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Dealing in Damascus: Rojava Kurds consider pact with Assad

By Hannah Lynch 28/7/2018
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
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
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – With the war against ISIS nearing its final stages and the international community appearing to resign itself to Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, the pragmatic option for Kurds and their self-autonomous region of Rojava is to engage with Damascus.

A delegation of the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) went to the Syrian capital on Friday to “take the pulse” of the regime.

They agreed to continue discussions towards charting a roadmap for a “democratic, decentralized” Syria and an end to violence. But Salih Muslim, who heads up foreign relations for TEV-DEM, the ruling coalition in Rojava, cautioned that negotiations have not yet begun – just “preparation for negotiations.”

Any serious discussions on the future of the self-autonomous region must be guaranteed by a third party, TEV-DEM co-president Aldar Khalil told Rudaw in an interview this week.

“When two forces want to talk, it is necessary to have a third party between them. A third party can guarantee the talks,” he said. “But so far the regime has not made a step forward. We have not stepped forward and no third party has come forward.”

The TEV-DEM coalition, dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the armed YPG and YPJ forces, together with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its SDC political wing, are in control of a little over a quarter of the country.

Areas under their administration include Kurdish Rojava, the Euphrates dam, the city of Raqqa, oil and gas fields in Deir ez-Zor, and stretches of border territory with Turkey and Iraq.

Despite their dominance on the ground in northern Syria, TEV-DEM has been excluded from international peace talks, mainly at the insistence of Turkey. They have also been accused by Syrian opposition groups of allying with the regime.

Kurdish forces and the SDF have largely avoided confrontation with the regime over the course of the seven-year conflict. Damascus has even retained a token presence in Hasakah province and Qamishli.

“In practice, from the start of the revolution, there has not been a complete disconnection from the regime,” Khalil explained.

Occupied elsewhere, Damascus has pretty much left the Kurds alone, though it has in the past threatened to take control of Rojava by force.

Now, the regime wants to restore its control over the north of the country and the Kurds want to protect the democratic values they have fostered and bolster their defenses against threats from Turkey.

Starting with practical things like the provision of basic services is a way to build trust.

“Rojava really needs electricity,” said Khalil.

The Kurds control the Euphrates dam at Tabqa but have only been able to use about 10 percent of its power generating potential. The dam was damaged during the battle to seize it from ISIS. Its operators want to work with the experts who ran the dam before the conflict to get it back on track.

“If the regime’s engineers and employees come, nothing will happen expect our dam can work well. If this dam works, we will have electricity. This is a service related issue,” said Khalil, cautioning that it does not mean a political agreement.

Meetings in Damascus between the regime and the SDC began with talks on such service issues.

Khalil also foresees possible military cooperation to stave off threats from Ankara and recapture Afrin from Turkish forces and their allied Syrian militias who took over the enclave earlier this year.

“If we reach an agreement in Idlib with other forces, it will help us for our goal to liberate Afrin,” Khalil said, explaining that they are ready to take all diplomatic or military efforts necessary.

His argument is that since Turkey was given the green light by Russia to launch its Afrin operation, Turkey could be booted out of the Kurdish enclave if the relationship between Moscow and Ankara can be altered over Idlib where Turkey and Russia are backing opposing sides.

“If we are able to force the pro-Turkish military groups to withdraw from Idlib, no matter who does it and how, it will mean that the agreement between the Turks and Russians has to change,” Khalil argued.

“We, in both north Syria and Rojava, are influential. If we see that our role in liberating Idlib can affect the liberation of Afrin, we are ready to do it.”

Many Kurds felt betrayed by their American allies when the US did nothing to defend Afrin.

In the war against ISIS, the SDF and YPG have been backed by the US-led global coalition, receiving training, weapons, and support.

But the Rojava administration should not depend on the US for anything more than military support, said a member of the region’s main opposition party, the Kurdish National Council (ENKS).

“When ISIS is over, there is no pledge that they will support the Kurds,” Jadan Ali, head of ENKS’ office in the Kurdistan Region, told Rudaw in an interview this month.

The US has always been very clear that its relationship with the SDF and the YPG is restricted to the war against ISIS, he pointed out. “They merely use them for military purposes inside Syria.”

Ali said his party, which unlike TEV-DEM has participated in the UN’s Geneva peace process, thinks Kurds can obtain their rights only by continuing to pursue the international option.

“We want the rights of Kurds to be installed in the new constitution in Syria as per international rules. We do not think that Kurdish rights will be gained by another way. Unilateral agreements, especially military ones, have not gained the rights of any ethnic or religious minorities in Syria, including Kurds,” he said.


Ibrahim | 28/7/2018
This is in no way optimal but is the best course considering the circumstances. Many times the Kurdish political leadership have chased a fantasy when it come to the US (or the West). This is due to a lack of understanding of the geopolitics of the region and world politics in general. They would fall for their own fantasy because every now and then some former US official or retired general or retired ambassador makes a statement about how the US government should support Kurds, or they come out in support of Kurdish independence, because it doesn't cost them anything, but while they were in office they would follow official US policy which has been very obvious for 70 years, and that's to keep Kurds in check rather than emboldening them or strengthen them
Ibrahim | 28/7/2018
Of course the Americans will use Kurds when they need them but the United States has been completely honest about their policy towards Kurds, and never officially implied that they would support an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria or support the Iraqi Kurds annexation to the disputed territories, or support or even entertain the idea of help setting up a Kurdish state. So I'm always puzzled when I hear or read comments about "American betrayal" by fellow Kurds, what betrayal? ISIS was about to swallow Rojava and KRG, only half of Kobani was left, remember? it was in the United States interest (and ours) to take them out. One of the main reasons for that was that ISIS was abolishing the old fake colonial borders, not in favor of Kurds of course. The whole thing was a Turkish plan and design of you ask me, because only Turkey would've benefited from the new borders, Kurds were being driven out both in South and Rojava and replaced with Sunni Arabs, which the Turks officially said they preferred, go look up statements from Turkish officals when Kurds where being ethnically cleansed on a large scale by ISIS in Rojava. Other factors like Iran's influence that was growing would diminish in those areas bordering Turkey, and Turkey would have been the God father of these new Sunni Arab states so win win win for Turkey.

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