Mamoun al-Bustani | Diana Rahima | Amal Rantisi
Every time Turkey comes out to threaten to launch a military operation on the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria, a state of political and military confusion prevails in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and its political and military arms.
Recently, the Turkish threat escalated to launch a military operation to establish a “safe zone” with a depth of 30 kilometers along the Syrian-Turkish border.
This came in parallel with political pressure that resulted in Ankara obtaining gains as a result of its approval of Sweden and Finland joining NATO, following a tripartite understanding memorandum, in exchange for stopping the two countries’ support for Kurdish parties and forces active in Europe and Syria.
The state of confusion in the Autonomous Administration is represented by the effects of Turkish political and military pressure on it, which is making it lose the external support it was getting from EU countries, as well as pushing it to build alliances with the Syrian regime, which will result in it losing control over areas of influence.
In this file, Enab Baladi reviews the effects of Turkish pressure on the AANES from a political and military point of view and discusses with military, political, and social researchers the impact of this on the administration’s choices and the residents’ fear of “instability” in the Kurdish-held areas.
Decline in western support
Turkey continues to put pressure on the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria through the constant threat of launching a military operation, as well as following up on the implementation of the terms of the tripartite memorandum of understanding that it signed with Sweden and Finland on the sidelines of the NATO summit in the Spanish capital Madrid, late last June.
Turkey had agreed to Sweden and Finland to join NATO under the memorandum in exchange for the two countries to stop supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its arm in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which in turn constitutes the military wing of the Autonomous Administration.
Turkish political gains
The Autonomous Administration criticized the signing of the NATO memorandum, considering that the governments of Sweden and Finland have retreated from their democratic values.
Last month, the AANES media outlets had celebrated the visit of a Belgian delegation to northeastern Syria.
On 25 June, the official website of the Autonomous Administration quoted the head of the delegation, the Belgian special envoy to Syria, and the ambassador to Lebanon, Hubert Corman, as saying that his country “will strive to recognize the AANES and its democratic project, and support it security and economically to achieve security and safety in Syria in general and northeastern Syria in particular.
On 30 June, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) criticized, in a statement, what it described as “bargains far from democratic standards and human rights treaties that Europe, including Sweden and Finland, boast about.”
Syrian journalist Firas Allawi told Enab Baladi that the Turkish political move and pressure through the threat of launching a military operation in northern Syria are greater than the military operation itself.
“Turkey is trying to take advantage of international changes and the Russian-American competition, and the attempt of both parties to attract Turkey to its side in the region, amid the decline of the Russian role, in order to impose a political fait accompli that it will benefit from in the future,” he added.
Allawi believes that “what Turkey obtained politically is greater than the potential military operation if what was announced in the memorandum of understanding is implemented, especially if the two Scandinavian countries adhere to the agreed-upon halt to support and extradition of wanted persons.”
He explained that this political benefit for Turkey would govern Turkish-European relations in the future, as Ankara will focus on Europe not supporting the Kurdish separatist parties, and therefore this is a political loss for the Autonomous Administration because there are European countries that support politically, and even on the ground, parties affiliated with the AANES.
Badr Mulla Rashid, an expert in Kurdish affairs, told Enab Baladi earlier that the direct effects of signing the memorandum could be limited to “restricting the PKK and its affiliated parties in terms of propaganda and media and economic mobilization in Sweden and Finland. The two countries could also hand over some personalities to Turkey, especially those who hold Turkish citizenship.”
Mulla Rashid indicated that “it is possible that the AANES will lose some of the diplomatic advantages that personalities and organizations obtained from the administration there, especially if it does not separate its activities from the activities of the PKK.”
Political impact is greater
Over the past years, the Autonomous Administration has sought international recognition by opening representations for it in several Western countries. However, the Turkish political and military pressure has caused a decline in external support for the administration and a loss of influence on the ground.
Journalist Firas Allawi considered that the tripartite memorandum of understanding does not constitute any loss on the ground for the AANES and its military wing, the SDF, because Finland and Sweden are essentially absent on the ground.
The areas under the control of the SDF are subject to balances between the United States and Russia, so the NATO agreement is a mere political agreement rather than a moral value on the ground, and therefore it does not directly affect the military operation, according to Allawi.
