Syria's Assad Visits War Zone, Is 'Ready to Support Any Group That Resists' Turkey

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has visited the frontlines of his government's war with rebels and jihadis, offering his support to both his soldiers and the Kurdish-led forces backing them against a Turkish incursion in the northeast.

In footage shared Tuesday by his office, Assad was seen on the outskirts of Al-Habeet in Idlib, the only province still largely under insurgent control after more than eight and a half years of civil war. The country's multi-sided conflict grew even more complex earlier this month with Turkey leading a cross-border operation supported by opposition fighters seeking to uproot Kurdish-led militias backed by the United States against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), but not the fellow NATO member, which considered them terrorists linked to a domestic insurgency.

The U.S. ultimately began a withdrawal, leaving the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces to strike a deal with the Syrian government, an ally of Russia and Iran. Addressing his troops, Assad said it was a priority "to communicate with different political and military forces present on the ground" in facing the invasion ordered by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"We said we are ready to support any group that takes up popular resistance against Erdogan and Turkey," Assad said in an apparent reference to his administration's deal with the Syrian Democratic Forces. "This is not a political decision, we have not made a political decision, this is a constitutional duty and this is a national duty."

"If we don't do this," he added. "We don't deserve the homeland."

syria war zone assad idlib
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walks among troops near the town of Al-Habeet, Idlib province in northwestern Syria in this photo shared October 22. Last year, the Syrian leader visited the frontlines outside the capital Damascus, in eastern Ghouta. President of the Syrian Arab Republic's Office

Damascus has had a complex relationship with Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a separatist group battling the Turkish state for three decades. The PKK once took refuge in Syria, but was ultimately expelled by the 1998 Adana agreement that improved increasingly hostile relations between the Syrian and Turkish governments.

After the 2011 uprising against Assad, however, Erdogan offered support to the opposition and was joined by the U.S. and some of its regional allies, including Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Syrian Kurds—part of a minority ethnic group also found in Iran, Iraq and Turkey—formed their own faction, defended by the People's Protection Units (YPG), and alternately fought with and against the government.

By 2015, the U.S. had begun to distance itself from a largely Islamist rebellion and began to focus on curbing the rise of ISIS. The Pentagon officially partnered with the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which also included Arabs and other communities, just as Russia intervened in the war on behalf of Assad, giving him a major boost against both ISIS and rebel groups.

The Syrian leader remained shunned by the West due to accusations of war crimes, but he has remained firmly in power despite the attempts to oust him. Last year, Assad made a widely-publicized trip to the frontline just outside the capital, Damascus, in the suburb of eastern Ghouta that was once held by insurgents.

With ISIS largely decimated and the jihadi-dominated opposition confined to Idlib and its outskirts, the Syrian government and Syrian Democratic Forces have become by far the largest stakeholders in the country. Turkey, however, has also opposed U.S. backing for the Syrian Democratic Forces and has waged at least two large-scale cross-border operations to uproot YPG control.

Following repeated warnings and, after a phone call with President Donald Trump, Erdogan ordered another attack earlier this month, mobilizing allied Syrian rebels to establish a 20-mile, so-called "safe zone" across the border. The U.S. opposed the move, but ultimately withdrew troops to avoid involvement, setting the stage for Kurdish-led group's deal with the Syrian government, which—alongside Moscow—has since deployed troops to former U.S. outposts in order to fend off aggression from the north.

syria war military kurds government flags
A Syrian soldier holds up a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad as he waves a Syrian national flag while another prepares to fix a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) yellow flag, atop an electrical pole by the Turkish border in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, in the north of Aleppo province, October 18. Syrian and Russian troops have begun entering towns held by Kurdish-led forces in order to prevent a takeover by Turkish-backed forces in the wake of a U.S. military exit. AFP/Getty Images

The partnership remains an uneasy one for now, however, as Assad remained firm in his opposition to Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and the community's decision to have sided with Washington—considered an illegal party to the conflict—over Damascus. Though their current arrangement appeared limited in scope, many Kurdish officials have expressed concern that it would eventually lead to the return of government control across the self-ruled northeast.

Still, the agreement was widely preferred over the alternative, as the Syrian Democratic Forces repeatedly accused Turkey and its allied rebels of ethnic cleansing, something Erdogan has denied.

As a failing ceasefire arranged by the U.S. was set to come to an end Tuesday, the Turkish leader sat down with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea city of Sochi. On the agenda were discussions on "normalizing the situation in the northeast of the country, countering international terrorist groups and advancing the process of political settlement," according to a Kremlin readout. Russia has warned it would prevent any direct clashes between the Syrian and Turkish armed forces.

Reuters cited an unnamed Turkish security official as saying Monday that Erdogan's administration has "been in contact with Syria on military and intelligence issues for some time in order to avoid any problems on the field." The official said Erdogan anticipated hearing Assad's positions during the Turkish leader's meeting with Putin.

syria war territory map control
A map shows areas of control in Syria as of October 7, according to IHS Markit via BBC, with the unshaded southwest Golan Heights under Israeli control since 1967. Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and the Turkish military have since made gains across the central part of the border and Syrian government forces have entered towns and cities held by Kurdish-led forces following a deal. Statista

Source: Statista