October 14, 2019 / 6:24 AM / 2 months ago

With U.S. letdown, Syrian Kurdish leaders lose bargaining chip

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A U.S. pullback from Syria has cost Kurdish leaders bargaining power with Damascus in their bid to secure their autonomy and left their fate hinging on its ally Russia.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke billows out after Turkish shelling on the Syrian border town of Ras al Ain, as seen from Ceylanpinar, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 13, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo

Syrian Kurdish officials said on Monday a deal with Damascus, which Moscow brokered, centers on army troops deploying along the border. They said the two sides would talk politics later.

“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger,” top Kurdish politician Aldar Xelil told Reuters in a message.

But the army deployment raises questions about the future of a region across north and east Syria — rich in oil, water and farmland — where the Kurdish YPG militia carved out self-rule.

Kurdish forces had emerged winners in Syria’s more than eight-year conflict after crushing Islamic State alongside U.S. troops. They hoped to shore up their autonomy within Syria.

That is now in jeopardy. Washington’s move to withdraw, which opened the way for Ankara’s offensive, left Syrian Kurds scrambling for help from President Bashar al-Assad and Moscow.

With the Americans set to pull out in days, Kurdish authorities have lost key leverage in their efforts to secure a political deal with Damascus that would let them retain their gains, analysts say.

Army soldiers headed towards the Turkish border on Monday, entering towns that have been in YPG hands for years. There has been no official comment from the Syrian government beyond state media reporting.

“The Kurds are bankrupt. Their card has fallen. Now they want to grasp any branch as they drown,” said a regional source close to Damascus.

Despite oil trade and shared enmity towards Turkey, Damascus and the Kurds “don’t agree on anything when it comes to ruling northeast Syria”, said Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Where they are going to have big differences is over language, the schooling, the military autonomy, all the mechanisms of self-rule.”

DISAGREEMENTS

The Syrian Kurds, long persecuted by the Baathist state, have seldom clashed with Assad during the eight-year war. At times, they have even fought common enemies such as the anti-Assad rebels in Turkey’s offensive.

Previous attempts at negotiations between the sides had gone nowhere. Damascus has been loathe to cede the Kurds the level of autonomy they seek. Assad’s government earlier this year threatened Kurdish fighters with military defeat if they did not agree to a return of state authority.

The government struck the deal with Kurdish forces to redeploy to the border as the United States announced on Sunday it would withdraw its 1,000 troops from Syria in the face of Turkey’s expanding offensive.

Turkey brands the YPG as terrorists linked to militant Kurdish separatists at home.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises near the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, October 12, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

Syrian army soldiers - with Russian oversight - will deploy from the border town of Manbij to Derik under the new deal with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG spearheads.

Xelil said a range of sticking points can be discussed once the Turkish threat subsides. “We are in contact with the Damascus government to reach common (ground) in the future.”

Another senior Kurdish official, Badran Jia Kurd, echoed those comments: “This is a preliminary military agreement. The political aspects were not discussed, and these will be discussed at later stages.”

Additional reporting Tom Perry and Laila Bassam,; Editing by Gareth Jones and Ed Osmond

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