Violence continued in the Rojava autonomous region in northeast Syria on Thursday, shortly after President Trump pledged that a ceasefire announced by Turkey would likely be “permanent.” Russian warplanes raided rural areas while clashes erupted between various factions as Turkish-led forces appeared to push beyond the so-called “safe zone” patrolled by Turkey and Russia near the Turkey-Syria border, according to reports and observers on the ground.
“It doesn’t feel like things are cleared up and done with here,” said Robin Fleming, a researcher with the Rojava Information Center in the autonomous region’s de-facto capital of Qamishli, in a phone interview. “People are still very unsure what the situation is, and there is still heightened violence since the attacks began.”
The fighting comes after President Trump attempted a “mission accomplished” moment on Wednesday: He lifted sanctions the U.S. had briefly imposed on Turkey after its authoritarian president teamed up with jihadist mercenaries and Syrian rebel groups to invade Rojava in the wake Trump’s decision to abruptly remove U.S. troops from Syria. He announced that Turkey had agreed to a permanent ceasefire after striking a deal with Russia to patrol an area south of its border with Syria, where pro-democracy militias led by Syrian Kurds had endured days of deadly fighting before retreating under a deal brokered by the U.S. and Turkey last week.
“We have accepted the American-brokered ceasefire… But Turkey is working under cover of the ceasefire to occupy new villages in Sere Kaniye,” the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria said in a statement Thursday, referring a key area near the Turkish border. “We are doing our best to reach out to all parties, including America and Russia, to stop this aggression and guarantee our rights and future.”
While the White House opposed the Turkish invasion on paper, Trump faces a torrent of criticism for abandoning Syrian Kurdish allies and the autonomous administration of Rojava, which is building a secular, feminist experiment with decentralized democracy that contrasts sharply with the jihadists and authoritarian governments jostling for territory and influence in the region.
Trump, who trumpeted a campaign promise to “bring our troops back home” and now faces an impeachment inquiry over a separate foreign policy scandal, declared a victory for his brand of isolationism on Wednesday in a speech riddled with factual inaccuracies. However, he said that small numbers of U.S. boots will remain on the ground in northeast Syria to protect oil fields, and his ambassadors told lawmakers in Congress that the U.S. position in Syria remains unsettled and under review.
Meanwhile on Thursday, Turkish proxy militias pushed beyond the so-called “safe zone” in the border area established by Turkey in separate agreements with the U.S. and Russia. The Turkish proxy militias attacked villages and clashed with Kurdish-led, pro-democracy militias that defend Rojava (and are backed by the U.S. in the fight against ISIS), according to multiple sources. Some of these proxies contain mercenaries and jihadist extremists who have been accused of war horrific crimes, including the gruesome murder of a Kurdish civilian woman and politician.
ISIS, the fundamentalist fascist group also known as Daesh, that was all but defeated until the Turkish invasion sparked chaos in the region, claimed responsibility for a car bombing in Qamishli, the de-facto capital of Rojava’s autonomous federation. Three other car bombings were reported, but it remains unclear who was responsible, according to the Rojava Information Center.
Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria and the coalition fighting ISIS, told lawmakers in the House and Senate that more than 100 ISIS fighters escaped prisons run by Kurdish forces since the Turkey crossed the border into Kurdish-held areas, and the U.S. does not know where the ISIS fighters are. Top Pentagon officials are currently reviewing options to deal with the problem, and a “residual force” will remain in Syria for now, Jeffrey said.
“ISIS is pitching this as a victory for them,” Jeffrey said, adding that the U.S. has “people out there” pursuing ISIS and hopes to continue its partnership with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in that effort.
Syrian government forces, which formed a shaky alliance with the SDF forces defending Rojava, reported deadly attacks by Turkey on its positions near the town of Tal Tamr. An SDF commander accused Turkey of violating the ceasefire agreement. Turkey claimed to be acting in self-defense even as it pledged to push out any Kurdish fighters standing in the way of its plans to control border areas and relocate millions of Syrian war refugees there.
Trump said Turkey pledged a permanent ceasefire after striking a deal with Russia this week to patrol border areas with Syria once held by the Kurds. Lawmakers in both parties are furious with Trump for abandoning the Kurds and creating a power vacuum that has reinvigorated ISIS and allowed Russia to expand its influence in region on one side, and empowered the Iran-backed regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on the other. A number of bills that would impose sanctions on Turkey are currently circulating Congress. However, sanctions only achieve their desired goals a fraction of the time, especially when those goals are broad, such as stopping a conflict or regime change.
