by Hedwig Kuijpers
The Astana meeting and its rumours
With an eye on the latest Astana meeting, held on the first of July between Russia, Turkey and Iran’s presidents, the Kurdish rumour mill has started once again. Some SDF-related media outlets and activists have started to spread fear for a deal made against SDF.
Though the outcome and details of this latest Astana meeting have not been published yet, political analysts are claiming there is some kind of agreement, in which Russia is portrayed as the boogeyman.
Analysts state that Iran and Russia have agreed to Turkey starting a new invasion, to conquer Ayn Issa, Manbij and ar-Darbasiyah. Others state the Turks are preparing to invade al-Malikiyah or al-Kawtanieh, which are near the Semalka crossing, which is the only border crossing SDF holds control of.
All agree that Russia will try to convince SDF to hand over Raqqa, Tabqa and Deir ez-Zor to the Syrian government and local Iranian militias, as a bargain to stop the Turkish invasion. It is notable that both Deir ez-Zor and al-Malikiyah’s Rimeylan district hold a US military presence.
The US hasn’t released any statements on this issue yet.
The SDF-held mixed-ethnicity zone and the threats it faces
Since the last two years, the SDF has lost a great amount of its territory. A new Turkish invasion is the largest potential threat it faces. One can describe the self-proclaimed Autonomous Administration as lying under a guillotine, waiting for the sword to fall. For now, the SDF continues its activity and tries to keep normal life going on in its territory, desperately relying on US support. But not only a Turkish invasion threatens the SDF, though the Syrian government and its main allies Russia and Iran have not taken to open confrontation with the SDF, it is using SDF’s disadvantages against it. The government is reluctant to openly fight the Kurds, but the current time might present for SDF’s last opportunity to bend the knee.
The partial US withdrawal of the SDF-held territory has provoked a Turkish invasion in 2019 before, and had very negative results for the Kurds. It is imminent that the US will withdraw eventually, but unclear when. After half a decade of militarily and financially supporting the Kurds in their fight against ISIS, the US still refuses to give the group political support, and the US’s rivals are waiting keenly for the US withdrawal to be completed.
One must understand that though the US is not willing to back the SDF politically, it remains the administration’s biggest sponsor. The area made up out of a mix of ethnicities might not be able to stay united without that support. Financial circumstances in the region are better than in others. Differences in ethnicity, culture and ideology should not be underestimated. Arab tribes have large ideological differences with the Kurdish-led militia, one can assume their fragile alliances are mostly motivated because of financial reasons. Under US-support, wages are paid on time and there are no real shortages in the region. If the US withdraws its financial support, the same Arab tribes that are now allied to the SDF, will flock back and seek support of the Syrian government, as some have reportedly already re pledged allegiance to president Bashar al-Assad. The status quo between the Kurdish-led SDF and the Arab tribes in its Arab-majority areas poses the greatest threat from within.
Though weakened and without physical territory, ISIS remains in the area as a guerrilla force. The SDF holds thousands of ISIS prisoners in facilities that do not fit the job. As we can see from the number of ISIS hit-and-run-style attacks, an ISIS resurgence remains a threat.
Russia, the US and the SDF
Russia’s presence on the Al-Darbasiyah-Amuda-Qamishli border line is more a protection than a threat to the SDF. Its presence is one of the only reasons the Turkish invasion has stopped, and is able to hold a new invasion for a while. Yet, as the SDF cherishes their US support – who did nothing against the Tutkish invasion of their ally’s territory – they do not perceive Russia as their savior. Russian presence regularly provokes incidents as Russian patrols come upon US patrols in the area.
Russia is not an enemy to the SDF, but it is Syria’s close ally. Russia has protected the area for a reason. It intends on encircling the area, cutting off the only border crossing the SDF holds, diminishing the US’ influence over the SDF, and eventually pushing it towards integration into the Syrian army. It tries to do this through political strategies, Russia will not openly attack them, but it might let Turkey do the dirty work.
The US on the other hand will not let the SDF bend the knee to the Syrian government as long as they are present in the area, prolonging the conflict unnecessarily. The US views the Syrian government’s closest allies Iran and Russia as a threat, though it will not attack them to prevent the formation of a larger conflict. Neither will Russia or Iran invade SDF-held territory themselves, they will rather let Turkey do that. As Turkey is a NATO force and holds close relationships to the US government, the chance is very small the US will fight them over the Kurds and risk to be pulled into a larger war.
The US and France both push the SDF towards reconciliation with their Kurdish rivals, the Barzani-affiliated ENKS. By giving them a spark of hope of political support, both countries try to keep the Kurds away from Assad. As ENKS has aligned themselves to the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition, the West also hopes to avoid a new Turkish invasion by unifying them. But to be realistic, even if unification is within reach, it will not take any of the threats the self-proclaimed Autonomous Administration faces away. It might even become their end, as it will close the door forever to negotiations with the Syrian government. Also, a Kurdish-Kurdish alliance might affect relations with SDF-allied Arab tribes.