Allawi pointed out that “the impact of the Turkish-European consensus on the Autonomous Administration and the SDF is more of a political effect than an effect on the ground, and in return, there is a moral push for the Turkish government regarding the possible military operation, but this process also needs understandings with the Russians and Americans who until this moment, have not given the green light for this operation.”
Turkish fear of losses
Allawi assumes that “the delay in starting the military operation causes it to lose its quality and reduces its goals,” noting that “it has become almost certain that the operation will not start before US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region unless the Turks go far in challenging the American administration, and begin the operation before Biden arrives in the Middle East in the middle of this month.”
Allawi pointed out that everyone is waiting for the American visit and the resulting agreement with the Arab countries and Israel regarding the anti-Iran axis or the imposition of American conditions on this axis, thus restoring balance to relations with Iran in the region.
According to Allawi, the Turks use the threat of the military operation to pressure other powers, including Iran and the Syrian regime, to make gains, “therefore, the longer the operation continues, the more political benefit it will have for Turkey than the military benefit.”
Regarding the Iranian mediation between the Syrian regime and Turkey, Allawi believes that the matter is linked to coordinating and arranging the affairs of the region between the Turks and the overlapping forces, and Turkey can benefit from Iranian pressure on the regime by obtaining gains without military action.
This is much better than incurring losses that may lead to a decline in the Justice and Development Party’s shares in the upcoming Turkish elections, as well as the deterioration of the already declining Turkish economy, and this is what the Turkish government does not want, he adds.
The Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, had spoken during his visit to Damascus on 2 July, during which he met the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and his Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, about Iranian mediation between Turkey and the regime.
On 6 July, the Joint Vice-President of the Department of Foreign Relations in the Autonomous Administration, Fanar al-Ka’it, revealed the administration’s intention to open communication channels with Arab countries during the second half of this year.
Al-Ka’it said that the AANES project for the coming months is to focus on Arab countries to open diplomatic channels with them and “explain the reality away from distortion, and the distortionary traits that pursue the Autonomous Administration,” as he put it.
According to the administration, the project aims to discuss with foreign delegations “ways to resolve the Syrian crisis and its vision for the solution” and to convey what it suffers and what it faces from “security, economic and regional threats,” in addition to the situation of the camps that contain the families and children of the Islamic State group. And the mechanism for retrieving children and women from the camps run by the SDF.
“Immature politics” reeling at overlapping forces’ hands
The Joint Presidency of the PYD announced that there were some points in which the party did not reach an agreement with the Syrian regime forces, coinciding with the talk of loyalist media outlets about reaching an agreement between the two parties.
In an interview with Aldar Khalil, a member of the leadership of the PYD, Hawar News Agency, which is close to the PYD, cited Khalil on 7 July, saying, “Syria’s sovereignty and the responsibility to protect it rests with the Damascus government,” which claims to represent Syria at the UN, considering that “discussions in these matters are not enough.”
Khalil considered that the regime was not yet convinced “to abandon the centralization it rules because it fears that it will cause it to fall from power if it abandons it.”
“This causes an obstacle to any agreement with the regime, in addition to another point of contention that hinders the dialogue between the two parties today, which is that the regime does not consider that Syria’s identity is not just one component,” Khalil adds.
The Russian state-funded Sputnik agency quoted SDF spokesman Aram Hanna that the regime had agreed to send military reinforcements to the frontlines in the countryside of Raqqa and Aleppo to support the SDF against Turkey.
Stab in the back
The AANES declared a state of emergency in its areas of influence in northeastern Syria due to what it described as “threats” posed to the region by Turkey.
For his part, the head of the (PYD) party, Salih Muslim, condemned the United States, Russia, and the International Coalition, for not supporting the Autonomous Administration in the face of the upcoming Turkish military operation.
Muslim told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, “Those to whom we turned our backs, unfortunately, have stabbed us, whether it is the International Coalition, America, or even Russia. There is no one to take up arms for us, we will fight by ourselves.”
Political writer Majed al-Aloush believes that “the SDF feels both bitterness and fear, but it still behaves with political immaturity, and the difference is that it thought that it was a spoiled child, while today it has begun to realize that it is a neglected child.”
