Russia’s pressure tactics against US-backed SDF in northeastern Syria

Russian troops in the SDF-held areas (AFP)

Russian troops in the SDF-held areas (AFP)


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

To boost the Syrian regime’s gains, Russia has been imposing increasing political, military, security, and economic pressure on  the Syrian  Democratic Forces (SDF).  

Several states back the different military forces in Syria according to the interests and regions they control. The Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/IS, led by the United States of America (US), supports the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), mainly its military wing, the SDF.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime has enjoyed Russia’s military, economic and political support since September 2015, which marked the beginning of its intervention in favor of the Syrian regime. 

Turkey supports the rebel factions affiliated with the Syrian National Army (SNA). The factions used the Turkish backup in their military operations against the IS group in Aleppo countryside and the SDF in Afrin, north of Raqqa and al-Hasakeh. 

Russia continues to escalate its pressure on the SDF to obtain maximum gains for its own benefit and benefit the Syrian regime through military moves. This was evident when the Russian and Syrian troops entered some areas in the governorate of Raqqa during Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, and recently, the Russian Military Police withdrew from some areas of the northern countryside of Aleppo, leaving the SDF under the threat of the Turkish army. 

Pressure modes differ by stage 

Researcher on Kurdish affairs in Syria Badr Mulla Rashid divided Russia’s pressure tactics against the SDF into two phases: before-and-after Afrin. Backed by Turkey, the SNA established its control over Afrin, northwest of Aleppo, during Operation Olive Branch in March 2018. 

When it was under the control of the SDF, Afrin was the main point of the Russian pressure on the SDF, both in security and military terms. However, after Operation Olive Branch, the Russians used the Shahba area in Aleppo to exert pressure on the SDF, which has simultaneously possessed some immunity, Rashid told Enab Baladi.   

Al-Shahba is an enclave called a canton by the NES. Al-Shaba is located in the northern part of Aleppo governorate near Afrin. It includes the area stretching from the village of Maraanaz, south of Azaz, and the western countryside of al-Bab, the largest city in the enclave.  

In mid-February 2016, the SDF took control of Tell Rifaat, after battles and confrontations with the remnants of the SNA factions, which had been ravaged by the IS in the east, the Syrian regime forces in the south, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the west, amidst the displacement of most of its residents to the border with Turkey. 

After the end of Operation Olive Branch, the city and some surrounding villages remained under the control of the YPG, the backbone of the SDF, and the Syrian regime forces. Thus, they became linked because of the understanding concluded between Turkey and Russia in northern Syria.

Russia’s pressure returned to the fore during Operation Peace Spring. At that time, the equation changed on the ground, militarily, and in terms of security because the Russian troops entered into areas controlled by the SDF. Later, Russia started to blackmail the SDF on various levels by threatening to retreat from its sites and leave the SDF at the mercy of the Turkish army along the M4 international highway between al-Hasakeh and Aleppo if the SDF did not respond to its demands. 

Russia also hinted that it would not protect the area. They also attempted to form a local military force in the area, according to researchers Bader Mulla Rashid.

The Turkish-backed SNA launched, in October 2019, Operation Peace Spring, east of the Euphrates, to eliminate what Turkey perceives as a threat to its border security. The operation ended with the signing of an agreement between Russia and Turkey. Under the agreement, Turkey and the SNA took control over the town of Tell Abyad, north of Raqqa, and the city of Ras al-Ayn, northwest of al-Hasakah.

On 22 October 2019, Russia was able to enter the town of Ayn Issa, which was regarded as the political capital of the NES. In addition, Russia deployed its troops in the governorates of Raqqa and al-Hasakeh, and conducted patrols with the Turkish troops, according to the agreement.  

Moscow is also playing the tribal card right in northeastern Syria; Russia holds meetings with tribes and clans on a regular basis in northeastern Syria. The US claims that the goal of these meetings is to form pro-Russian militias in the region.

