Original op-ed by RIC’s Thomas McClure, The National Interest, 29 October 2020.

The October 2019 ‘deal’ between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Government was poorly-understood from the outset. Foreign press and NGO staff scrambled for the border as irrational panic spread about an instantaneous return of Damascus control to the Kurdish-led autonomous regions, to head off Turkey’s ongoing, bloody advance. Locals expressed more realistic concerns over the collapse of regional autonomy, violent reprisals, and a dreaded return of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) military service.

One year on, these fears have not been realized. Except for those cities now occupied by Turkey, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) retains the same de facto political authority throughout North and East Syria (NES) as before the Turkish invasion. SAA units are confined to frontlines and border-posts, and no more visible in major cities or on the roads than prior to October 2019.

As before, it is the AANES-controlled Asayish (internal security) which operates checkpoints through the ‘buffer zone’ on the border and down into the interior, while Damsascus has been frustrated in attempts to expand its sphere of influence. SAA soldiers remain confined to their bases in Ain Issa and Til Temir. In Qamishlo, Damascus-backed militia National Defense Forces (NDF) has come off the worse in minor skirmishes around the fringes of Damascus-controlled neighborhoods.

In October 2019, both pro- and anti-Damascus protests in Raqqa, Manbij, and elsewhere attracted only scores of protesters, with the SDF dispersing some protests but allowing others to go ahead. Neither pro-government nor Islamist opposition networks could muster any significant support among the civilian population even at this critical time, indicating an at least pragmatic acceptance of AANES control.

“Far from being a capitulation by the SDF seeking protection from Damascus, the ‘return of the regime’ turns out to be a concession by Damascus,” as Russia pressured Damascus into accepting what the AANES had been seeking all along – the return of the SAA to the border, but continued SDF and AANES control on the political level.

Nonetheless, the new realities in NES have prompted renewed interest in Damascus over a return to the region. While the population of northern Kurdish-majority regions looks uneasily over the border at Turkey, Damascus pressures the Arab-majority south. Strongman SAA figurehead Suhail al-Hassan recently visited the southern Raqqa countryside, along with Russian propagandists, in a thinly-veiled threat towards NES. Russian politicians continue to rail against Kurdish ‘separatism’ in the north-east.

In both Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor, local officials accuse Damascus agents of conducting destabilization operations including bombings and armed attacks; starting crop-fires in the context of Damascus-AANES disputes over the wheat harvest; spreading social miscontent by promoting drug use and prostitution; and attempting to convince young men to join their security forces rather than those of the AANES. Though social tensions in these regions cannot be waved away as solely the work of Damascus’ agents, Damascus is certainly seeking to exploit tense community relations.

Most pressingly, Damascus has allowed thousands of individuals to pass through crossings under its control (most notably Qamishlo Airport) without undergoing coronavirus checks. This policy has been a key driver of the coronavirus outbreak in NES, with officials asserting that this open-door policy is a deliberate attempt to pressure AANES.

Following U.S. withdrawal from western regions of NES, the USAID stabilization program in Raqqa is set to finish. This will create further opportunities for the Damascus to make inroads in Raqqa, where despite continued infrastructural challenges significant progress has been made on the humanitarian, infrastructure and security fronts across the past two years.

In Deir-ez-Zor, meanwhile, Damascus seeks to exploit tensions between the SDF and local Arab tribes. Locals’ anger is particularly directed toward the SDF-linked Deir-ez-Zor Military Council, accused of corruption and incompetence. But like the Kurdish regions, Deir-ez-Zor has faced historic marginalization by Damascus, and there is strong resistance to a return of Damascus control.

Damascus has attempted to reap political gains from recent anti-SDF protests in Deir-ez-Zor, framing the protester’s demands as calls for the return of Damascus’ role and sending agitators to fan the flames. However, the situation has calmed down, with demands submitted by the protesting tribes framed in terms of (albeit significant) reforms to SDF and AANES administration, rather than calls for Damascus’ return.

Until now, the U.S. has admittedly failed to reap the rewards of this continued hostility toward Damascus. Much-documented clashes between U.S. and Russian patrols careering around NES contribute to‎ a general impression that neither the U.S. nor Russia are serious in their overtures to the local population, with locals sharing ‘Tom and Jerry’ memes on Whatsapp in response. These clashes are a surface-level symptom of underlying tensions, as both Russia and the U.S. continue to seek influence over SDF.

The U.S. position in NES was significantly weakened by their withdrawal. Along with the loss of physical presence and influence from Manbij through Raqqa and Kobane to Til Temir, they must contend with a general loss of faith in the U.S.’ willingness to serve as a guarantor against further Turkish operations – an impression equivocal comments from Coalition officials have done little to expel.

