As the Syrian war winds down, the largest part of the country remaining outside of the regime's direct control is presently run by Kurdish-led forces. To avoid another major bloodbath in the war-weary country, Syrian Kurds should be given official autonomy in their regions.
After US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria, where it has given support to the Kurdish-led forces in their numerous offensives against ISIS over the past four years, the Kurds scrambled back to the negotiating table with Damascus.
They are clearly hoping they can iron out some agreement that will enable them to keep their de-facto autonomy in the regions they control while avoiding any potential conflict with the regime.
The ruling Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has affirmed on numerous occasions that it does not seek secession from the Syrian state. Rather, it seeks decentralization. Its unrecognized federal region, declared in March 2016, invariably states this.
The Syrian Kurdish authorities recently renamed the regions under their governance the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria. They had previously named them the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The Syrian Kurdish regions are more commonly known by their more memorable Kurdish name 'Rojava', which means 'West Kurdistan.'
In October 2015, the armed wing of the PYD, the People's Protection Units (YPG), joined with several Arab groups to form the multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting-force against ISIS.
The SDF's flag is a blank map of all of Syria that highlights the Euphrates River, which currently serves as a natural barrier demarcating all of the SDF-controlled regions from the rest of Syria. While it suggests the SDF does not seek the dismemberment or partition of the country, it does seek its own region within the country – a crucial distinction.
The two main regions of Rojava, Kobane and Jazira, are located in the country's northeast. They were linked together in the summer of 2015 when the YPG pushed ISIS from the northern Syrian border region of Gire Spi (Tal Abyad).
Since then the group, fighting under the banner of the SDF and backed by the US military, pushed ISIS from the vast majority of Syrian territories it had seized for its self-described caliphate, including its de-facto capital Raqqa and vast swathes of the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, where the majority of Syria's oil reserves are located.
Also, on the west bank of the Euphrates River, the group captured the Arab city of Manbij from ISIS in a costly and ferocious offensive that raged throughout the summer of 2016.
Rojava and these other territories presently under SDF control together make-up about one-third of Syria. While they are far more sparsely populated than the rest of the country, they are still very significant.
Any regime or Turkish military operation aimed at wresting these parts of the country from the SDF by force would likely prove hugely destructive and could well prolong the Syrian conflict.
The Kurds want to avoid such an outcome, which is one reason they are, once again, going back to Damascus. They previously held talks with the regime last summer but those did not lead to any agreement.
Syrian Kurdish leader Sipan Hemo went to Damascus last month where he, according to Asharq al-Awsat, offered to hand over the international border areas currently under Kurdish control back to the central government.
When Turkey invaded Rojava's northwestern Afrin enclave, its smallest and most isolated region, in early 2018, the Kurds called on the regime to send troops to take the border with Turkey and halt the invasion. While Damascus did send a small force, the so-called Popular Forces paramilitary, it failed to make any discernible difference to the battle's outcome.
Furthermore, the regime had wanted the Kurds to hand over the entire region to prevent Turkey from conquering it, something the Kurds were unwilling to do.
Hemo also went to Moscow where he, again reportedly, urged the Russians to put forward their draft constitution for the country, since it includes provisions for "greater administrative freedoms" and linguistic rights for Kurds, two rights both Assad dictators consistently denied them for decades.
"Reaching a solution between our autonomous administration and the Syrian government is inevitable because our areas are part of Syria," said Redur Khalil
, an SDF commander, underscoring the SDF's line that it seeks a federal Syria rather than a separate independent Kurdish state.
Khalil also said the SDF is open to having its forces incorporated into the Syrian Army. Such an arrangement could potentially result in the SDF becoming part of the Syrian state's federal forces while the provincial government institutions and police forces will still be run by the Kurds in their own regions. This would require substantial compromises by the Kurdish authorities in Qamishli and some concessions in return from the regime in Damascus.
Khalil suggested that Russia could play the role of guarantor in negotiations over these matters. While Moscow is the primary military backer of Damascus, and certainly not a benign mediator on Syria-related matters in general, it could nevertheless become an adequate guarantor since it wants to bring an end to the Syrian conflict. Overseeing a war between the regime and the Kurds would certainly not serve that goal for obvious reasons.
The SDF's current control of one-third of Syria gives it significant bargaining chips.
Talks between the SDF and Damascus over the future of Manbij are showing some "positive signs," according to Khalil, who added that a successful deal over Manbij could lead to successive agreements over the future status of other SDF-controlled regions.
The PYD and SDF are far from perfect, but their sacrifices were crucial for the destruction of the Islamic State caliphate in Syria and they have successfully maintained some of the most stable and secure regions in the Syrian conflict that have sheltered hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians.
For these reasons and more the very least they deserve is the right to manage their own affairs, something that would also doubtlessly bode well for the future stability of these parts of Syria.