On 13 April, the Russian Military Police temporarily pulled back from some of its points in the city of Tell Rifaat and the town of Kashtaar, north of Aleppo, which are under the control of the SDF. However, the police returned the next day. Some analysts considered the Russians’ previous step as a means of pressure, as monitored by Enab Baladi.  

Before the Russian withdrawal, the Turkish warplanes were throwing flyers on the city. The flyers illustrated that since Ankara classifies the SDF as a terrorist group, it has carried out military operations against it inside the Syrian territories.  

Jusoor for Studies Center’s Unit of Analysis and Thinking published analytical research of the specific causes behind Russia’s temporary withdrawal from Tell Rifaat. Russia withdrew its troops from Tell Rifaat after its pressure tactics failed to enforce the SDF to close the crossing of Shuaib al-Dhikr, west of Raqqa, via the Syrian regime. This means that it failed to disrupt the main oil-exporting markets on which the SDF relied on to sell its oil productions. Meanwhile, Russia bombed crude oil refineries in the northern countryside of Aleppo, which is controlled by the opposition. 

However, Russia does not intend to withdraw from Tell Rifaat fully, this makes the margin of maneuver and pressure on the SDF limited, absolving it of the need to respond, similar to what happened in the town of Ayn Issa.

Russia is also not ready to offer free concessions to Iran and Turkey. If Russia withdraws from its positions in northern Aleppo permanently and temporarily, this will give an opportunity to Russia and Iran to fill the void that it could leave. Its withdrawal will diminish its influence in the file, whether through negotiations with Turkey or the SDF.

Denying the SDF political participation and humanitarian aid

Russia is attempting to pressure the anti-regime parties in various ways, whether through direct military confrontation or through political interference in the Security Council. 

Russia succeeded to restrict almost all border crossings through which UN aid entered by the regime’s hand, including the border crossing of Ya Rubiyah– which used to connect east of the Euphrates to Iraqi Kurdistan, except for the Bab al-Hawa crossing in northern Idlib, which connects the opposition-held areas with Turkish territory.

According to researcher Badr Mulla Rashid, Russia undertakes efforts to hamper or limit the participation of the NES in the Syrian Negotiations Committee (SNC) or the Syrian Constitutional Committee. 

The Syrian Negotiations Committee (SNC) was founded at a conference held in Riyadh in 2015, and at that time, it included various parties from the opposition and military representatives. In the 2017 Riyadh conference, the opposition platforms of Moscow and Cairo were included in the SNC. 

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was established to define the mechanism for drafting a new constitution for Syria under UN resolution 2254, which proposed to form a transitional governing body and to organize new elections. The committee consists of three delegations, including the opposition (emanating from the SNC), the Syrian regime, and civil society.

However, after the return of the US to the scene, things changed somewhat. A greater balance occurred in the NES, according to researcher Badr Mulla Rashid. Kurdish parties resumed their dialogues. The NES did not sign any agreements or understandings with the Syrian regime, including weak terms. 

During Operation Peace Spring, the NES conducted direct negotiations with the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, when the US decided to keep some of its troops in northeastern Syria to protect oil fields, the NES changed its policy and stopped its negotiations with the regime. 

The intra-Kurdish dialogue is led by both the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the nucleus of the US-backed NES, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC). The KNC has close ties with  Ankara and Iraqi Kurdistan and is affiliated with the Syrian opposition bodies. The KNC offices have previously been closed, and a number of its members and its military wing were expelled from the area by the PYD.

The researcher pointed out that Russia has great political interests by exerting pressure on the NES. Once the NES adopts a final position: whether to stand alongside the KNC or make an agreement with the regime, this will change the political map in Syria because the agreement will impact the economic and military aspects. The regime and its ally Russia will easily access the crossings and obtain raw materials and oil products. 

However, the NES issues decisions only with the consent of the US, which is still opposed to any understanding between the NES and the regime. Furthermore, the NES, through its negotiations with the Syrian regime, aspires to have the right to set up a federal government, which is something unacceptable for the Syrian regime. The regime does not want to surrender any part of its administrative, military, and political powers. The regime only surrenders part of its power to Iran militias informally so that it can get back what it gives any time.


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