Particularly in the months following the Turkish invasion, this drove a pragmatic acceptance of the necessity of dealing with Damascus. In commonly-repeated sentiments, a Kurdish resident of Qamishlo said: “I know the regime well, I lived under [their rule] for 50 years. My heart is heavy, but we are forced to deal with them…. if we are going to be exterminated [by Turkey], we would not just make agreements with the regime, but with the devil.”

Yet the Kurdish population still feels a stronger affinity with the U.S. than Russia. This may be attributable to a sense of shared comradeship following the defeat of ISIS; Kurdish self-image as democratic, liberal and secular; and US’ effective extension of ‘soft power’ through meetings, propaganda, and a cheery Kurdish-spouting spokesman.

Even in the Russian sphere of influence, Russian hearts-and-minds efforts have not been particularly successful. Aid delivered by Russian forces to Kobane villages has been refused by mistrustful locals, in a repeat of similar incidents between Russian forces and Kurdish IDPs in the Shehba pocket south of Afrin. If locals blame the U.S. for Turkey’s 2019 invasion, they equally hold Russia responsible for greenlighting Turkey’s 2018 invasion of Afrin.

In Kurdish regions, there is an increasing sense that Russia and Damascus have ‘had their chance’. With negotiations going nowhere due to Damascus’ intractability, it is unsurprising the Kurdish population is looking to its long-standing and locally-popular collaboration with the U.S. for reassurance.

Kurds in the sphere of Russian influence do not feel especially protected by a Russian and SAA presence they view as tactical and transactional. Kurds in Kobane and Shehba retain an overwhelming loyalty to the AANES and SDF, and there is no appetite in either of these population centers for a return to Damascus control.

Per a U.S. Department of Defense report, meanwhile, despite pressure from Turkey and Damascus, “the majority of Arab communities in NES passively support the SDF and its associated civil institutions… the majority of Arabs in NES oppose the Syrian regime and many continue to support the SDF on the condition that the SDF includes Arab components in important discussions and provides equitable assistance to both Arab and Kurds.”

Arab communities’ relationship with the AANES and SDF is more transactional than the strong bond Kurdish communities feel with these institutions. Some elements of Arab communities have enthusiastically participated in the AANES structures, while others are content with any force which will ensure security and provide services. There is therefore strong antipathy to Turkish control of the region, and nor is there particularly strong enthusiasm for a putative return of Damascus control to cities like Raqqa or Manbij. SDF and AANES’ ability to retain popular support is thus predicated on their ability to provide security and services, with the extension of regional autonomy a secondary but important concern.

Damascus’ trump card should be the security and service provision it can offer as a state actor. But a potential Turkish invasion does not seem likely to affect Raqqa or Deir-ez-Zor, and nor indeed has Damascus proven particularly capable of combating Turkey’s air capabilities in Idlib. When it comes to internal security, meanwhile, Damascus’ bloody reputation precedes it, and it is only die-hard Damascus loyalists who feel they have nothing to fear from Assad’s intelligence services. In terms of service provision, likewise, AANES consistently outperforms Damascus on key local issues like the cost of bread, electricity provision and now its coronavirus response.

Where AANES really has the ability to outflank Damascus, however, is in the extent of autonomy it can offer Arab communities. Concessions to Arab tribes, for example granting them more autonomy via a new federal system at the expense of AANES’ efforts to promote a more secular and pro-woman agenda, pull the rug out from under Damascus’ feet and create the space for AANES and SDF to continue building trust in this region. The same is true of the AANES’ recent cancellation of the rollout of its secular curriculum in Deir-ez-Zor following pushback from the conservative local population.

Similarly, a recent decision by Raqqa Civil Council to outlaw the public consumption of alcohol illustrates the devolved Council’s ability to take its own decisions, even in opposition to the AANES’s secular political program. The ruling was positively received by local tribal actors who had been lobbying the Council to take such a step.

It has become something of a truism that the majority-Arab regions suffer from AANES domination; but it is in these regions where civil-society pressure has recently created concrete changes to regional AANES policy. Deep suspicion toward Damascus gives the AANES the time and space to keep building trust – in terms of both short-term alliances with local tribes and political stakeholders, and longer-term efforts to win the population over to its political vision.

Whether AANES will be able to translate its de facto legitimacy to de jure autonomy at the negotiating-table remains to be seen, and depends to a large extent on the duration and nature of a Biden government’s commitment in NES. Public suspicion toward Russia and Damascus means a window remains open for the U.S. to win back local support through concrete policy commitments and stabilization efforts. But it is only a matter of time until the next Turkish operation, and if the U.S. cannot prove a renewed commitment to NES today, it can expect a further lurch toward Russia and Damascus tomorrow.

Conversely, if the AANES and SDF are able to keep on ensuring a reasonably calm security environment, rolling out service provision and incorporating local opinions into their decision-making – supported where possible by their Coalition partners – Damascus will find it hard to achieve a peaceful reconquista of Raqqa, Manbij or Deir-ez-Zor, despite the presence of SAA troops down the road.