In a rare shift of rhetoric, Syria’s foreign ministry labeled the Syrian Democratic Forces as “separatist terrorist militias” in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General.
The letter accuses the SDF of operating in line with “schemes” by the United States and Israel and says the Syrian government will “liberate” territories captured by the militias, state news agency SANA reported on Sunday, September 15, ahead of a Monday meeting of the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey to discuss Syria.
According to SANA, the letter claims the SDF has moved on from taking part in “committing crimes of the “International Coalition” against the Syrian people,” accusing the SDF of now “kidnapping, torturing, killing and displacing civilians.”
An alliance of militias led by the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and supported by the U.S.-led international Coalition against Islamic State, the SDF fought the ground war against the jihadist group, capturing nearly all Syrian territory east of the Euphrates river between 2016 and 2019.
The General Command of the SDF in a Sunday statement said the government was “making fake accusations against our forces,” noting that 11,000 fighters were killed and 24,000 injured battling ISIS.
It accused the government of failing to protect the people from terrorism, of randomly striking infrastructure in north and east Syria, and of attempting “to create sedition” in the region.
“ISIS continues to use regime-controlled areas to carry out terrorist actions in northern and eastern Syria and target civilians,” the statement added.
SDF pushes autonomy for north and east Syria
The SDF and Syrian government forces have largely avoided confrontation during the country’s eight-year civil war. The SDF is not considered to be among opposition militias, earning them derision from rebel groups aimed at fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The SDF’s push into the oil-rich majority-Arab province of Deir Ezzor in Syria’s east in 2017 drew scorn from the Syrian government, which has repeatedly vowed to take back all Syrian territory the government lost during the war.
Leaders of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the governance structure supported by the SDF, have visited Damascus for talks multiple times over the past year.
The Autonomous Administration demands a degree of autonomy from the pre-war centralized Baathist system and has said they will not surrender the people of Arab-majority territories such as Deir Ezzor to the Syrian government.
The SDF on Sunday again called on the government to end “hostilities against our forces” and renewed its call for “dialogue with the forces representing the Kurds, Arabs and all components of the north and east of Syria to search for real solutions” to secure peace and stability “on the basis of constitutional recognition of self-administrations” and acceptance of the SDF.
The Syrian government has rebuffed the Autonomous Administration’s demands before, calling them “separatist” and saying it will never accept the partitioning of the country. Northeast Syrian leaders say they are not seeking partition, but rather a form of negotiated integrated autonomy that would include incorporation of the SDF into Syria’s armed forces.
Turkey, Russia and Iran set to discuss Syria
The Syrian government’s rare public rebuke came one day before Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are set to meet President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in Ankara for their fifth summit on the Syrian conflict since 2017.
Russia has militarily backed the Syrian government since 2015, and Iran-backed militias in Syria comprise a significant portion of pro-government fighters. Turkey cut diplomatic ties with Damascus following the outbreak of the civil war. The power brokers in the war have previously expressed that the U.S. should leave Syria.
Monday’s meeting is likely to focus on the Syrian government’s push on Idlib, the last bastion of the anti-Assad opposition, but Russia is keen to see progress on establishing a constitutional committee to oversee the next stage of a political settlement in Syria.
The Turkish government insists the SDF and YPG are terrorist organizations inextricably linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a four-decade insurgency against the Turkish government.
The PKK is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union, but the YPG is not.
The U.S. has facilitated the YPG’s withdrawal from the border area in an effort to ease tensions and to live up to commitments made earlier to NATO ally Turkey. Turkish and US troops have carried out joint ground patrols and joint aerial patrols in northern Syria under their agreement to create a border buffer zone.