SDF look to Russia for support against Turkey

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’s fighters - 23 March 2021 (edited by Enab Baladi)

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’s fighters - 23 March 2021 (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Turkey is preparing for a new fourth military operation in Syria in Aleppo countryside, Raqqa, and al-Hasakah to secure its southern borders and implement a 30-km deep buffer zone across northern Syria, Turkish officials stated recently to several media outlets and in international forums.

On the other side, there are increasingly apparent signs of potential convergence between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military wing of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), and the Syrian regime’s main ally, Russia, raising questions about the SDF’s changing attitudes due to Turkish pressures. 

Russian incursion in northeastern Syria

On 3 November, Russian helicopters and warplanes conducted military maneuvers and exercises for several days in northeastern Syria with groups of SDF fighters. 

Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik cited unnamed sources on the ground, saying that Russian military aircraft and helicopters participated in the maneuvers conducted in the eastern countryside of Ain Issa city and on the confrontation lines between the SDF and the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in Sharkrak silos’ area.

During the maneuvers, live munitions and bombing operations against designated targets were reportedly used by the Russian fighter jets and helicopters.   

Enab Baladi obtained information from a lieutenant in the Syrian regime’s army who witnessed the military exercises in Raqqa and al-Hasakah countryside. The source said that the SDF conducted “tactical” military training with groups of the Syrian regime forces and three Russian warplanes.    

The lieutenant, who spoke to Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, added that the military maneuvers began several days ago, during which Russian aircraft dropped several thermal balloons on the area between the SNA and the SDF to the north and northwest of Tal Tamir town in al-Hasakah countryside. 

According to the lieutenant, the maneuvers coincided with military reinforcements brought by the SDF to the countryside of Tal Tamir town from different areas in al-Hasakah. The reinforcements were distributed to the villages of Tal al-Laban, al-Aliyah, Bab al-Khair al-Gharbi, Dardarah, Sheikh Ali, Tal Qabr As-Saghir, Maslata, and al-Aboush.

He added that the SDF fighters had encircled the Tal Tamir town from the northeastern countryside until the northwestern countryside along the M4 international highway and alongside the regime forces, sharing tunnels, trenches, and fortifications inside and on the outskirts of the town.

Turkey’s pressures force SDF to seek Russian support

The Jusoor Center for Studies researcher, Wael Alwan, told Enab Baladi that Turkey has accelerated its pressures to secure its southern borders and the opposition areas in northern Syria. 

According to Alwan, Turkey’s serious threats of a potential military operation aim to pressure other parties into negotiations, but Russia has jumped at the opportunity to sponsor strategic understandings between the SDF and the regime. 

Alwan added, the rising Russian role in northeastern Syria has been facilitated by the United States’ diminishing support to the SDF on the security and military levels. In fact, Russia has sponsored previous economic agreements between the regime and the SDF, violating the US-led Caesar Sanctions Act, which the administration of US President Joe Biden chose to ignore. 

Moscow has aimed at bolstering its relation with the SDF on different occasions. On 28 October, a Russian Sukhoi fighter jet landed at Qamishli airport, eastern Syria. This airport, which is close to a US military base, was used by the Russian military police as a military base. 

Two days earlier, the KCK Kurdistan Communities Union co-chair, Jamil Bayek, who also calls himself the Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) second-in-command, told Annahar, a political and independent Lebanese newspaper, about the uneasy relationship between AANES and Russia. 

Bayek pointed out that the PKK had always wanted AANES to solve issues with the Syrian government in Damascus and had tried to use its influence in this direction.

The reconciliation between AANES and the regime’s government is the most sensible thing to do, as Syria cannot return to what it was before 2011, according to Bayek.

“The regime’s government expressed their acceptance, and the fact that they said they are considering a decentralized governance has opened the door for reconciliation with AANES,” Bayek said.

With goodwill and flexibility of attitudes, the regime’s government and AANES could reach a solution, which would serve the Kurdish people, Bayek said, calling on the regime to abandon preconceived notions, since “Syria could become stronger with the Kurds.”

On the PKK’s relation with Russia, Bayek said that it was sometimes indirect and at other times direct, depending on Russia’s relations with Turkey. 

He added that the PKK does not have a passive approach towards Russia or any other country. However, several countries have negative attitudes towards the party because of its bad relation with Turkey. Therefore, the PKK has many issues with the US and some European countries.

The joint military exercises coincided with Russian media talks about the possibility of handing over areas controlled by AANES, the political umbrella of the SDF, to the Syrian regime, including those containing oil wells. 

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) has indicated its willingness to hand over oil fields in AANES-controlled areas in northeastern Syria to the regime’s government, provided that the file of the region’s oil and wealth be a part of what it called the “final dialogue process” with the regime.

