A State Department official told a senior Syrian Kurdish leader during a meeting in Washington that the United States would not fully withdraw its forces from northeast Syria and advised her administration not to engage with Bashar al-Assad’s government or with Russia.
According to two sources familiar with the Monday, October 22 meeting, a senior member of Washington’s diplomatic team is said to have become angry and told Ilham Ahmed, President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, that the U.S. will not allow the SDC to arrange a deal with the Assad regime or Russia for protection against the Turkey-led attack.
Ahmed is currently in Washington to appeal to the Trump administration and Congress to stop the Turkish incursion, which has displaced more than 176,000 people and killed scores of others. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is also investigating the possible use of banned weapons after accusations Turkish forces employed white phosphorous against civilians in the border town of Ras al-Ayn.
Ahmed and two other SDC representatives declined to comment on the meeting. State Department representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
The Syrian Democratic Forces have requested that U.S. forces either defend the SDF-controlled region or withdraw from northeast Syria completely so the SDF can arrange a political deal for the Syrian government to return to the northeast.
Led by U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey, Washington’s diplomatic team has repeatedly discouraged the SDC from negotiating with the Assad regime while signaling that implementation of Turkey’s demands for a so-called safe zone – dismantling SDF border defenses and allowing joint U.S.-Turkish patrols – would deter Ankara’s aggression, according to SDC officials.
“If that’s true, I’d say that’s diplomatic malpractice,” Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, told The Defense Post.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has declined SDF requests to strike Turkey-led forces to stop the incursion. A ceasefire announced by Vice President Mike Pence last week after meeting Erdogan in Ankara was widely seen by the SDF as a capitulation to the Turkish government’s demands.
According to a document obtained by CNN, SDF commander Mazlum Abdi pleaded with Jeffrey’s deputy, William Roebuck, to allow the SDF to negotiate with Russia for protection as Turkish artillery pounded Syrian border towns ahead of the invasion earlier in October.
“Are you planning to let Turkey proceed 30 km and take our towns and villages? We need to know if this is the intent,” Mazlum reportedly said. Roebuck told the commander “not to take any immediate decisions” and said he would defer to Jeffrey, who is also the Special Envoy to the Coalition against ISIS, according to the report.
A senior SDC official told The Defense Post that Mazlum only approached the Syrian regime after the situation became desperate. “We did not wait for the answer from officials in Washington,” the official said on the condition of anonymity. “It was what it was.”
Pro-Syrian government troops entered the northeast as American forces withdrew over the past week, but political negotiations with the Assad regime have not yet begun, Ahmed told The Defense Post on Monday.
Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring on October 9 after a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Erdogan and the White House announcement that American troops would leave the northeast border posts. U.S. officials have insisted NATO-ally Turkey was not given a “green light” to invade.
Ankara considers the multi-ethnic SDF alliance and its component People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is predominantly Kurdish, to be inextricably tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
SDC officials told The Defense Post that American officials in the past have promised they would not withdraw U.S. forces until a political settlement was in place to secure their future in the Syrian political system.
On Tuesday, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced they had reached an agreement for northeast Syria that will see the preservation of the “status quo in the current Operation Peace Spring area” to a depth of 32 km. The deal includes Russian military police and Syrian border guards deploying on the Syria side of the border, as well as joint Russian-Turkish patrols to a depth of 10 km outside the area between Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad.