Syrian Kurdish leader Gen. Mazlum Kobani received Washington's support on Wednesday and was on the phone with the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu – all two weeks after it seemed his Syrian Democratic Forces were on the ropes against Turkey.
Mazlum and his fighters – who number around 100,000 in different units trained by the Americans – suffered setbacks between October 9 and 14 amid hammering by Turkey and Turkish-backed jihadists, but they have come through the fire with confidence.
He first thanked US President Donald Trump on Wednesday in wording that puzzled many who watched what appeared to be a US betrayal of the Kurds. Mazlum said he appreciated Trump's "tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups [attacks] on our people." The SDF commander spoke to Trump and explained the Turkish violations of the ceasefire the US pushed for on October 17.
Trump was gracious in his response. "Thank you for your kind words and courage. Please extend my warmest regards to the Kurdish people, I look forward to seeing you soon." For observers of US policy, which seemed to be jumping from crisis to crisis since October 6, the newfound warmth was in contrast to the excoriation of Trump's policies being heard in Congress on October 22-23 as US envoy for Syria James Jeffrey was grilled by senators.
Jeffrey, who was not consulted by Trump before the US decision to withdraw on October 6, may not have been consulted on October 23 either. Other senators are lining up to ask that Mazlum be able to come to the US now to meet the president. Ilham Ahmed of the Syrian Democratic Council is already in Washington, speaking out for the needs of Kurds and others in eastern Syria. The SDF and SDC both have many Arab members and control an area in Syria that is the size of West Virginia.
Mazlum also spoke with the Russians on Wednesday. According to reports, he thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his work to defuse the conflict with Turkey and spare civilians. The Russians signed a deal with Turkey on October 22 regarding a border agreement in Syria. Russian troops came to Kobani on Wednesday where military police and Syrian regime forces patrolled to "ensure the safety of the residents." Russia says it will facilitate the withdrawal of the YPG, a part of the SDF that Turkey views as terrorists. Russia will coordinate joint patrols with Turkey that will go up to 10 km. into Syria. YPG elements and weapons will be removed to within 30 km. of the border.
For SDF commanders, this now presents an interesting opportunity. The US wants the SDF, which it helped create, to continue to secure parts of eastern Syria, particularly 10,000 ISIS detainees and some oil fields near the Euphrates River. The US will remain in this area for an undetermined amount of time. This can help keep Iranian influence out of the strategic border area and prevent ISIS infiltrating into Iraq. It also give the SDF some room to maneuver between the US and the Russians. According to Russia's Sputnik news agency, Moscow was in contact with Washington about the Turkish agreement.
While Moscow's sudden appearance in eastern Syria as the arbiter appeared to humiliate Washington last week, it now appears that the US and the SDF might have an avenue to speak to the Russians about some shared interests. This is because the SDF now has signed agreements with the Syrian regime while Moscow has signed an agreement with Ankara.
Turkey is ostensibly an American NATO ally. Turkey's main concern was to remove the SDF from the border, and it has accomplished this. It has also provided Turkey's government a way to pretend it won, and to funnel some unsavory jihadists into Syria so Turkey doesn't have to deal with them in Idlib province. Turkey wants to dump as many Syrian extremists back into Syria as possible to cage them in and dilute them. Ankara didn't commit many of its own forces to fighting the SDF between October 9 and 17, seeking instead to use the Syrian rebel groups as cannon fodder. Now that the fodder has been used, Turkey and Russia signed their deal.
For the Syrian Kurds, there are still many hurdles. They have lost direct control over many of their towns along the border. Up to 300,000 have fled, including 7,000 who fled to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It is unclear if Mazlum will be able to help them go back. But if the SDF's goal now is to increase its role on the international stage, it has momentarily accomplished that. It appeared finished on October 13 when it rushed to sign a deal with Damascus to slow the Turkish advance. But days later it has a new lease on life.
The SDF has been excluded by the US from the Geneva process aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, but depending on what it does next, it could find that it receives more open doors in both Moscow and Washington. This is a tight-rope to walk because the US wants the SDF to keep control of ISIS detainees. This serves a legal fiction in Washington: Since the SDF is not a state, the US is therefore not handing ISIS members over to a state, and is not responsible for them. This enables the SDF to control ISIS members, and no countries need to take responsibility for them.
It's unclear how long this can continue. But America wants it to continue, at least for now – and the SDF is the key to that. But some wonder whether the US will leave Syria anyway in coming months.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.