ISTANBUL – Syrian troops entered areas that have been outside their control for years on Monday, after a quickly forged pact between Kurdish forces and the Syrian government to confront a Turkish military campaign reshaped alliances in Syria.
That pact transformed the Kurds, an erstwhile partner of the United States in the fight against terror group Islamic State, into a force more closely aligned with Russia and Iran, as the US began withdrawing its troops from northeastern Syria.
Syrian regime forces moved on Monday into towns along the northern border with Turkey and in a town north of the city of Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the IS.
Until recently, thousands of US-backed fighters had trained at a military base in the town of Ain Eissa. After the Syrian military arrived on Monday morning, soldiers raised the tricolor Syrian flag in the town center.
The shift by Kurdish forces under Turkish fire brings a US partner in the fight against the IS into alignment with Russia and Iran. The Turkish offensive has also brought new strains between members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
US President Donald Trump issued sanctions against Turkish officials, calling the incursion a threat to regional stability, and European members of the alliance said they would halt arms sales to Turkey.
The US continued to withdraw military forces from front-line bases in northern Syria on Monday after evacuating American diplomats overnight on Sunday, according to current and former administration officials.
Trump defended on Monday his decision to pull out US forces who had served as a buffer between Turkey and Kurdish fighters, and made clear he didn’t object to geopolitical foes of the US moving into the vacuum.
“Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!” Trump tweeted on Monday.
The US pullback that began ahead of Turkey’s cross-border incursion into Syria on Wednesday left vulnerable the Kurdish forces that had allied with the US against the IS.
Late Sunday, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces struck an agreement with the Syrian government that essentially meant switching from one military backer, the US, to another.
The SDF force that the US spent hundreds of millions of dollars to train, arm and support could now become part of the Syrian army, said Sinam Mohamad, the foreign representative for the political wing of the SDF. The US withdrawal and Kurdish agreement allows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to expand control into territory that the US-backed coalition had captured from the IS.
As part of the Kurdish deal with the Assad regime, the Syrian military will position itself to prevent a Turkish-led incursion from expanding throughout northern Syria, according to the SDF.
The SDF also said the Syrian military would help retake Kurdish areas captured by Turkey and its allies in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played down suggestions that his forces and allies would go to war with the Syrian regime.
As Syrian troops moved into Kurdish-held areas, details of the deal were still being worked out, Mohamad said.
Syrian state media reported that military units were welcomed by residents and that Syrian national flags were hoisted over a number of government buildings in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakah.
Residents said there was a sense of chaos in those areas and that people were nervous about what this could mean for the future.
After more than eight years of conflict, Syria’s government, which is backed by Russia and Iran, is on the verge of clawing back most of the country.
IS remnants and sleeper cells remain present in northeast Syria and the Kurds retain a fragile grasp over camps where families of militants have been held. On Sunday, several hundred foreign women and children linked to IS escaped from a camp in northeastern Syria.
The SDF’s political leadership first began talks with the Assad regime when Trump announced in April 2018 his wish to withdraw US troops from Syria. But those talks went nowhere after the US changed its decision and the Assad regime indicated it wasn’t interested in any sort of power-sharing agreement with the Syrian Kurds.
That changed Wednesday after Turkey launched its offensive on two Syrian border towns with a barrage of airstrikes and Syrian fighters, who are majority Arab. Turkey pushed faster and deeper into northern Syria than anticipated.
The Kurdish fighters were forced to reach a hurried agreement with the Assad regime with no preconditions.
Russia has played a mediating role in talks between the Kurds and the regime.
“We consider this to be the only path toward creating a sustainable and stable situation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a day before Turkey launched its offensive.
The Syrian regime, emerging largely victorious after eight years of a civil war with antigovernment rebels, had little reason to make concessions to the weakened Kurds, analysts said.
“The diplomatic leadership of the SDF is in a very difficult spot because they don’t have any leverage with the regime, their biggest leverage was the presence of the US,” said John Dunford, a Syria analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “They may be forced to accept a deal where they get absolutely no concessions.”
Like their fellow Kurds in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Iraq, the Syrian Kurds have longed for some measure of self-determination. Through the chaos of the Syrian conflict and war against IS, the Kurds carved out a semiautonomous statelet.
But in pursuing their aspirations for self-rule, Syria’s Kurds risked overreach and miscalculation. American officials have long made clear in meetings and public comments that US military backing never amounted to an endorsement of Kurdish political ambitions.
In December, US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey likened the partnership with the Syrian Kurds to a “transactional relationship for a specific goal.”
One of the SDF’s most visible miscalculations has been their public adherence to the Marxist ideologue Abdullah Ocalan. The Kurdish YPG militia, SDF’s main component, is an offshoot of Ocalan’s Kurdish separatist group PKK, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and Turkey and has been at war with the Turkish government for decades.
The YPG has made no secret of its loyalty to Ocalan, despite urgings by US officials to distance themselves from the PKK. His image permeates the Kurdish-controlled areas in the form of patches on the uniforms of SDF fighters, on billboards, and in framed photographs in the offices of many US-backed officials.
Ocalan’s ubiquitous image helped convince Turkey that the YPG is a threat that must be pushed back from its border, leading to Wednesday’s offensive.
The events of the past week made clear the geopolitical tides have turned against the Kurds.
“The Americans sold them out, the Turks will have no mercy on them and the regime doesn’t care about them,” said Muhammad Ismail, leader of the Kurdish National Council and a critic of the YPG and its political wing. “They are no more than hired guns.”