Afrin residents welcome arrival of Syrian regime forces with posters of President Bashar al-Assad and PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, February 2018. File photo: Ahmad Shafie Bilal / AFP
Syrian Kurds held a second round of talks with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus last week. The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), undertaking negotiations on behalf of the Kurdish administration, which controls Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) and several Arab territories in northeastern Syria, wants Damascus to decentralize power, allowing the Kurds to preserve their de-facto autonomy.
Rojava’s ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) adheres to the ideology of Democratic Confederalism promulgated by Abdulla Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The ideology essentially says Kurds should not seek their own state – since a nation state will not automatically bring about social justice. Rather, the PYD believes decentralization is the best way to enable genuine grassroots democracy to take root.
The SDC claimed after its first meeting in Damascus late last month that the regime has agreed to “chart a roadmap to a democratic and decentralized Syria”. The Kurdish negotiators view this as the best possible outcome.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria is planning to draft a new Syrian constitution with Iran, Turkey, and Russia in September. Syrian Kurds, who have been largely excluded from peace talks to date, will likely push for recognition and their rights in a post-war Syria.
Although Assad has said he is open to negotiations with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), he also appears adamant about reasserting as much direct control over the country as possible.
If American forces withdraw, which is President Donald Trump’s stated intention, Assad will likely push for greater control over the northeast, demanding either the dismantling of the SDF or its incorporation into the Syrian military under his command, leaving Kurds with limited local administrative authority.
Then there are the other territories captured from ISIS by the SDF and essentially annexed into its unrecognized federal system, primarily Raqqa and large swathes of the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province.
Although Assad could acquiesce to the Kurds having some significant self-governing role and autonomy in Rojava proper – the Kobane and Jazira regions specifically – it is less likely he will want forces outside his command controlling strategically important and resource-rich Arab majority areas.
It is also unlikely the Syrian Kurds will achieve the level of recognized autonomy enjoyed by their Iraqi Kurdish neighbours anytime soon. For one, the Kurdistan Region’s hard-won autonomy has its roots in older wars with Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s, and was only implemented in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It constitutionally became the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq after the American-led overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.
Continued wrangling between Baghdad and Erbil could actually serve as an imperfect – though informative – precedent for what the Syrian Kurds could face down the line if they manage comparable constitutional rights and recognition for a self-governing entity.
The Americans, when Iraq was briefly governed by Paul Bremer’s infamously inept Coalition Provisional Authority, sought to essentially disarm the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga armed forces shortly after the 2003 invasion to encourage Iraqi militias to disarm. President Masoud Barzani strenuously resisted this and managed to secure the Peshmerga’s status as the autonomous region’s sole defence force.
Then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would later try, in 2012, to force the Peshmerga to surrender its few heavy weapons – mostly antiquated Soviet-made tanks – and place itself under the command-and-control of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), essentially stripping the region of its own defences. This attempt, following some tense standoffs, came to nothing thanks to the steadfastness of Erbil.
Rojava is unlikely to achieve this level of autonomy and recognition in the short- to mid-term – much less retain its armed forces without risking clashes with Damascus. Also, unlike the Kurdistan Region, major cities in Rojava proper are still garrisoned by Syrian troops and pro-regime militias. The regime still controls the airport in Qamishli, for instance.
Furthermore, Syrian state personnel are returning to the Tabqa Dam, currently under SDF control, to begin repairs. Any agreement would likely see such key facilities in Rojava and SDF-controlled areas, particularly those related to Syria’s oil reserves, placed firmly under federal control.
Saudi Arabia is investing $100 million in SDF territories to support stabilization efforts – picking up where the US left off. America will instead use its earlier $200 million contribution to bolster other “key foreign policy priorities”. A gradual US withdrawal from northeast Syria could soon follow.
With their American allies making for the door, Syrian Kurds can be expected to make several trips to Damascus in the coming months. The jury’s out on what kind of deal – if any – they will secure.