Syria's Kurds ask Assad govt for protection

Vehicles and structures belonging to US forces on the outskirts of the northern Syrian town of Manbij. The Kremlin yesterday said the Syrian army has taken control of Manbij.
Vehicles and structures belonging to US forces on the outskirts of the northern Syrian town of Manbij. The Kremlin yesterday said the Syrian army has taken control of Manbij.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Move surprises US, could see Assad retaking Kurdish-held area near border with Turkey

BEIRUT • Feeling betrayed by the United States, Washington's Kurdish allies in Syria have asked the Syrian government to protect them from possible attack by Turkey.

Last Friday's request surprised some US officials and could help open the way for the forces of President Bashar Assad of Syria, backed by Russia and Iran, to start retaking the Kurdish-held part of the country near Turkey's border.

That would be a big step towards Mr Assad's goal of reclaiming all of Syria, upended by almost eight years of war.

It was also the first sign that President Donald Trump's abrupt announcement last week that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria was not only shifting alliances in the conflict but directly benefiting Mr Assad - an autocrat once described by Mr Trump as an "animal" responsible for chemical attacks and other atrocities.

The US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, said the Syrian government should send troops to the city of Manbij, near the Turkish border. The request amounted to a US ally calling on an enemy of the US to protect it from another American ally, Turkey.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call yesterday that the Syrian army has taken control of Manbij.

The Kremlin's announcement came as the Russian and Turkish foreign and defence ministers, as well as the countries' intelligence chiefs, met in Moscow to discuss the way forward in Syria as they move to fill the void left by the US military pullout.

The Kurdish militias are regarded by Turkey as dangerous autonomy-minded insurgents. The US regards them as valuable partners in helping rout Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremists from Syria - the original purpose of the US military deployment four years ago.

 
 
 
 

Although there are only about 2,000 US troops in Syria, they have been a deterrent to an assault on the Kurdish militias by the Turks. The US presence also discouraged Mr Assad's forces from sweeping into the area even as they retook major areas elsewhere from anti-government fighters, often with the support of Russia and Iran.

Some US officials were taken aback by the Kurdish announcement, voicing anger to their Kurdish counterparts, said a senior US official. There was no consultation or coordination, and it amounted to a unilateral bargaining gambit.

While the US understands the Kurdish motivation to open talks with the Assad government, the official said, the Kurdish position did not necessarily reflect views of Arab members of the Kurdish-Arab coalition fighting ISIS in Syria.

The Kurdish-led militias control about one-quarter of Syria's territory, including valuable agricultural land and oil reserves in the north and east of the country.

The areas run by the Kurds in Syria have long stood apart in the conflict. They had hoped, with their American friends, to pioneer an alternative model for Syria's future.

While none of the other powers fighting in Syria liked the situation, they mostly avoided attacking the area for fear of provoking the US.

Now, with that deterrent set to end, the future of the north-east is up in the air.

"An American withdrawal from Syria is the equivalent of handing Syria on a silver plate to Iran and its militias," said Mr Muhannad al-Talaa, the commander of an Arab militia near the US military base at al-Tanf, near the Iraqi border. "If the US withdraws and we are forced to leave, Iran will have a steady supplies route through Iraq to its militias and Hizbollah in Syria."

Without the US, the Kurds will find themselves between the Syrian government, which wants them back under the control of Damascus, and Turkey, which wants them destroyed.

"I think they really have only one choice, which is to accept what Assad offers, and he is not going to be altruistic," said Mr Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 30, 2018, with the headline 'Syria's Kurds ask Assad govt for protection'. Print Edition | Subscribe