Russia says again that northeast Syria should return to Damascus

Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on Thursday that areas in northeastern Syria now under control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) should return to Damascus.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on Thursday that areas in northeastern Syria now under control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) should return to Damascus. 

According to Zakharova, “The terrorists are continuing their subversive activities and have invigorated a vast network of so-called ’sleeping cells,’” despite the military defeat of the Islamic State announced by the SDF on March 23.

She claimed the situation is “aggravated by continuing clashes between Kurdish units and the Sunni Arabs that traditionally lived in these areas.”

Therefore, she said in a statement that Russia “supports restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as a guarantee of ensuring the national security of its neighbours and achieving regional stability.” 

Although Zakharova expressed concern over sleeper cell attacks in the northeast, it should be noted that the Islamic State also regularly attacks pro-Iranian and Syrian government forces in Deir al-Zor. In the past five months, at least 355 people have died in such clashes, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Wednesday.

Zakharova also mentioned the humanitarian situation in northeast Syria, specifically at al-Hol Camp, which holds nearly 70,000 people including many women and children related to Islamic State fighters.

She said the camp “is overcrowded and suffers from a chronically acute shortage of drinking water, food and basic necessities,” which has lead to the spread to disease and deaths from malnutrition. 

Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy to Syria, previously told Kurdistan 24 that his government supports the rights of Kurds to be part of a constitutional committee.

Two weeks ago, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov characterized the Russian stance toward Kurdish rights in Syria as “still supportive.”

A roadmap presented to Damascus and Moscow in January by the local Kurdish-backed administration in northeast Syria proposed that the area remain autonomous from Damascus, but Russia has so far supported the position the Syrian regime which has long opposed any form of Kurdish autonomy.

The SDF and administration officials have said that this is unacceptable to them.

Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East security analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, told Kurdistan 24 that a key reason for Russia's position is that it fears a long term US presence in Syria.

He added that, since early in the Cold War, Syria has been in Russia’s sphere of influence and its beachhead in the Middle East. Therefore, Russia is much more worried about US troops in Syria than it is about Turkish troops in the northwest.

“Moscow views Turkey as a two-bit, regional actor with limited goals in Syria and without the means to overthrow Assad,” he said.

“In contrast, Russia believes that the Americans could remove Assad if they chose to do so and in the process prevent the Russians from gaining greater influence and possibly dominating events in the Middle East.”

As such, he said that Moscow sees Turkey merely as “an irritant to Russia’s position in the Middle East,” but “the United States is a mortal threat to it.” 

Editing by John J. Catherine