What I found instead was at once heartening and devastating. Some scenes of hardship were indelible: children, forced from their homes by the Turkish offensive, now sat out of school in freezing, hastily constructed camps, without coats and with their small bare feet poking out of plastic sandals covered in mud spawned by the incessant rain.
But also striking was the region’s hard-fought stability despite its deep scars. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, known as the SDF, has done a heroic job of holding the northeastern region together, providing some security to the region’s traumatized people under conditions that would try most nation-states, and sustaining the governance model that it had earlier established to a remarkable degree.
But Syria now needs a political settlement more than ever. The SDF cannot continue to hold the line, plus rebuild ruined cities, reabsorb displaced people, and resist incursions from Turkey and from the Islamic State, known as ISIS, without robust and credible commitments from the outside powers that hold the country’s fate in hand, including a serious effort to broker talks between Turkey and the Kurds.
The United States, Russia, and other outside actors all benefit from the stability that the SDF brings to northeastern Syria, and they should take an interest in securing the region’s future.
But underneath, the change is profound. A year ago, SDF forces controlled the area, backed by a small, nearly invisible U.S. presence. On this visit, in the course of just a few hours’ drive between Hasakah and Ain Issa, I saw convoys flying Russian, Syrian regime, and U.S. flags. What had been a U.S. base in Ain Issa now flew a Russian flag. And the best road between Hasakah and Kobani has become unusable because of security concerns following Turkey’s military attack, forcing Syrians to take a minimum three-hour, poorly paved detour. Trucks lined up to pass the uneven and pockmarked road.
Northeastern Syria is today an uncertain territory, buffeted by great-power politics, ravaged by fighting, and staving off both Turkey and ISIS. Only a political resolution to the Syrian conflict can yield a durable peace for the region. But whether such a settlement is possible depends on the actions of outside powers.
Russia could push the Syrian regime to cut a deal sustaining the northeast’s autonomy. But at the time of my visit, the SDF was concerned that Moscow may instead give Turkey permission to launch a new offensive against the town of Kobani, where the United States and the Syrian Kurds handed ISIS its first defeat five years ago, and where regime and Russian forces now patrol.
The U.S. presence in Syria provides the SDF some diplomatic leverage and space. But for how long the United States is committed, and whether it plans to contribute its diplomatic muscle to the cause of those whose valiance it once praised in the ISIS fight, has been an open question at least since October, if not longer.
The recent upsurge in tension between the United States and Iran has complicated the calculus over Syria still further. The Iraqi parliament has asked the United States to withdraw its forces from Iraq. But if the United States were to do so, it would almost certainly be forced to pull out of Syria as well, because logistics support for the troops in Syria depends on the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Mazloum stressed that while the United States should not stay in Syria forever, neither should it leave before a political process was underway.
“Right now, we have a kind of equilibrium in place with the Americans here. Without the Americans, the situation would be different and far worse,” he said. “Everyone is waiting for the United States to pull out so that they can pursue their agenda in the region: the Turks, the Syrian regime, the Russians, the Iranians.”
Source: Syria’s Kurdish Forces Are Holding the Line But They Need a Political Settlement