The Syrian-Turkish border area in the early morning hours is calm and almost serene. Driving from the town of Kobane to the border crossing at Semalka one may get the impression that there is not much of a war remaining at all in the country.
Every few kilometres, to be sure, one runs into a checkpoint of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces or the Asayish security police.
But their close presence on the ground, for anyone who knows Syria, is reassuring rather than disturbing. It is evidence of solid central authority. Such authority is the best guarantee against the arbitrary activity of armed bands that for a while constituted the chief danger to foreigners travelling through northern Syria.
The forces staffing these checkpoints were partners of the US and the West in its almost completed bid to destroy Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The successful prosecution of that war led to the present reality in which the US and its partners are the joint de facto sovereign of a large, resource-rich swath of Syria.
The calm, however, and indeed the solidity of the authorities in whose name the checkpoints on the Kobane-Semalka route are staffed, is illusory. The Syrian situation is in flux.
Northeastern Syria, in which Kobane and Semalka are located, remains the largest part of the country outside the control of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It is controlled by the SDF and its US and French allies.
The Assad regime has effectively defeated the rebellion launched against it in March 2011. The independent rebel enclaves in Deraa and Quneitra fell last month. Russian and regime forces are assembling for an offensive against the final area of independent rebel control in Idlib province in the northwest.
Once Idlib is secured, this will leave the regime in control of about 65 per cent of Syria. This area will include the capital Damascus, the city of Aleppo and another eight of Syria’s 14 main cities.
The SDF-controlled area east of the Euphrates river will remain the second largest area of control.
There is also an area of the northwest likely to stay for now under direct Turkish supervision. This zone contains the remnants of the rebellion — Sunni Islamist militias now effectively working for Ankara.
The situation is not stable. Assad is determined to reunite Syria in its entirety under his rule. In May he said he would first seek to negotiate with the representatives of what he called the “temporary structures” in eastern Syria. But if talks failed, “the Syrian army will be forced to liberate areas occupied by the SDF, with the Americans or without the Americans. This is our land, it’s our right, it’s our duty to liberate these areas and the Americans should leave. Somehow, they’re going to leave.”
The authorities in the SDF-controlled enclave take this threat seriously. Their response, however, appears not yet fully crystallised. In the main, clarity is prevented by the larger ambiguity of US regional policy, American air power being the main guarantor of the enclave against an assault by Assad’s forces.
Are the Americans staying or going? What will be the results in either case? And what are the hopes and aspirations of the inhabitants of this small but strategically important corner of Syria as the war in their country enters its eight year? In late July, Inquirer travelled to the SDF-controlled part of Syria seeking answers to these questions.
The emergence of the Kurdish-dominated enclave east of the Euphrates is one of the least likely success stories of the Syrian war.
Before the civil war, Syria’s Kurds were among the most severely oppressed, and among the most invisible minorities, of the Middle East. Numbering between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the pre-war Syrian population, they were prevented from educating or even naming their children in their native language. A section of the Kurdish population was deprived of travel and passport rights. Some, the so-called maktoumeen (unrecorded), lacked even citizenship and access to education.
The emergence of a de facto Kurdish enclave following the withdrawal by the Assad regime from a swath of the county’s north in 2012 changed all this. The enclave successfully defended itself against an early attempt by the rebels to destroy it. In 2014 the Kurds formed a de facto alliance with the US and the West in the war against Islamic State. This war, along with the regime’s (and Russia and Iran’s) war against the rebels, now is in its closing stages.
“The Syrian crisis has passed out of the hands of the Syrian people and is now in the hands of outsiders,” Manbij Military Council spokesman Shervan Darwish tells the Inquirer.
Darwish is speaking in his dilapidated office in a base in Manbij town. We have just witnessed a group of US special forces soldiers leaving a meeting. (Our Kurdish hosts told us to stay out of sight: the Americans are camera-shy and disapprove of civilians coming on the base.)
Manbij is a good place to begin to take the temperature of northern Syria. It is the farthest point west that the area of de facto Kurdish and US domination reached. Just west of the Euphrates, it is one of the points at which the rival camps now operating in Syria nudge up against one another. Darwish, with a laugh, describes it as “the Bermuda Triangle.”
“On one side, Euphrates Shield and the Turks; another side, the regime and Iran. And another side, the Americans and us. The situation is complicated,” he says.
Manbij was liberated from Islamic State by the SDF in a bloody fight in 2016. So far it remains under SDF control. The regime is just to the south, in al-Khafsa. The Turks and their rebel clients, meanwhile, are just to the west. The Turks regard the Kurdish forces as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is in an insurgency against Ankara. As a result, under US tutelage, in a complicated arrangement, the Kurdish armed element has withdrawn from the town. The non-sectarian Manbij Military Council is responsible for security. The Turks patrol a line to the town’s north jointly with their US-NATO allies. Assad’s forces and their allies wait to the south.
In the meantime, the town has come back to life. There is little damage visible a year on. The covered market is flourishing and crowded at midday. The civic council is noisy with good-natured bustle. One would not suspect that just behind all this normality a complicated and combustible international stand-off is brewing.
For as long as the Americans are patrolling the Sajor line, no one — neither Assad and the Iranians nor the Turks and the rebels — is going to seek to break in. But are the Americans staying? In March, Donald Trump vowed to bring home American troops within the year. There are 2000 declared US special forces personnel in the SDF-controlled area. The real number is probably twice that.
