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'Damascus is looking stronger than ever': What next for Syria as Kurds join forces with Assad?

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People ride on a motorbike in the city of Manbij, Syria October 15, 2019.
People ride on a motorbike in the city of Manbij, Syria October 15, 2019. -
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REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
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As U.S. forces withdrew from the north-eastern Syrian city of Manbij on Tuesday - a week after President Donald Trump announced that he was pulling American forces out of the war-torn country - Syrian army units loyal to President Bashar Assad moved in.

It was the first time in seven years that Syria’s government had been in Manbij, which was first seized by anti-government rebels in 2012, then Islamic State in 2014 and then, in 2016, liberated by the U.S.-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) after two years of bloody jihadist rule.

Abandoned by their American allies, Syria’s Kurds say they had little choice but to turn to Damascus in the face of the Turkish invasion of northern Syria.

“The fight is really unequal. Turkey has planes. It is capable of doing air strikes, and the military here doesn’t have this capability. So it makes sense, they had to make an ally,” says Robin Fleming, researcher at the Rojava Information Centre, who is based in Qamishli, 300 kilometres to the east.

But it remains an uneasy alliance. Syria’s Kurds did not call for regime change in the early days of the civil war, and were often accused of compromising with Assad in return for autonomy in northern Syria. Now they have that autonomy, the Kurds appear to have given it away.

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“There’s mixed feelings about it. We haven’t seen that it has changed a lot on the ground. Mostly it is just that the Syrian army and the SDF are fighting together, especially in Manbij, but all of the social and administrative institutions are in the hands of the autonomous administration.”

There are also Syrians fighting on the other side of the conflict, with the Free Syrian Army, which fought the Assad government in the early days of the Syrian civil war before being eclipsed by militant jihadi groups such as the al-Nusra Front and IS, backing the Turkish invasion.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pledged to rid northern Syria of Kurdish militias such as the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), which have links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the group that has waged a four decade conflict against the Turkish state.

Turkey’s invasion has provoked international outcry, from France and the UK as well as from U.S. president Donald Trump, who has called for a ceasefire and suggested that a trade deal between Ankara and Washington could be derailed unless the Turkish invasion is halted.

But for many Turks, an offensive in northern Syria and promises by Erdoğan to resettle 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the so-called safe zone, is welcome.

“It has cost them a lot and it will cost them even more now, with the sanctions,” said Dareen Khalifa, at the think tank and NGO International Crisis Group. “They need a political win here and they need a military victory. I think what people are missing is that this is a very popular war in Turkey.”

It may also be the final act of the war in Syria, said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“My sense is that this is a pathway towards an end game in Syria [and] it is the regime that will be the biggest beneficiary,” he said. “The regime has moved up into the border areas, Turkey has carved out a narrow zone for itself, but effectively Damascus is looking stronger than ever.”

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