Kurdish forces struck an accord with the Syrian government on Sunday night aimed at repelling a Turkish invasion and annexation of northern Syria, and signaling a new page in the eight-year war.
“If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people,” Kurdish commander Mazloum Abdi said in the US magazine Foreign Policy, explaining the rationale for allying with Damascus after five years of fighting alongside American troops.
The Turkish operation in northern Syria – sparked by a green light from US President Donald Trump last Sunday – has in its first five days seen the shelling of a US military outpost, jailbreaks by hundreds of ISIS prisoners, and growing allegations of atrocities committed by Turkey’s jihadist mercenaries.
Faced with a chaotic US withdrawal and no support from other previous partners like Russia, the Kurdish-led administration went to Damascus.
“It has been agreed with the Syrian government – which has the duty to protect the country’s borders and maintain Syrian sovereignty – that the Syrian army will deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border,” the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria announced on Sunday.
Syrian troops will “support the Syrian Democratic Forces to repel this aggression and liberate the areas entered by the Turkish army and its mercenaries,” it said.
“Units of the Syrian army have started moving north to confront the Turkish aggression on Syrian territory,” Syria’s state news agency SANA reported on Sunday night.
Turkey as of Sunday said its troops and their Syrian allies had succeeded in seizing the northern border town of Ras al-Ain and parts of Tal Abyad, severing a highway linking the two.
In the aftermath, videos emerged online purporting to show Turkish-backed Syrian fighters carrying out field executions on that highway and shouting “God is great.”
For residents of this diverse region of Syria – home to Kurds, Arabs, Assyrian and Armenian Christians, and Yazidis – the deployment by Turkey of jihadists has raised fears of ethnic cleansing, and likely expedited negotiations with the regime.
Russian power broker
The Kurdish-led authorities, which have governed northeastern Syria as a parallel state over the course of the war, appeared on Sunday to be seeking a larger bargain with Damascus.
“The understanding reached between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian army regarding the protection of the border is purely military and does not address the status of the Autonomous Administration,” a statement read, calling the accord an “emergency measure against the Turkish aggression.”
It further emphasized that the Kurdish-led administration “at no point” in the war had called for secession from the Syrian state – “on the contrary, it provided what was needed for the unity of Syria and its society.”
The Syrian state never fully abandoned the northern cities of Hasakeh and Qamishli – where the military maintained a presence at an airport – and continued to pay salaries to teachers and other civil servants.
However, relations are tense and sporadically break out into open clashes between PKK-aligned Kurdish forces and the Syrian army and its paramilitaries.
Russia, a key ally of Damascus which also maintained links with the Kurds, has long pushed for the two parties to reach a power-sharing deal. It is believed to have played a key role in brokering Sunday’s accord.
“I am convinced stabilization is inevitable and I wish it happens as soon as possible,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday.
For Moscow, a Kurdish return to the fold would help bolster the legitimacy of its Syrian ally.
“It is time to get Syria back into the Arab family, to re-instate it in the Arab League,” Putin said in an interview with multiple news outlets Sunday.
Over the weekend, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit called Turkey’s military action an “invasion” against an Arab state – comments echoed by representatives of the UAE and Iraq.
Not to be outdone by Russia, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered his government’s mediation services in an interview with Turkish broadcaster TRT over the weekend.
“We can help bring together the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian government, and Turkey so that the Syrian armed forces can guard the border with Turkey – together.”