to as party cadres—“Kadros, in the Kurdish inflection”—the ICG highlighted. 

Among them are non-Syrian Kurds, who hail from different areas across the region; and Syrian Kurds, who fought under the PKK before returning to Syria after 2011, while they are currently serving within the ranks of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its local, political, security and administrative bodies.

Some locals in northeastern Syria consider these “cadres” a shadow authority, with the power to make final decisions showing little to no regard for the local governing entities, especially with matters of security, according to the ICG. In the beginning, a great deal of secrecy surrounded the cadres’ identity and role, but this cover was difficult to maintain over time, particularly in Arab-majority areas, where their accent, dress code, and behavior gave them away as being “foreigners.”

It is too early to judge the outcomes of Mazloum Abdi’s statements regarding the presence of PKK fighters in Syria, the political researcher, and expert on eastern Euphrates affairs, Badr Mulla Rashid, told Enab Baladi. Nevertheless, these statements certainly pave the path for a solution to the “most important” and problematic issue in northeastern Syria, namely, the PKK’s foreign elements. 

 Problems cannot be solved if their existence is denied, which is what the NES and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have been doing for a while, Mulla Rashid added.  

In terms of content, these statements thus serve to convey a direct message from Abdi and the US that the SDF is ready to pull foreign fighters out of the region. 

 Mulla Rashid added that Abdi’s positions could not be fully linked with the US presidential elections, especially about negotiations with Turkey. During the 2019 Turkish offensive into north-eastern Syria, code-named Operation Peace Spring, and the “Washington-Ankara” agreement on the safe zone that preceded it, similar indications and comments were made by Mazloum Abdi. The commander’s past statements were then considered a positive response to the Turkish concerns over the presence of PKK elements in the east of the Euphrates.

As the offensive ceased, and intra-Kurdish negotiations started, Abdi’s statements echoed those he made in relation to negotiations with Turkey, demonstrating his awareness of the facts on the ground and the context, as well as the extent of the US, continued pressure to push him in this direction.

Talking peace with Turkey

Mazloum Abdi expressed his readiness to talk peace with Turkey twice in 2020. Last January, he said that the SDF is willing to negotiate with Turkey in efforts to de-escalate the tension that governed whatever discussion Turkey and the SDF had for years, should Turkey be serious about these efforts. 

Abdi stressed the Kurdish-led forces would provide what he called the “signals of trust and goodwill.”

Abdi approached the negotiations with Turkey, without any conditions, in November as well, during an interview with al-Monitor. Abdi said that he does not mind negotiating if Turkey is ready to move towards a real solution; if this solution is in the interest of the population of Rojava regions; and if all the pending issues are brought to the table, indicating that he might even consider mediating between Turkey and the PKK when Turkey’s problem with the SDF is solved.

However, Abdi did not rule out that Turkey is likely to launch a new military offensive on the NES-controlled areas because he considered that the chances for a military attack are not nil, but rather have been greatly reduced.

The Turkish government insists that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) is an extension of the PKK, and Turkey will not negotiate with what Ankara considers a “terrorist group.’’ This stance is embedded in the official Turkish narrative regarding the matter.

 Abdi believes that the victory of Joe Biden in the US election might lead to a change in Ankara’s attitude as Turkey’s options will be diminished, and circumstances will not help Ankara to remain that aggressive under the rule of the new US administration.

 The success of talks with the KNC and the cooperation of Kurdish parties would positively impact the Kurdish parties’ relationship with Turkey and would ultimately “rob Turkey of its excuses for its persisting hostility towards them,” he added. Such progress would also benefit Turkey and the Kurdish parties economically as well. 

US to double its human resources

Abdi believes that the success of these talks would facilitate a longer stay for the US forces in northeastern Syria, calling on the US to double the human resources it currently has in Syria because the Global Coalition against IS had already withdrawn its forces from certain areas, including Raqqa, Manbij, and Ain al-Arab, while military efforts to combat IS are still underway, and the existing circumstances suffice only to control IS, but not eliminate it entirely. 

Having expressed his optimism about the new US administration, considering that it would follow a “more realistic” policy in the NES-controlled areas, Abdi said that the US will perhaps opt for keeping the global coalition forces in Syria until a political solution is realized for the region and Syria in general.

 The military relations with the US are “in a good position,” he said, but the political ones are barely adequate and failed to reach the level required despite all efforts.

  Addressing this optimistic approach regarding the new US administration, Badr Mulla Rashid, a researcher in the eastern Euphrates affairs, indicated that the NES believes that when Biden governs the US, the situation will be better than it was during Donald Trump’s term.

This is because Trump’s administration did not adopt an institutional policy with respect to northeastern Syria. Should the NES end up with the worst-case scenario, Biden will take practical steps in keeping with the policies enforced by US institutions already operating in the region.

Intra-Kurdish rapprochement 

Abdi also referred to the tensions between the PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-the largest Iraqi party), in his interview with al-Monitor, on 9 November.  

He stressed that the SDF and the NES refuse to take sides, making no statements in support of or against the KDP as well, pointing that the ongoing tensions between the two parties would not serve to improve relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq and the NES, because such a conflict harms the current dialogue between the Syrian Kurds, and this is what prompts the NES to minimize these tensions.

Abdi said that the Syrian Kurds should manage northeastern Syria, noting that any administration that would hold reins to power in the region must consist of Syrian Kurds exclusively, and the Kurds alone must make “transparent” decisions.

Therefore, he does not object to the KNC running the region if it is “sincere” that the area will maintain its self-rule without any external intervention.

In the wake of the Operation Peace Spring, in October 2019, Abdi launched an initiative calling for a Kurdish-Kurdish dialogue, involving the US-backed Democratic Union Party (DUP), the nucleus of the NES, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), close to Ankara and Iraqi Kurdistan, and a number of the Syrian opposition bodies. The two parties reached a set of understandings, but not a permanent agreement.

The NES and the SDF found themselves facing battles with Turkey that resulted in the loss of many lands under their control, especially in the Kurdish regions. They also face constant Turkish threats, one manifestation of which might be another offensive against the area. 

 Thus, only a real change within the NES “can be used as a winning card to stop future military operations and start the internationally recognized Syrian political process,” according to researcher Badr Mulla Rashid.


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