After the visit of US Vice President Michael Pence to Ankara on October 17, where an agreement was reached with Turkish President Recep Erdogan on Northern Syria, the Turkish side announced that it would suspend Operation Peace Spring for five days. The United States promised not to introduce new sanctions against Turkey during this period. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are dominated by the Kurdish People’s Self-Defence Units (YPG), must leave the 30-kilometer zone near the border with Turkey in 120 hours, and retreat south of the M4 highway, leaving their heavy weapons. Donald Trump has already stated that he has “saved millions of lives”. The SDF leadership has agreed to comply with the terms of the US-Turkish agreement.
The Pence-Erdogan deal makes us rethink the essence of what is happening in Northern Syria and highlight new key points. A day earlier, before the visit of the American delegation to Turkey, it appeared that the Syrian Democratic Forces had actually surrendered to Damascus, so as not to fall victim to the Turkish invasion. It seemed that the Syrian government forces were about to take control of the entire territory of Northeast Syria, go to the borders and block any advance of Turkish troops and the Turkish-sponsored anti-Damascus opposition military force calling itself the Syrian National Army (SNA). However, as a result of the US-Turkish agreements, the general background seems already less optimistic for the Assad administration.
Thus, the deal showed that the United States, despite the withdrawal of troops, is still keeping the whole situation under control and is actually behaving as the “conductor” of the process in Northern Syria. Previous events also confirmed this. The introduction of pro-government forces and the Russian military police into the cities of Manbij and Ain al-Arab (Kobani) could take place only when the Americans considered it necessary to let them go there, while blocking the advance of Turkish troops and SNA units to these settlements. Now it has become clear that Washington has retained its leverage over the Syrian Democratic Forces and the leadership of Northern Syria – Rojava, which agreed to accept the terms of the US-Turkish deal. If the SDF had completely passed under the auspices of Damascus and Moscow, it would hardly made sense for them to comply with the terms of the US-Turkish agreements.
It is likely that the US is still extending some security guarantees to some areas controlled by the SDF. It is significant that after the Americans left their base in the Ain al-Arab region, after Syrian government troops had already entered the city itself, US Air Force F-15E aircraft destroyed it with an air strike, showing that the airspace over northeast Syria still was under US control.
Thus, the withdrawal of US ground forces does not yet mean that the United States has completely put an end to contact with the SDF. Just like the advance through the territory of Northern Syria – Rojava by the Syrian government army units was probably carried out in agreement with the American side. That is, the presence of Syrian troop units in certain regions of Rojava does not yet indicate the transfer of these regions to the control of official Damascus.
By concluding a deal with Turkey, the Trump administration was able to somewhat deflect criticism against it; Trump’s move to pull out of the region had been condemned as a “betrayal of Kurds” and “running away” from north-eastern Syria. Now everything looks like the Americans are leaving, but before curtailing their military presence they are trying to solve certain problems related to the SDF, such as limiting the length of the security zone demanded by Turkey from 440 km to 150 km. This was actually confirmed in the Pence-Erdogan agreement. On the other hand, the US-Turkish deal allowed Washington to avoid further escalation in relations with Ankara and prevent a final break with its NATO ally.
The Turkish side also found the agreement beneficial. It ensured the passage of the Tell Abyad – Ras al-Ain region, where the Peace Spring operation was carried out, under the control of the Turkish troops and the Syrian opposition without further military operations that could drag out and allow the Assad regime to prevent even the creation of this limited 150 km security zone. However, from the point of view of Ankara, the creation of a zone within this width can only be considered as the first stage of the operation. The deal also leaves a window of opportunity for Ankara to expand the security zone beyond the Tell Abyad – Ras al-Ain area. To date, Syrian government forces, except for the cities of Ayn al-Arab and Qamishli, have been moving mainly along the M4 highway, not attempting to occupy the territory between it and the border in order to prevent a possible Turkish invasion into other areas of north-eastern Syria. Therefore, Turkey still has opportunities to expand its zone of operation. It is possible that the Americans are preventing the Syrian government forces from reaching the border along its entire north-eastern stretch.
Although Damascus and Moscow remain the main beneficiaries of Operation Peace Spring and the American withdrawal from Northern Syria, the benefits of the Assad administration following theconclusion of the US-Turkish deal are not so obvious. The SDF is likely to enjoy US support for some time and retain some independence. Apparently, their “absorption” by the Syrian government will require more time than originally thought. Also, while the Syrian government forces were unable to secure the entire border in north-eastern Syria, Ankara still has the opportunity to expand the operation beyond the current security zone created in the Tell Abyad – Ras al-Ain area. Its final parameters, apparently, will be agreed in the very near future between Ankara, Moscow and Washington.