After several days of clashes between the Kurdish-led and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Turkish Army in alliance with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) west of Manbij, the SDF has announced that it’s struck a deal—with Russia and the Assad regime. As the BBC reports:
A US-allied Syrian militia has said it will hand over villages west of the town of Manbij to the army in order to stop Turkish-backed rebels taking them.
The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, announced it had “transferred defence of the frontline”.
The move came after a deal was agreed with Russia, a staunch ally of President Bashar al-Assad, it added.
Since the Manbij Military Council first announced the deal on Thursday, the Russian general staff has confirmed the agreement at a press conference in Moscow. The first Syrian troops have already begun to take over SDF positions west of Manbij and may complete the handover within the next 24 hours.
The deal adds yet another layer to the complexity and the weirdness of the U.S. position in Syria. Much of the territory that is being handed over to the Syrian regime under the deal was captured from ISIS with extensive support from U.S. special forces, and the continued U.S. military presence west of the Euphrates is at best an open secret frequently displayed on Kurdish social media. And yet the SDF, our closest and most effective partner in Syria, has struck a deal with Russia and the Assad regime to protect itself from Turkey, our NATO ally (no matter how torturous that relationship has been). What’s more, despite our presence on the ground in the area, there is no suggestion that the U.S. government had any foreknowledge or involvement in the deal whatsoever.
On the merits, it’s a shrewd move by the Kurds in calling Turkey’s bluff. Turkey does not have many good options in Syria given their unwillingness to risk escalation with Russia and their reliance on the often lackluster FSA. The Kurds here have also taken advantage of their non-opposition to the Syrian government, from which they want greater autonomy, not regime change. In using the Syrian army as a buffer, they’ll be able to concentrate on the advance on ISIS’s capital Raqqa without worrying about their western flank.
The deal itself still needs to be fully implemented before anyone can start celebrating, but the apparent lack of U.S. involvement is concerning. After all, this sounds a lot like the kind of bargain that President Trump wants in Syria—cooperation between the United States, Russia, and our respective proxies in fighting ISIS—except we’re not a party to the bargain.