The US President’s statement added to the sense of insecurity. SDF officials and their civilian counterparts in the Syrian Democratic Council remain, at least for public consumption, optimistic about the possibility of a long-term US presence to underwrite their enclave.
Aldar Khalil, one of the top officials in the enclave, tells Inquirer: “It is not logical that the US will leave immediately or soon: after ISIS (Islamic State), the US will fight Iran. And they will fight Iran within Syria.”
From this point of view, the SDF enclave would be “folded” into an emergent US strategy to contain and push back the Iranians. “Many projects are in Syria — that of the Turks, of the Russians, of the Iranians. The Americans see us as the least dangerous, the most moderate,” Khalil says.
Mustafa Bali, chief media officer of the SDF, concurs: “US interests require them to be here,” he tells Inquirer, speaking at a dusty SDF base in the town of Ein Issa. “The US is concerned by the Iranian crescent” — that is, the desire of the Iranians for a contiguous line of control stretching from the Iraq-Iran border via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea.
As SDF spokesman Nuri Mahmoud notes: “We have been in coalition with the US since the Kobane battle. There has been media speculation regarding imminent withdrawal. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin also once said that his forces were leaving, but the opposite took place. Syria today is a place of international confrontation in which all forces seek to strengthen their allies on the ground. The US will not leave Syria without stability on the ground. And we see no evidence of imminent withdrawal.”
These sentiments are to a degree supported by the latest statements of US officials. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking in early June, said: “As the operations ultimately draw to a close, we must avoid leaving a vacuum in Syria that can be exploited by the Assad regime or its supporters.
A report on July 27 in Britain’s The Times, meanwhile, cited “Gulf sources” as confirming that Trump declared in his meeting with Putin in Helsinki that US troops would remain in Syria until Iranian forces withdrew.
The Times article also noted that national security adviser John Bolton told US network ABC that US forces would remain “as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East”. All this sounds like a commitment that ought to offer reassurance to Washington’s Kurdish allies.
Actions, however, are a better guide than sentiments. And it appears the SDF-SDC leaders remain sceptical regarding long-term US plans. Last week, the first direct negotiations took place in Damascus between their representatives and those of the Assad regime.
All SDF and SDC representatives who spoke to Inquirer were at pains to point out they did not seek to partition Syria permanently. The talks with the regime, according to regional media, focused on practical arrangements in the fields of health, education, water and electricity provision, and the maintenance of the Euphrates Dam, captured by the SDF from Islamic State in 2016.
Ilham Ahmed, who led the SDC delegation in Damascus, told Inquirer: “We want to start with service negotiations and then move on to political negotiations.”
But while the prospects for practical co-operation seem real, the broader visions of the Assad regime and the SDC are entirely irreconcilable. Ahmed says SDC demands in the negotiations include “a decentralised state, federalism, democratic autonomy, all to be reflected in a new Syrian constitution. Also language rights, also oil to be distributed to all Syrians, not specific to this or that ethnic group.”
All this flies in the face of the far grimmer vision of the Assad regime, according to which the entirety of Syria is to be returned to its exclusive and dictatorial rule.
According to a report on the pro-Assad Al Mayadeen television channel, regime representatives in Damascus dismissed these demands out of hand when they were raised by the SDC delegation.
Al Mayadeen reported that regime representatives proposed a minor strengthening of existing laws regarding local representation and emphasised that only Assad’s military — the Syrian Arab Army — would be permitted to carry arms. Accession to such demands would represent a wholesale surrender of the SDC. But the regime’s positions as reflected here are entirely unsurprising and in line with its publicly known stances.
So the uncertainty remains. Ordinary people in the SDC areas are acutely aware of it, even as they go about their daily lives in relative security. Ali, an Arab fighter with the SDF, begins by dutifully repeating the official line, telling Inquirer: “There’s no way the regime’s coming back here. Of course not.” Then he adds: “Well maybe, just to provide services and so on, but not in force.” Before concluding, with a smile: “Well, if they do come back, I’ll need to get out of here pretty fast anyway.”
According to Hogir from Kobane: “People just don’t want another war. And they’d like to be able to travel throughout the country, to go to Damascus and the coast, to study in university.”
The effects of eight grinding years of conflict, not yet concluded, are there just below the surface. People tell, hesitantly at first, stories of the terrible summer of 2014, when Islamic State and other jihadis swept across the countryside.
This author was there at the time and the details of such stories are familiar. It is nevertheless astonishing to remember in detail the extent of Islamic State cruelty and barbarism: the public executions that families were forced to watch; the severed heads impaled on spikes at Raqqa City’s central intersection. Islamic State now has gone. In its aftermath, the prospect of capitulation or potential further conflict appears to be the unpalatable choice facing the residents of the SDC-administered 30 per cent of Syria.
Ultimately, all this shows once again the extent to which the “Syrian” war is no longer mainly about Syrians. Larger conflicts are being played out on Syrian soil. The Assad regime depends on Iranian involvement on the ground and Russian support in the air to move forward. The SDC is watching anxiously for the US decision that will make the difference between inevitable surrender and the possibility of resistance. To the west of its enclave are Turkey and its Sunni Islamist allies.
For now, at least, the action is to be conducted in negotiating rooms while the situation on the ground remains static. That is unlikely to remain the case for long. After eight years of bloody conflict, the normality of the market scenes in Manbij and the quiet on the road from the Semalka border crossing to rebuilt Kobane are deceptive. The crisis in Syria remains far from resolution.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jonathan Spyer