This article was published in Ahval News on June 14, 2018.
Could Assad’s negotiation with Kurds augur a new era?
In an interview with Russia Today television, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced his readiness to open negotiations with the Kurds, adding that, if the negotiations were to fail, the Syrian army would be forced to seize areas occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia whose backbone is composed of the Kurdish fighters, but also includes Arabs, Syriacs, Turkmens, Armenians, Circassians and Chechens.
The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) was established in 2015 and is composed of 13 members representing specific ethnic, economic and political communities. It constitutes the political branch of the SDF.
Assad’s interview coincided with another development regarding northern Syria. Turkey and the United States agreed on a roadmap to expel YPG fighters from the northern Syrian district of Manbij. This coincidence is important, because if the Kurds feel forsaken by the United States, they will look for other ways to promote their cause and one of them is an agreement with the Syrian government.
Assad may have thought that now is a good time for negotiations with the Kurds, because Islamic State has been reduced to a minor threat, many Salafi jihadist factions have been evacuated from their pockets of resistance to the northern Syrian province of Idlib and Turkey seems to be determined to neutralise the supporters of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Washington’s Syria policy continues to be unclear. Two months ago, President Donald Trump instructed his military commanders to withdraw from Syria so that he could bring the troops back home. This instruction was not implemented because the military staff persuaded the president that they needed time to clean out the residual ISIS pockets and to train local forces to stabilise the liberated territory.
For Turkey, this means more U.S. weapons and ammunitions FOR the YPG, which Washington considers the most reliable partner in the fight against ISIS, and which Turkey considers the extension in Syria of the listed terrorist organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that it has been fighting for decades.
In a NATO meeting last week in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis clarified the U.S. policy, saying it would be a strategic blunder to leave Syria before the political process was concluded and that it would give the terrorists the opportunity to recover.
The Kurds may try to capitalise on U.S.-Russia rivalry, because both of the superpowers have strategic interests in holding the Kurdish card in their hand. They have already expressed their willingness to negotiate with the Syrian government. Co-chairman of the Syrian Democratic Council, Riad Darar, stated that the best way to serve Syria’s interest was to negotiate with Damascus.
Despite their divergent positions on several issues, the United States and Russia may agree on this particular issue to protect Kurdish aspirations. Russia is in a stronger position, because its policy overlaps largely with both the United States and Damascus. There are several convergences in Russian and American policies: They both are strong supporters of the Kurdish cause. They both favour the recognition of the Kurdish identity and devolution of more powers to them. Russia’s position has similarities with Damascus as well: It favours the expansion of the regime’s control to all of Syrian territory.
The United States supports verbally the territorial integrity of Syria. It is unclear whether it wants to use the YPG’s combat capability as leverage to do away with Assad or to sow the seeds of an independent Kurdistan, or both. Despite its preference for a federal structure in Syria, Russia will not push Damascus too much to achieve this goal.
If these coincidences could be utilised tactfully, that is to say if Assad offers concessions that the Kurds could accept; if the United States acknowledges that Assad is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future; if Russia could come to an agreement with the United States and; if Turkey could adjust its Kurdish policy to the reality in the northern Syria, in other words if all these miracles materialise, they may lead to the softening of the atmosphere and could augur a more conciliatory era in the Syrian crisis.