In an interview with the Russia Today (RT) TV channel on 4 November, member of the Presidential Board of the PYD, Aldar Khalil, said that the wealth and riches in northeastern Syria are not just for this region and that the PYD does not intend to monopolize resources, considering them a national wealth for all Syrians.

Khalil said that any agreement on oil fields must be part of the negotiations of the final dialogue process, adding that the discussion of details about the region’s resources is subject to the applicability of negotiations with the regime.

Negotiations or understandings?

Political analyst and researcher Wael Alwan said that calling the current affairs between the SDF and Russia as negotiations is inaccurate, as the two sides are in the phase of making “agreements.” The SDF has shown its approval to Russian demands unconditionally, but the regime is laying down conditions that are not in line with Russia’s desire to prevent the same Iranian infiltration that happened in southern Syria. 

According to Alwan, the SDF is willing to respond to the Russian initiative completely and offer great security and economic concessions to the regime under Turkish threats and after the US turned its back on them. 

The SDF ended up being the biggest loser, which would greatly help the regime that became able to impose critical conditions thanks to Russia, Alwan said. 

When asked about the map of control in Syria, Alwan said that any change in this map would depend on the Russian-Turkish agreements and relations, which are experiencing tensions during this period.

Alwan noted that Turkey does not trust the regime and its forces and realizes that it was the most to invest in terrorist and “separatist” operations against Turkey.

Internal divergence of attitude towards Russia and the regime

On 22 October, a group of civilians and clan dignitaries prevented a Russian military patrol from crossing into SDF-held areas in the western countryside of Deir Ezzor city.

A video recording showed civilians speaking in the name of the SDF-affiliated Deir Ezzor Military Council, saying that the presence of Russia and the Syrian regime that killed Syrian children is unacceptable to the Council, the US-led International Coalition Forces (ICF), and the SDF in the city of Deir Ezzor. 

The western countryside of Deir Ezzor also witnessed protests that were carried out under the Council’s military protection. The protesters demanded preventing Russian military columns’ entry or crossing into SDF areas in northeastern Syria. 

As soon as the demonstrations were over, the SDF secured the Russian military columns with a side road away from the sight of the Council members, enabling the columns to reach al-Hasakah through the lands of Deir Ezzor.  

This incident showed contrasted positions against the presence of Russian forces in northeast Syria between the SDF and its affiliated Military Council in Deir Ezzor, which was established by dignitaries and former commanders in the opposition forces. 

Enab Baladi contacted the media office of the Deir Ezzor Military Council to comment on the recent disagreement in positions between the Council and the SDF, but the office refused to comment and simply stated, “Public statements are within the purview of the SDF’s media center.”

Researcher and strategic analyst Fayez al-Asmar, who is originally from the city of Deir Ezzor, told Enab Baladi that no matter how “revolutionary” the Deir Ezzor Military Council pretends to be, technically, the Council has fallen out of this classification and became a mere instrument to achieve SDF’s objectives. 

Al-Asmar added that the SDF had taken advantage of certain figures and actors’ influence and clan weight, gave them glamorous but useless labels and posts to invest in them, and urged them to attract recruits who were placed on the frontlines in battles with the Islamic State (IS).

He added that all military components and civil councils formed by the SDF cannot make decisions and lack real field force and foreign support. For these reasons, the councils continue to be subordinate to the SDF, unable to change the course of events or the general attitude of the SDF. 

These bodies’ enmity to the regime would fail to affect the SDF’s plan of making new alliances in the region. Still, the SDF’s convergence with Russia and the regime for fear of Turkish threats and a possible military operation can cause resentment on the side of Arab military or civil councils towards the SDF’s changing policies, al-Asmar said.

He added, this resentment cannot influence the course of events in the region, which is approaching several immediate changes. 

“The US troops are likely to withdraw from Syria” 

On 2 August, Ilham Ahmed, president of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), said in an interview with the Russia Today (RT) TV channel that the US is likely to withdraw its forces abroad, including those in Syria, under a new strategy. 

Ahmed said that the US presence in northeastern Syria is “representational” with limited troops. 

“The US withdrawal or non-withdrawal from this small part of Syria would obviously affect the US strategy in the Middle East, so both scenarios are possible, depending on the US interests in the region,” Ahmed said. 

During the interview, Ahmed touched on the recognition issue of AANES after a delegation from the SDC visited French President Emmanuel Macron. 

She said that the recognition of AANES “would call for constitutional change in Syria.”

On 27 July, US newspaper POLITICO cited a senior Joe Biden administration official, who said that roughly 900 US troops would remain in Syria to continue supporting and advising the SDF in its fight against IS — the same role the US has played since the American-led intervention in 2014.

In 2020, former US President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from the northern borders near Turkey as part of a plan to withdraw all US troops from Syria.

Pressured by the Pentagon, Trump backed down on the withdrawal decision and kept US troops in northeast Syria to continue supporting the SDF and protecting oil fields from conflicting forces.

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