Members of the Kurdish Internal Security Police Force of Asayish keep watch during a security alert after clashes with regime forces in Qamishli, northeastern Syria, September 8, 2018. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Syria’s Kurds remain committed to dialogue with Damascus, despite deadly clashes between the Kurdish Asayesh and regime forces in Qamishli on Saturday.
Eighteen were killed in a rare skirmish between regime troops and Kurdish forces at an Asayesh checkpoint. Eleven Syrian soldiers and seven Kurds died.
The Asayesh say the government soldiers opened fire first, but Syrian state media outlet SANA reported the regime troops were “ambushed” in an act of “heinous aggression”.
A statement from the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) expressed “regret” over the incident, which it denounced as an attempt to sabotage talks with the regime.
The SDC, the political wing of the armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), reiterated its commitment to peaceful dialogue, but said it will not allow anyone to “tamper with the achievements of our people”.
While Syria’s Kurds are ready to enter into talks with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, they are cautioning that negotiation is not capitulation.
“When we speak of a solution, we don’t mean surrender or reconciliation,” Ilham Ahmed, executive head of the SDC, said in comments published by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) on Monday.
There is a gap between the authorities in Damascus and the democratic project of northern Syria with respect to the values of human rights that must be resolved, she explained, listing issues related to minorities, the economy, and defense.
A delegation from the SDC went to Damascus in late July on a mission to “take the pulse” in the capital, as Kurdish leader Salih Muslim described it.
The SDC and SDF control more than a quarter of the country, including oil and gas fields, the Euphrates dam, and long stretches of border with Turkey and Iraq.
The Kurds have largely maintained an uneasy truce with regime forces throughout the conflict. With Damascus occupied elsewhere, the Kurds were able to set up their own administration modeled on the political philosophy of democratic confederalism.
Assad has vowed to bring every inch of Syrian territory back under central control and has left a trail of destruction in his wake as his forces, with Russian and Iranian backing, defeated rebels in former strongholds like Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa.
Anti-regime forces are now dug in for a last stand in Idlib, home to some three million people. Syrian and Russian planes have carried out multiple forays, striking alleged rebel targets and the UN said on Monday that more than 30,000 people have been displaced in Idlib this month.
Kurdish officials have floated the idea of backing the regime in its offensive in Idlib in exchange for the ultimate liberation of Afrin – the Kurdish canton taken over by Turkish forces and their allied Syrian militias earlier this year.
Anti-regime forces in Idlib are from two main camps – National Liberation Front rebels backed by Turkey and the jihadist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
“It is notable that in Idlib no elements of the national opposition remain, but all have transformed into radical Islamist elements and groups directly backed by Turkey,” said the SDC’s Ahmed.
She posited that Turkey’s primary goal in Syria is anti-Kurdish and, in talks with Russia, Ankara could give up Idlib if it guarantees the thwarting Kurdish ambitions.
Turkey “is ready to lose all areas it has occupied so that there is no democratic Kurdish question established on Syrian soil,” said Ahmed.
Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish groups as branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an outlawed group fighting for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey.
Turkey has heavily influenced international Syrian peace efforts – to the detriment of the Kurds.
Rounds of talks in Geneva, Sochi, and Astana have only succeeded in cementing regime control over the opposition, said Ahmed, and Turkey played a key role in those meetings.
The Kurdish position is that a true solution to the Syrian crisis can only come from within Syria.
“The only solution is a domestic one, with the active forces on the ground,” said Ahmed.