According to al-Aloush, “the SDF became arrogant” as a result of the victories that were achieved against the Islamic State organization, believing that it is the legitimate and sole father of those victories, and the administration considers itself the most difficult number in the military equation on Syrian soil.
However, subsequent developments proved, according to al-Aloush, that “the Autonomous Administration is just a “rented” force to achieve a goal in itself, so it moved from undetermined federal rule to Autonomous Administration, and from an independent force to a force enjoying a special status within the formations of the regime forces, with limited and scattered confrontations with the regime’s militias, and calling on those militias to defend the borders of the homeland whenever they are exposed to the Turkish threat.”
Losses in areas of influence
Last June, the Syrian regime forces sent military reinforcements to the SDF-controlled areas in the countryside of Aleppo and al-Hasakah, to support them against a possible Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
The official Facebook page of the National Defense, the auxiliary forces of the Syrian regime forces, published a video recording showing military crowds and large numbers of fighters waving flags and photos of Bashar al-Assad.
In July, the regime forces brought in military reinforcements that reached the contact lines with the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), consisting of several four-wheel drive vehicles mounted with heavy and medium machine guns.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent stated that the reinforcements were launched from al-Hasakah towards the northern town of Tal Tamer, which is considered a line of contact with the Turkish-backed SNA.
On 4 July, Russian news networks reported the arrival of Russian military reinforcements from the Russian Army’s Paratroopers Division in northeastern Syria.
According to what was published by the “Russian Spring” agency (Rusvesna) in Russia and Sputnik Arabic, the military forces arrived in Qamishli, “where the atmosphere in that region witnessed air activity through the landing of Russian military transport planes that transported more than 500 Russian paratroopers.”
The agency added that the arrival of this military division is “to confront the armed gangs backed by Turkey, which announced earlier the launch of a military operation in northern Syria.”
Rusvesna indicated that in just two days, two planes arrived, and in just two weeks, about 600 fighters were deployed.
Last May, Russian military reinforcements arrived at Qamishli Airport, which included Russian SU-34 fighters and Ka-52 attack helicopters, in conjunction with Turkish statements that threatened to launch a new military operation in those areas, according to Sputnik.
The Russian forces have been stationed in and around the regime’s Qamishli Airport since 2016 and have taken it as their base since then.
Percentage of control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) over the area of Syria at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022.
-The SDF maintained its control ratio, which is 25.64 percent of the Syrian geography, which is the same percentage recorded since November 2019.
-The SDF areas include large parts of Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and al-Hasakah governorates and parts of Aleppo governorate.
Source: Jusoor Center for Studies
Political researcher Abdul Wahab Assi believes that the Autonomous Administration is the biggest loser from the current developments in northern Syria. If the guarantors of Astana (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) reach a new agreement on the region to avoid the Turkish military operation, this will be at the expense of the Autonomous Administration’s project and the SDF for the benefit of the Syrian regime, and if they do not reach an agreement, the administration will lose new areas for the benefit of the Syrian opposition.
According to Assi, the continuation of the escalation for a longer period will be an opportunity that the regime forces, Russia, and Iran will exploit to strengthen their influence in the Autonomous Administration areas and thus influence its decision in the future as happened after 2019.
The Syrian regime insists on the local administration model to merge governance structures and settlements and integrate fighters from the Protection Units (YPG), the Internal Security Forces (Asayish), and the SDF in general.
Ahmed said, “Instead of attacking these forces (SDF), it is better to talk about a political solution, and thus merging (SDF) with the Syrian army in certain mechanisms is the right solution, in light of the tacit dispersal of the regime’s forces.”
She added that it would be better to “reach a correct solution,” considering that the SDF has turned into a “difficult number that cannot be bypassed.”
According to Assi, “While the SDF wants at least some particularity for the YPG, it does not seem that the regime will be willing to give them that unless an agreement is not reached between Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Such a concession will be for the purpose of putting pressure on Ankara, until a final agreement is reached with it, to re-normalize relations, similar to the Adana Agreement of 1998.”
Russia, the decision maker
Researcher al-Aloush believes that the Russians’ goals in Syria have been announced since the first day.
“Their goal has been to restore the regime’s forces’ control over the entire Syrian soil first, and then to look into other problems at their right time,” he said.
