Syria's Assad says Kurdish controlled northeast Syria must return to state authority
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Thursday that his government's ultimate goal was to restore state authority over Kurdish controlled areas in northeast Syria after an abrupt U.S. troop withdrawal but he expected it to happen gradually.
In a state television interview Assad also said that a deal between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to drive out the Kurdish-led YPG militia from a 30 km "safe zone" along the border was a "positive" step that would help Damascus achieve its goal.
"It might not achieve everything ... it paves the road to liberate this area in the near future we hope," said Assad, who has remained in power in Damascus through a more than eight-year-long civil war with the backing of Russia and Iran.
The U.S.-allied Kurdish YPG militia reached a deal with Damascus to take up positions near the border after U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement in early October that he was withdrawing American forces from northeast Syria. The YPG is the main fighting element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that has beaten back Islamic State in the region.
Syria's Kurds between hope and fear
Photojournalist Karlos Zurutuza travelled through the northern Syrian border area following the Turkish invasion. He met families on the run and lonely men left behind in the villages.
Left on their own: the Kurds in Syria opted to side neither with the regime nor the opposition after the civil war broke out in 2011. Now they stand alone, besieged and with no one to back them since their American allies withdrew
Kurdish families in search of safety: according to UN sources almost 200,000 people have become IDPs (internally displaced people) since Turkey launched an attack on Kurdish-controlled territories on 9 October. Many Kurds have reportedly tried to cross the border to seek shelter in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, but only those who can produce an Iraqi-Kurdish resident card are allowed to cross
Men alone: many villages in Syria's northeast have nearly emptied of people over the last week. Women and children in towns close Turkey have been heading further inland, to Hasaka, leaving the border region inhabited almost only by men. "Conditions are deteriorating rapidly in Hasaka due to the massive influx of people, so we decided to stay," said Suna, a mother of three children
Life has gone elsewhere: the once lively bazaar in Amuda has turned into a gloomy place where just a few men gather. Many shops have folded since the Turkish invasion began, and those which remain open sell products at hardly affordable prices due to the collapse of the Syrian currency. Shelling from the other side of the frontier usually starts at dawn, so those who remain in the town hardly venture outside at night
Back in town: co-existence between the Syrian Kurdish administration and President Bashar Assad's regime in Qamishli, the main city in the country's northeast, has been tense since the Syrian civil war started in 2011. The recent deal between the two sides involves a re-deployment of Syrian troops along the Turkish border. It is unclear who will be in control of the region in the short term
Fighting on two fronts: while Kurdish combat units fight against the Turkish army and Ankara-backed militants, it's still unclear what the Syrian Kurdish fighters' status will be since reaching out to Assad for support. "We will keep controlling the area as we've done until today, there will be no substantial changes other than a joint command in certain border areas," said officials
Uncertainty reigns: Syrian Kurds feel betrayed since the U.S. president decided to pull out all remaining troops. Many confessed they felt relief that the Kurdish fighters had struck a deal with the Syrian regime to control the border areas as it could prevent Turkey from attacking their villages. "We know what Trump did to us, but we still know nothing about Putin's intentions," said Massud, a barbershop customer
'I would rather not speak': after decades of brutal repression under the Assads, many residents in Derik refused to comment on the possible consequences of the regime's comeback to an area that has enjoyed de facto self-rule for several years. "The whole country was controlled by the secret services back then, and it may happen again soon, so no one will dare to talk to you about it," one person said
Five more lost: all over Syria's northeast residents have had to deal corpses arriving daily from the frontlines. Turkish air strikes have hit both military targets and civilians so that many hospitals caring for wounded fighters, such as the one in Derik, have been evacuated to avoid further casualties
Deaths mount: the Syrian Kurds claim to have lost around 11,000 people in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Although IS has lost control over territory of any significant size, the killing continues. Dozens of civilians and hundreds of fighters have reportedly been killed since Turkey launched its attack on Syria's northeast
The withdrawal paved the way for a Turkish offensive against the Kurds and left them feeling abandoned by the United States and forcing them to work a deal with Damascus to help them resist Turkish forces. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organisation because of its links to Kurdish militants in south-eastern Turkey.
Assad also said Trump's decision to keep a small number of U.S. troops in the Kurdish-held areas of Syria “where they have the oil” showed that Washington was a colonial power that was doomed to leave once Syrians resist their occupation as in Iraq.
But he said his country could not stand up to a great power such as the United States and that ending the presence of American troops on Syrian soil was not achievable soon.
Assad said Trump was the "best American president" for his "complete transparency" about intentions to maintain control of Syria's main oilfields in Deir az Zour province.
U.S. troops have begun deployment in the province in coordination with the SDF to increase security and continue the fight against remnants of Islamic State, a U.S. military spokesman said on Thursday.
Diplomats say the U.S. decision to prevent oil fields from falling back to government control would deny Damascus millions of dollars of much needed revenues and ensure its Kurdish ally a main source of income to govern areas it controls.
The Kurds would not be asked to immediately hand over their weapons when the Syrian army enters their areas in a final deal with them that brings back state control to the large swathe of territory they now control, Assad said in the interview.
"There are armed groups that we cannot expect they would hand over weapons immediately but the final goal is to return to the previous situation, which is the complete control of the state," he said.
The commander of the Kurdish-led forces Mazloum Kobani has said the agreement with Damascus could pave the way for a political solution to be worked out later with the Syrian government, that could guarantee Kurdish rights in Syria.
But he insisted at this stage it was only to allow the deployment of Syrian troops across SDF stronghold areas along the border with Turkey in a move to thwart Ankara's plan to create a "safe zone."
Syria had a right to defend its territorial integrity against separatist Kurds who aspired to create a Kurdish state and rule over Arabs and other ethnic groups, Assad said.
Resentment against Kurdish dominated rule in eastern Syria has grown among the predominately Arab population, residents say. (Reuters)