By Ellen Francis
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Kurdish officials said a deal with Damascus, brokered by President Bashar al-Assad’s ally Russia, centres for now on army troops deploying along the border and that the two sides would talk politics later.
Top Kurdish politician Aldar Xelil said the immediate priority was to halt Turkish attacks along the border while sticking points would require lengthy, direct negotiations.
“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger,” Xelil told Reuters via WhatsApp.
The army deployment raises questions about the fate 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 with U.S. help. They hoped to shore up their autonomy within Syria.
That is now in jeopardy. Washington’s move to withdraw its troops, which opened the way for Ankara’s offensive against the YPG, has left the Kurds scrambling for protection from the Damascus government and Russia.
But 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.
Despite oil trade between the two and the shared enmity towards Turkey, Damascus and Kurdish authorities “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.”
Army convoys headed towards the Turkish border on Monday, entering towns that have been in Kurdish hands for years. There has been no official comment from the Syrian government beyond state media reporting.
The Syrian Kurds were long persecuted by the Baathist state, though they have seldom clashed during the eight-year war. At times, they have even fought common enemies such as the anti-Assad rebels in Turkey’s offensive.
Attempts at negotiations between the two sides before had previously 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.
Damascus 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.
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 and which controls the region.
A range of issues, including Islamic State militants in SDF detention, can be hashed out once the Turkish threat subsides, said Xelil.
“We are in contact with the Damascus government to reach common (ground) in the future,” he added.
Another senior Kurdish official, Badran Jia Kurd, echoed those comments, saying: “This is a preliminary military agreement. The political aspects were not discussed, and these will be discussed at later stages.”
(Additional reporting Tom Perry; Editing by Gareth Jones)