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.