“Anything that allows the Russians forces or Assad to move into other areas is a problem for us in finding a decent and democratic resolution to the crisis in Syria,” Jeffrey admitted.
Members of Congress also expressed fears that Syrian Kurds could fall victim to ethnic cleansing as Turkey and its Islamist allies seek to reshape northeast Syria. Little has been said in Congress or the U.S. media about the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria, a federation of local and regional councils that has sought to carve out in Rojava an autonomous bastion of secular democracy in the wake of the Syrian civil war and the SDF’s U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS. Representatives of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, met with members of Congress to discuss the Turkish invasion earlier this week.
While the autonomous administration is largely backed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, it is a distinctly multi-ethnic project that guarantees religious freedom and political representation for women but does not desire its own nation-state. The Syrian government does not have the military strength to take back territory held by the SDF, and the administration has not attempted to secede from Syria, instead seeking a degree of political autonomy for its democratic experiment.
“We agreed with the Syrian government to bring the Syrian army into north Syria to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” the autonomous administration said in a statement. “Protecting the border is an inherent duty of the Syrian army.”
Instead, the two find themselves in a “relationship of uneasy cooperation,” trading raw oil from northeast Syria for refined fuel and allying militarily against Turkey and its rebel proxies, according to the Rojava Information Center. Despite all the talk of withdrawal, the U.S. is reportedly planning to send tanks and troops to help Kurdish forces maintain control of the oil fields, a sign that the Trump administration sees its alliance with the SDF to be extremely valuable in the fight against ISIS.
Fleming said the autonomous administration is still running civil society in most of Rojava besides the border areas currently under Russian and Turkish occupation, but its future remains uncertain as Turkey, Russia and the U.S. strike deals without giving the autonomists a seat at the table.
“The fact that it is an autonomous region that doesn’t not operate like a state is a big factor in why it’s been left out of the talks,” Fleming said.
While the conflict in northeast Syria has been cast by Trump and others as a longstanding dispute between ethnic Kurds and the Turkish government, the battle lines are glaringly ideological. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his right-wing, Islamist AKP party have consolidated power in Turkey, suppressing political opponents (including Turkish Kurds) and pushing the country toward authoritarianism. Many of his opponents on the left in Turkey and Syria consider Erdoğan to be a fascist colonist, arguing that he and the AKP derive their power from nationalist rhetoric and marginalizing minorities.
The autonomous project in Rojava has found support among the international left and seeks to use its slice of Syria for democratic self-rule, allowing Kurds who have longed for autonomy for decades to include other ethnic and religious groups in decision-making based on a multi-party federation of local councils and neighborhood communes. This is a striking development for the Middle East, where sectarian conflict is often suppressed by authoritarian police states. While reports on the success of Rojava’s experiment born in a war-torn region are mixed, Fleming said the autonomous administration retains local support, and using democracy to unite various groups “is definitely the intention.”
Erdoğan sees autonomous Rojava as a breeding ground for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish leftist group in Turkey that has warred Turkey for decades as the government cracked down on attempts by its Kurdish minority to assert its rights. Erdoğan considers the PKK a terrorist group, a claim Trump has recently repeated. However, in a letter to Trump and the people of the U.S., the PKK said it has “never targeted the U.S. or any other country” and its political project is “is founded on basic human rights and liberties, gender liberation, religious pluralism and ecological rights.”
“Up until we founded the PKK in 1978 to resist the violence of the Turkish state against the Kurdish people, it had already massacred hundreds of thousands of Kurds in the Kurdish regions of Turkey,” the letter states. “We don’t have to go too far back in time, in the 90s the Turkish state destroyed 4,000 Kurdish villages and extra-judicially killed 17,000 Kurds.”
The actual connection between the PKK and the Kurdish and other militias defending Rojava is hazy. However, they share a desire for autonomy that Turkey views as an existential threat. So, Erdoğan’s nationalists have allied with Russia and Islamic fundamentalist extremists to push the Kurds and their allies away from Turkey’s southern border and make room for proxies leftover from the Syrian civil war to undermine the autonomous region.
Jeffrey said the U.S. has never committed to defend the Kurds or their political ambitions. It’s an ironic twist for the U.S. in the Middle East, where both Democrats and Republicans have supported war over the past 15 years in the name of combating “terror” and bringing democracy to its people. Now that Trump has pulled troops from Syria and opened the door for Turkish forces, authoritarian advisories like Russia, Iran and Assad are filling the vacuum, and ISIS and other violent forces who scorn the Kurd’s secularism and devotion to women’s’ rights are running amok.