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SDF, Damascus seek departure of foreign fighters in Syria

Jun 14,2018 - Last updated at Jun 14,2018

The announcement by the political wing of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said that it was prepared to hold unconditional peace talks with Damascus which could amount to a breakthrough for both sides, if negotiations take place. Since the SDF controls between 25-30 per cent of Syrian territory in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces in the north and east, talks that result in the reunification of this area with the 65 per cent of Syria now under government control would reestablish Syrian sovereignty over most of the country. This would leave only Idlib province, held by a collection of takfiri factions protected by Turkey, and pockets of territory under these and other armed groups, including Daesh.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has recently called on the Kurds to negotiate and warned them if they do not reach a deal, he would not hesitate to use force to regain the territory they have conquered. Arab residents, the majority of Syrians living under Kurdish rule, have staged demonstrations calling for the return of Damascus' governance, exerting pressure on the SDF to reach an agreement. Assad has reminded the Kurds they are, after all, Syrians, implying they need to seek reconciliation with fellow citizens and the government. For Kurds, his statement of the obvious has a serious meaning, as many Kurds have been stateless, including 30,000 who had lived in Syria for decades and were granted citizenship in April 2011 shortly after unrest erupted in the southern town of Deraa.

The divided US administration, which has fostered and armed the SDF, could try to scupper negotiations between the Kurds and Damascus. While US President Donald Trump has said he seeks the withdrawal of the 2,000 US special forces from Syria before the end of the year, Defence Secretary James Mattis has rejected an early US pull-out from Syria. He called such a move a "strategic blunder", since it would enable Assad to "take advantage" of a "power vacuum". He said a US evacuation would depend on progress in the UN-brokered, stalled Geneva peace talks. Waiting on Geneva could prolong Syria's division indefinitely.

In the Trump-challenged communique of the G-7 summit in Canada, the US and its Western allies called on Russia to halt its support for the Syrian government, making it all too clear they have not given up on the regime change scenario, although this would lead to a vacuum in Syria and its collapse as a state.

The Kurds realise this would not be in their interest as Ankara would certainly exploit a vacuum and conflict between competing insurgent factions to crush the SDF, grab territory along the 800-kilometre long Syrian-Turkish border, and expel Kurds from their villages and land. Ankara regards the SDF as an offshoot of the irredentist Turkish Kurdish Workers' Party which has been fighting the Turkish army for self-rule for more than 30 years.

Like the Iraqi Kurds, their Syrian brethren have also been used and deserted by the US. The SDF was abandoned by the US military, when Turkey attacked the Syrian Kurdish district of Afrin, drove out Kurdish fighters and civilians, looted homes and levelled farms and planted insurgent families driven from Eastern Ghouta in their place. The US has also held talks with Turkey with the aim of forcing the SDF to pull out from the northern Syrian town of Manbij, from which the Kurds expelled Daesh in 2016. Under pressure from Ankara, the Obama administration had agreed in 2016 that the SDF should evacuate Manbij and withdraw to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. This has not happened, prompting Turkey to claim Washington does not honour its promises.

While US officials have given few details on the deal, Turkish spokesmen have said the Kurdish fighters would hand in their weapons before withdrawing and would complete the operation within six months. Ankara also said a new council would be established to replace the Manbij military council, which has ruled the multiethnic city since the SDF took over. US troops and French commandos would remain in Manbij, but Turkey would become the major power in the region, expanding its area of control around Jarablus on the border and east of Afrin.

If the Turks are correct, this scenario would involve a second US abandonment of the SDF, which has fought long and hard under US auspices and extended its area of control far beyond the reach of the Kurds, who form a small minority of Syria's population.

The Trump administration is apparently trying to stabilise US relations with Nato-ally Turkey with the aim of preventing a serious breach with Ankara, which is using the pretext of containing the SDF as a means to gain territory in northern Syria and across the border in north-western Iraq. Turkey has also tried to blackmail the US into capitulating to Turkish demands by forging closer relations with Russia, which is deeply involved in the struggle for Syria.

The US and its Nato partners seek to curtail Russia's influence in Syria and the region and will not hesitate to use Turkey as a countervailing force, although Ankara has followed a policy of cultivating and coopting takfiri factions, including Al Qaeda's Hay'at Tahrir Al Sham (originally Jabhat Al Nusra) and Daesh in efforts to roll-back the Kurds and capture Syrian territory. The Turks are in a strong position in the north-west, where they have surrounded takfiri-held Idlib province and have been trying to continuing the fight against Assad by creating a "new Syrian army" to replace the old "Free Syrian Army", founded, trained, armed and deployed by Turkey and the Western powers. The latter has always been no more than a collection of armed groups without the command and control required to transform these groups into a serious paramilitary force.

If the government and the SDF reach an accommodation, Damascus would, presumably, be able to count on the fire-power of this paramilitary organisation, which is deeply anti-Turkish, in the coming battles against Turkey for Idlib, Afrin, Manbij and Jarablus as well as other insurgent factions north of Aleppo and in the south. The SDF, like the government, is calling for the departure of all foreign fighters from Syria and Syrian-Syrian dialogue.

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