The Russians succeeded in regaining control of all the de-escalation areas, except for the north, which has a special status due to the relationship with Turkey and the impossibility of resorting to military force in the eastern Euphrates.
The Russians are practicing a policy of blackmail with the SDF to achieve this goal, using Turkish repeated military threats to spread terror in the ranks of the SDF and force it to cooperate more and more with the regime forces, not only militarily but even administratively, in the hope of their complete surrender and access to the sources of Syrian wealth, according to al-Aloush.
Al-Aloush said, “Whenever the SDF is subjected to Turkish military pressure, it repeats its appeal to the regime, without realizing after that that the Syrian regime is unable to take any decision and that its forces are moving under Russian orders.
The SDF should also know that the Russians practically do not object to Turkish expansion at its expense if it does not respond to their desire to give up more and more of its previous gains in the interest of the regime” because the Turkish presence can be dealt with one day under international law, and the issue is only related to the nature of the Turkish-Russian understanding in some moment,” al-Aloush adds.
Whenever a Turkish military operation appears on the horizon, the SDF will lose some of its positions or gains in favor of the regime or the Russians, and at other times it also loses some of its positions in the interest of Turkey (Olive Branch, Euphrates Shield, Peace Spring), and the scenario is repeated from time to time, according to the researcher.
Threats cast a shadow over residents
The reflection of the Turkish threats to launch a military operation is not only reflected in the possibility of the Autonomous Administration losing the areas it controls but also in its presence as an administrative authority governing the areas and the extent to which the population accepts this authority, which cannot achieve stability in light of their fears of new displacements similar to what happened during Operation Peace Spring in 2019, which had a catastrophic impact on the population, amid UN warnings that escalated at the time of displacement and targeting of civilians.
The Autonomous Administration, through its official channels and agencies, calls on the people in its areas of control to confront the Turkish threats amid a clear involvement of civilians in military matters on one level, and on the other hand, the possibility of rapprochement between the administration and the Syrian regime and Russia, which raises the residents’ fears.
Families are in a state of ‘worry’
Enab Baladi monitored a state of fear and anxiety among the residents of the areas under the SDF control due to the continuous Turkish threats to launch a military operation, especially the residents of cities near the Turkish borders, such as al-Darbasiyah, al-Qahtaniyah, al-Malikiyah, and Qamishli.
Abdulazim al-Abed, 46, a wholesaler of foodstuffs in the city of al-Darbasiyah, adjacent to the Turkish border, told Enab Baladi that the commercial movement in the city had greatly decreased due to the Turkish threats and that he had moved two warehouses of foodstuffs he owned to the center of al-Hasakah, away from the border area.
He also stopped selling on credit and began collecting all his debts for fear of “a mass exodus of the population and the loss of his financial dues,” stressing that most of the city’s merchants he knows have taken the same steps he took as a precaution.
Osama Hussein, 50, owns an agricultural pharmacy in Qamishli city, believes that the solution to confronting Turkish threats is to travel abroad, so he liquidated his entire account with his customers and sold his goods “at a cheap price” to collect the necessary amount to be paid to smuggling brokers across the Turkish border. He prefers “exile in European countries” to living “a life of displacement and asylum in the camps.”
Thousands of residents of the area are also afraid of the rapprochement between the regime and the SDF or that the latter will hand over areas to the regime, especially since the area has thousands of people wanted for compulsory and reserve military service, even from “dissidents from the army.”
Abdulnasser al-Jamil, 40, who refused to reveal his name for security reasons, as he has defected from the regime’s army since 2013, told Enab Baladi that he would prefer that “Turkey invade the region” than be handed over to the regime by the SDF, which is incapable of facing any external threat.
Al-Jamil and the dozens of defectors he knows are “very concerned about the rapprochement between the SDF and the regime,” and that every time Turkey threatens the region, he seriously thinks about traveling abroad, but what prevents him so far is his family that has no breadwinner but him, and the high costs of smuggling operations.”
In Raqqa, Ibrahim al-Azouz, 38, describes his condition and that of the residents, saying, “It does not seem that things will pass calmly, we are very worried,” considering that the future and everything related to it are still unknown.
