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Analysis: How Serious Are Talks Between Assad and Syrian Kurds?

By MECRA staff

Co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) Ilham Ahmed this week said the Syrian regime has agreed to begin political negotiations with the Kurds.

The Russian-mediated imitative would mark the first formal talks between Damascus and the main Syrian Kurdish group since the Turkish invasion of parts of the Kurdish region in October 2019.

The announcement of such talks at this time is significant. More than ever before, Syrian Kurds feel like they need to re-open their direct communication channels with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime now that it has become clear the latter is going to win the nine-year war – at least militarily.

Disheartened by the fact that their U.S. partners have abandoned them when President Donald Trump decided to withdraw most of U.S. troops from northeast Syria and leave them to vulnerable to Turkish attacks, Kurdish political parties affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces have been mulling the pros and cons of officially starting a negotiation process with Assad.

But such talks may not be easy.

Autonomy or local administration?

One of the major points of contentions between the Syrian regime and the SDC is the governing system that should be adopted for the Kurdish region.

The SDC insists that the new local autonomy that was announced by Kurdish groups affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in 2014 must be preserved. The SDC even goes further by saying that its model of governance should be applied throughout Syria.

The Syrian regime, however, rejects the Kurdish-dominated self-rule project and refers to its current local administration law, which was ratified in 2011, as the only form of governance that must be accepted in the country.

The Kurds understandably fear that giving in to such demands by the Syrian regime could very well be the end of a Kurdish dream for self-rule. For them, the opportunity at hand cannot be abandoned but certain aspects of their current local governance system may be negotiated over with Damascus.

The Russian plan

Regardless of sharp differences between Syrian Kurds and the regime in Damascus, Russia does have a plan to bring the two sides together. From a Russian point of view, the SDF and by extension Syrian Kurds could greatly benefit Moscow in its grand plan for a post-war Syria.

Trained and equipped by the U.S. for many years, the SDF is arguably the most effective fighting force on the ground in Syria. These 65,000 strong Kurdish and Arab fighters represent an enormous asset for Russia in its ultimate objective to reclaim Assad’s sovereignty all over Syria.

The Russians do in fact have a plan to eventually incorporate the SDF within the Syrian defense system. And the SDF has indicated that it wouldn’t oppose the idea of being part of the Syrian military in the future as long as the SDF’s integral structure is preserved.

Depleted from years of war, the Syrian military is undeniably incapable of take control of the entire country. Even if political dynamics allowed Assad to fully enter the Kurdish region, he won’t be able to govern effectively with limited resources his government possesses. In fact, the Syrian regime troops, who were brought to the Kurdish region in a bid to stop the Turks from occupying more Kurdish territory in northeast Syria, are getting fed and paid by the SDF. As ironic as it might seems for the SDF, the very symbolic presence of Assad forces could be enough to avert yet another Turkish incursion.

Moscow recognizes these facts very well. Thus, it seeks to establish a political status for Syrian Kurds where they could enjoy certain level of autonomy and yet protect Syria’s territorial integrity.

Kurdish unity efforts

In January, SDF General Commander Mazlum Abdi called on all Kurdish parties to have a united front in the face of emerging dynamics in the Kurdish region. Abdi’s initiative was widely seen as a goodwill gesture.

He immediately followed that call with hosting several rare meetings with leaders of the Kurdish National Council (ENKS) in Syria, a political alliance that has close ties with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraqi Kurdistan. With those meetings, Abdi effectively ended years of estrangement between the ENKS and pro-PYD groups.

In response to the SDF move, the ENKS decided to reopen its political offices, which had been closed by the PYD because ENKS had refused to get permits to operate through those offices. To this day the ENKS doesn’t recognize the PYD-led autonomous administration, accusing the PYD of being totalitarian in running the Kurdish region.

It is important to note that Abdi does have a genuine plan to bring Syrian Kurdish parties together. The non-partisan approaches he has recently taken have given him a unique posture through which he can actually become a true mediator between the PYD and ENKS.

Interestingly enough, both the United States and Russia seem to be willing to help achieve some sort of consensus among Syrian Kurdish parties. U.S. and Russian officials in many occasions have expressed the importance of having a fair Kurdish representation at any talks involving Syria’s future.

The real question that should be asked at this point in time is this: can either side make meaningful concessions to ensure that moving forward Syrian Kurds have the ability to put their differences aside and focus on bigger issues threatening their very existence?

The U.S. Factor

While most pundits believe the U.S. will have a declining role in the next phase in Syria following the humiliating partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Kurdish region, it is important to note that Washington still has plans for eastern Syria; such plans that could keep the Americans relevant in determining any political outcome for Syria.

The U.S. has made it abundantly clear that U.S. troops will remain in parts of eastern Syria to protect oil fields in the region. In its 2021 defense budget, the U.S. proposes to continue funding the SDF in their joint effort to combat ISIS in eastern Syria. In fact, the U.S. intends to continue supporting the SDF in terms of capacity building and combat skills.

With this in mind, it is hardly avoidable not to predict that any political negotiations between Assad and Syrian Kurds will be doomed to failure. Because the Syrian regime and Russia will find it hard to swallow to carry on real talks with the Kurds as long as the SDF continues its partnership with the Americans.

What next?

Despite Ilham Ahmed’s excessive optimism about talks with Damascus this time around, it is difficult not to assume that Assad could still find many excuses to dilute any prospects of a meaningful dialogue with Syrian Kurds, given his history.

Assad could be pushed by the Russians to have a fresh round of talks with the Kurds. But then he could use this as an opportunity to buy himself some time until his regime is better positioned politically and militarily, and thus have the upper hand in any future negotiations with the Kurds – just like how he did with the Syrian opposition throughout Geneva talks.

At this point though, Assad doesn’t have anything substantial to offer to the Kurds. He can merely give them some assurances that the new reality in northeast Syria would be taken into account when formally settling the situation there.

And even though the Turkish invasion of northeast Syria has shown how fragile Syrian Kurds are, it is certain that they still have several political and military cards that could be effective in any deals about their political future with Assad or any other political power in Syria.

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