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Ain Issa: SDF caught between military confrontation with Ankara and submission to Damascus’s demands

The latest negotiations between the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) and Damascus have reached an impasse.

18 January 2021

AMMAN — The latest negotiations between the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) and Damascus have reached an impasse as the latter insists on complete control over the city of Ain Issa in northeast Syria’s Raqqa province. The city, which lies on the Aleppo-Hasakah (M4) international highway, is gaining importance as a link connecting many regions: Raqqa city and the cities of Tel Abyad and Ain Issa in Hasakah province, Manbij city in Aleppo province and the town of Mabrouka in the countryside of Hasakah. Beyond that, it is an important trade corridor between northeast and northwest Syria, reaching all the way to the Syrian coast.

The negotiations, sponsored by Russia, were initiated in response to the military operation launched by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in December to control Ain Issa, the de facto political capital of the AA.

One of the conditions for the dialogue with the regime to succeed is “recognizing the special status of the AA areas and the Syria Democratic Forces [SDF],” Amer Murad, co-head of the AA media office, told Syria Direct.  Therefore, the AA rejects “any agreement with Russia ending in the handover of the region and deploying Russian-Turkish patrols,” Murad added. 

Through such a scenario, Moscow and Ankara’s aim is to “turn the region over to the Syrian regime,” according to Murad, “which rejects any form of dialogue for the benefit of Syrians, and wants to subjugate the region to its authority and practice various kinds of violations against its citizens.”

In the same context, Murad accused Russia of having an agreement with Turkey that encourages the latter to escalate, but “without giving it the green light for real advance [on the ground towards Ain Issa], as a form of Russian pressure on the AA to hand these areas over to the Syrian regime.” 

The failure of the AA’s negotiations with Damascus could herald the resumption of the SNA military operation against the SDF in Ain Issa, which halted in recent days.

“The cessation of military operations is linked to the course of Russian-sponsored negotiations [between the regime and] the AA,” according to military analyst and defected Syrian Colonel Ahmed Hamadeh. “Turkey is awaiting the outcomes of Russian negotiations with the SDF, and what will follow—completing the military operation or reaching a solution that satisfies the parties,” he told Syria Direct

Mutual distrust

Usually, Damascus and its forces represent an option for the AA in the event of any Turkish threat. For instance, during the “Peace Spring” military operation, launched by the SNA in October 2019, the AA resorted to Russian and regime forces to stop the offensive. However, the lack of trust between Damascus and the AA spoils any agreement between the two parties. 

Omar Rahmoun, a member of the regime-affiliated National Reconciliation Commission, accused the SDF of “manipulating and deceiving the Syrian government and Russia.” He told Syria Direct that “the SDF have delayed turning the city of Ain Issa over to the Syrian government and Russian forces, repeating the experience of Afrin, which ended in its occupation by Turkish forces.” 

Rahmoun revealed several meetings between the SDF and Moscow and Damascus, at which the demand was clear: “to hand over Ain Issa to the Syrian state. However, the SDF maneuvered and deceived, just as it did with Manbij when it promised to hand it over to prevent Turkey’s occupation. But after the Turkish operation paused, the SDF did not turn Manbij over to the Syrian Arab Army.” 

For his part, Murad affirmed that “our doors are open to dialogue with any party,” provided there is “respect from this party for the AA, its principles and the interests of the peoples of north and east Syria.” He noted that “so far Russia has been working to favor and uphold the Syrian regime in exchange for the AA giving up its principles; this is not possible.” 

In response, Rahmoun ruled out “the Syrian state and its ally Russia [providing] any kind of support if the SDF insists on not handing Ain Issa over, even if Turkey occupies it.” He indicated that “the Syrian army will not leave Ain Issa and maintain its presence in the 93rd Brigade [military base] even with the Turks’ presence in the city.”

The future of Ain Issa

Far from the AA’s adherence to its position concerning its political capital, Ain Issa’s future will not be as it was before the latest Syrian opposition escalation. According to Muhammad Sarmini, director of the Turkey-based Jusoor Center for Studies, there are two possible scenarios.

The first is “Russian control, whereby Russia carries out the operation of taking control of Ain Issa and kicking the SDF out of it,” Sarmini told Syria Direct, leading to “the return of regime institutions to the city, but not necessarily the deployment of its military forces.” He pointed out that “Turkey does not object to this option,” provided that “the SDF and all AA institutions are ejected from the region.” 

The second scenario is “a Turkish operation in coordination with the Russians, whereby Moscow controls the Turkish incursion’s limits until the SDF makes concessions to Moscow.” Later, according to Sarmini, “geographical control would be apportioned [between Moscow and Ankara], without one party being singled out.”

The Turkish operation, Sarmini suggested, would take place “shortly after Turkey withdrew its military outposts within [the areas] controlled by the Syrian regime in Idlib.” 

For his part, AA leader Amer Murad believes that Turkey and the forces it backs have “failed to make progress in the region,” which can only “defend itself with its forces and citizens.” 

SNA control over Ain Issa and its environs, Sarmini explained, would “increase the security in Tal Abyad, located within the scope of the Peace Spring [territories captured during the earlier Turkish military operation], depriving the SDF of an advanced position and platform for security threats to areas of Turkish influence through car bombs. 

Controlling Ain Issa means “isolating both Manbij and Ain al-Arab [Kobani] in the countryside of Aleppo from SDF-held areas,” Sarmini said. That would “undermine the belt, or corridor, that the People’s Protection Units [YPG, which make up the bulk of the SDF and which are the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)] have attempted to form along the border with Turkey.” 

That ambition, however, received “strong blows in the past due to the YPG’s loss of the areas of Afrin, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain.”  


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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