In a surprising turn of events, Russia and the Syrian government of Bashar Assad have agreed with the U.S.-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to establish three joint military observation posts in the town of Ayn Issa.
Ayn Issa is of crucial importance since it links Aleppo to al-Hasakah and is located along the strategically important M-4 highway that connects the northeastern with the western part of the country.
The posts will monitor the ceasefire and any violations by Turkish-proxy militias in the region.
The three groups, seemingly at odds, have “agreed to establish three points… to reduce the violations against our people in Ain Issa and Ain Issa countryside”, Riyadh al-Khalaf, the military council leader for the Tal Abyad district, said in a statement, according to Kurdistan 24.
According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the first post will be established in the eastern part of Ayn Issa district, the second in the western, and the third on the M4 international highway.
This surprising move follows negotiations between the SDF and the Russians. Russia’s military had asked the SDF to fully withdraw from Ayn Issa and hand the area over to the Assad regime but the SDF rejected the request.
Ayn Issa has come under regular attack, most recently by Turkish-backed rebel groups. In October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of a possible new operation into the region. Ayn Issa is located only 20 miles from the Turkish border. The town had also previously served as the administrative center of the SDF-affiliated autonomous administration that controls northeast Syria.
The Turks have called the SDF merely an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is outlawed as a terrorist organization in Turkey.
Elham Ahmed, president of the SDF-affiliated Syrian Democratic Council’s executive committee, said that the SDF was preparing for more Turkish moves in the area. “For more than 10 days, there has been an unprecedented escalation on the part of the Turkish state in the Tal Tamr and Ayn Issa regions,” she said on Twitter. “We call on the guarantor countries to oblige Turkey to abide by the ceasefire agreement.”
The SDF had been relying on the United States for protection against the Turkish military and proxy militia forces. Yet, with President Trump wanting for the United States to pull out of Syria, the Kurds are approaching Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government.
Nevertheless, about 700-900 U.S. soldiers still remain in Syria and work with the SDF in controlling the M-4 highway and in securing the SDF-operating oilfields.
Those oilfields are a sticky point with the Syrian government. In August, the U.S. had announced that Delta Crescent Energy LLC, a U.S. oil corporation, would be partnering with the SDF to modernize the fields. In response, the Syrian foreign ministry released a statement saying that Damascus “condemns in the strongest terms the agreement signed between al-Qasd militia [SDF] and an American oil company to steal Syria’s oil under the sponsorship and support of the American administration.”
“This agreement is null and void and has no legal basis,” the Syrian ministry added.
Although the Syrian government, with the backing of Russia, wants to re-establish control of the country and the oilfields, the present situation is more preferable than having a Turkish occupation force in the country and thus a Turkish controlling interest in the oil-rich area. So, the Russians and Syrians will bide their time while Russian forces establish observation posts with the Kurdish SDF. The Russians and Turkish forces are at odds in Syria, as well as in other areas in the world. Nevertheless, the Russian agreement with the SDF shouldn’t be seen as anything other than a short-term strategy for Russia.
Meanwhile, the Kurds are facing the issue that none of their allies have any interest in Kurdish long-term security.
The uncertainty over the U.S. involvement in Syria has complicated matters. Successive administrations in Washington have changed their policies toward an open-ended involvement in the country. President Trump’s administration has been wanting to withdraw. Yet, although the incoming Biden administration has seemed less likely to pull out of the country its intentions aren’t certain.
So, right now, the Kurdish SDF is stuck in a situation that doesn’t bode well in the long-term.