A Syrian Kurdish women holds a portrait of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan during a rally in Qamishli last Monday denoucing that Kursdish reprensantatives were not invited to take part in the upcoming Astana peace talk to be held on Monday. Photo: AFP
The latest talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict are set to take place in Astana, Kazakhstan on Monday. One group has been conspicuously excluded: the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
“This absence of Syrian Kurds, particularly from the dominant PYD party, continues the pattern set in Geneva,” David Pollack, the Kaufman Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Rudaw English. “It is not new. Turkey and Assad, and the mainstream Syrian opposition, for different reasons, have all objected to them, and Russia has gone along with that.”
“Turkey is adamant that the PYD not attend peace talks,” said the Atlantic Council's Aaron Stein, whose area of expertise is US-Turkish relations. “This is a pillar of Turkey’s Syria policy, and therefore a ‘red line’ in its negotiations with Russia over the Astana process.”
“With that said,” he added, “the strategy is bound to fail. It’s not feasible to isolate in perpetuity one of the strongest actors in a civil conflict, if indeed the goal is a viable peace agreement with a coherent political arrangement.”
Washington has said that the PYD should be invited. Washington has relied on the PYD, particularly its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), in its fight against ISIS in northeast Syria since it began two and a half years ago.
“The US has wanted Syrian Kurdish participation in Astana, but has not insisted,” Pollack said. “I think this all reflects the relatively small numbers and weak overall position of Syria's Kurds.”
“But even their enemies understand that at some point they need to be addressed,” he added, “not only for their role against ISIS but also because they control strategic enclaves of Syria along the Turkish border.”
The PYD currently rules Syria's Kurdish territories, which achieved de-facto autonomy early in the ongoing Syrian war. While it has clashed with pro-regime militiamen in Hasakah and Qamishli in the past, the PYD/YPG has not gone to war against the regime, much to the consternation of some in the Syrian opposition. The Kurdish National Council (KNC/ENKS), the PYD's political opponent in Syria Kurdistan, is a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition group and is attending the Astana talks.
“There cannot be a Kurdish buy-in to a settlement without the involvement of the PYD,” Robert Lowe, the Deputy Director of the London School of Economics' Middle East Centre, told Rudaw English.
“The PYD's exclusion from the talks reflects Turkey's position rather than making a meaningful effort to forge an inclusive peace,” he added. “Turkey prefers to try to weaken the Kurds through their divisions but the PYD holds the power on the ground. It also makes amity between the Kurdish factions less likely.”
Russia is presently militarily coordinating with Turkey in Syria against ISIS in the northwestern Syrian city of al-Bab. The Turks, according to an unnamed Turkish official cited by Reuters late last month, hope participation in the Astana negotiations will give them a free hand to target the PYD/YPG in Syria once ISIS is defeated.
“Relations between Russia, Turkey and the PYD may shed a light on Moscow's political mid-term priorities in the Syrian conflict,” Timur Akhmetov, a researcher on Russia's Middle East policy, told Rudaw English. “After Aleppo's fall Russian military forces in Syria are preparing for operations in northwestern Syria, where Turkish-backed armed fighters are in close proximity to ISIS and Nusra militants who are legitimate targets for Russian airstrikes. It is therefore important for Moscow to structure its indirect conflict with Turkey.”
“The Astana talks were not designed to seal a political resolution per se,” he added. “It has to be seen rather as an attempt to bring the conflict between the government and armed opposition into a political conflict. Bringing Turkey into the negotiations as a guarantor is part of Moscow's goal to channel the conflict into a more predictable and controllable one.”
“The fact that the PYD is not present at the Astana talks is not very important for Russia,” Akhmetov argued. “The PYD has not been representing a tangible threat to Russian interests in Syria so far and it is, it seems, viewed by Moscow as a more or less predictable actor, at least in military terms.”
“It is the Geneva talks and Russian statements on PYD's participation in them that might actually reveal Moscow's genuine view of the PYD,” he concluded, referring to the stalled Geneva III talks last year which the Astana talks might, if successful, reinvigorate. “So far Russia has been vocal about Kurdish presence at the political negotiations in Geneva.”