Al-Azouz told Enab Baladi that the talk of Autonomous Administration and SDF officials about the possibility of coordinating with the regime raises fears among the residents, just as the Turkish threats of a military operation raise fears among the locals.
He pointed out that any military move or threat to the region directly affects the lives of the residents and the commercial movement in the region, taking into account the difficult living situation experienced by the population due to the high prices and the depreciation of the Syrian pound.
Al-Azouz stated that the areas that Turkey control with the Syrian National Army factions in the countryside of Raqqa and al-Hasakah live in difficult security and social conditions, according to his opinion, and that the residents have real fears that these conditions will move to new areas if the military operation that Turkish officials are talking about is implemented.
The civil activist residing in Raqqa, Fadi al-Hassan, believes that it is the duty of the AANES and the SDF to search for a clear security agreement with the International Coalition, which the administration considers a partner in its war against the Islamic State group.
Al-Hassan considered that the Autonomous Administration is in a state of political and security confusion, despite the passage of several years since its establishment and management of the richest Syrian regions with underground, agricultural, and water resources, as during that period, it did not build a political alliance with the international community to save it from threats of military operations.
He pointed out that the association of the AANES with the PKK, which is classified on the lists of “terror” in many countries, leaves a wide scope for Turkey and other countries to antagonize the administration, and accordingly, it is a popular demand to dismantle this link or at least reduce it and show greater flexibility towards dialogue with the Syrians, especially the opposition parties.
Al-Hassan’s vision of the solution does not constitute a far-fetched view of the international movements of American politicians. On 6 July, American Senator Lindsey Graham visited the city of al-Hasakah, during which he met with the leaders of the SDF and the Syrian Democratic Council. His initiative to end the escalation between the SDF and Turkey was discussed, which includes commercial exchanges and agreements that benefit both sides.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, in an Opinion to Fox News on 30 June, said, “the solution I view as most viable is to address Turkey’s national security interests while simultaneously developing a business relationship between the government of Turkey and the population of northeastern Syria. There are oil fields in northeastern Syria that, with more investment, could produce larger quantities of oil – a benefit to both the world oil market and the economies of northeastern Syria and Turkey. The best way to solve this problem over time is to make it a win-win for the residents of northeastern Syria and our Turkish allies, both on the security and economic front.”
Internal issues make matters worse
In addition to the challenges of the military operation, residents of northeastern Syria are facing economic and service challenges represented in the scarcity of some economic materials and an increase in fuel prices, as well as the restrictions practiced by the Autonomous Administration through its military wing, SDF, with arbitrary arrests on charges of belonging to the IS group in addition to the restriction on freedoms.
In the face of these facts, Syrian journalist Samer al-Ahmad, in an interview with Enab Baladi, does not believe that the issue of “popular resistance” and the involvement of civilians in the political complications between Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is correct, as it is promoted through the news networks affiliated with the AANES.
Al-Ahmad said that the Autonomous Administration and the SDF, since their takeover of the area in 2014, have committed a number of violations and continuous arrests so far on charges of belonging to the Islamic State group, in addition to poor service and economic matters, which constituted a reaction to all residents, with its various components, was represented by demonstrations and protests against the administration, which makes the issue of “popular resistance” just a “media propaganda” to implicate the population in such political and military matters.
He added that the residents reject the authority of the SDF and the return of the Syrian regime to the area, and all the de facto authorities, considering that the residents only want an authority that “preserves their dignity and secures them a life with the least possible conditions in terms of job opportunities, services, security conditions, and freedoms,” he said.
According to al-Ahmad, the failure to harness the region’s rich resources, such as agriculture and oil, and the deterioration of economic and living conditions and the provision of job opportunities, generated angry popular reactions, noting that the security behavior that the SDF continued to practice through arrests, enforced disappearances, and secret prisons, is similar to the behavior of the Syrian regime, and this behavior generates a state of popular anger, as no one wants to take up arms and fight willingly to defend this authority, and what will happen is forced recruitment campaigns.
He considered that the residents are right to fear the alliance between the SDF and the regime forces, which will contribute to arrests and security campaigns, expecting that what will happen is to extract some common interests between the two parties in the form of understandings and gains away from any considerations for the residents.
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