Assad tests negotiations with Kurds in eastern Syria
Updated: Sep 11, 2018
By SIRWAN KAJJO
Two days after Syrian President Bashar Assad threatened to use force against Kurdish forces in the northeast if they refused to negotiate with him, a delegation of the so-called “internal opposition” from Damascus arrived in Qamishli, the de-facto capital of Kurdish Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Front delegation consisted of Mahmoud Murie, Abdulaziz Dawood, Mais Kraidi, Fawaz Taqiaddine and Hani Khoury. These regime-friendly oppositionists met with different Kurdish groups, including the PYD-led self-rule government and the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
This visit perhaps would have been normal, if it wasn’t for the timing. What’s more is the statement Kraidi, the spokeswoman of the Syrian Democratic Front, gave after meeting with Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
On June 5, Kraidi posted a press release on her Facebook page, saying that “comrade Ahmed has declared SDC’s readiness to send a delegation to Damascus for direct talks [with the Assad regime] without preconditions.” The SDC has not yet issued any statement on this – or on meeting with the visiting delegation.
But it’s become clear that these individuals were sent by Damascus. Assad clearly wanted to test the waters with the Kurds after his recent bombastic threats against them.
A delegation headed by a soft spoken woman, Assad thought, would be able to convey what he really wanted the Kurds to know at this juncture.
Who is Mais Kraidi?
Kraidi was not known to the Syrian dissident community prior to 2011. When the civil war broke out, she joined the protest movement and famously said that “Syria is nobody’s farm. We won’t forgive, reconcile nor sell the blood.” She reportedly had called on trying Assad at the International Criminal Court for his actions against peaceful protesters.
Subsequently, she fled the country and joined Syria’s mainstream opposition in Egypt and elsewhere.
In 2014, however, she announced her return to Syria through a number of regime and Iranian media outlets. Ever since, she has assumed the role of mediator between the regime and opposition figures who want to return to the country without bad consequences.
She was chosen along with ten other figures to chair the committee of the Sochi conference, a failed Syrian dialogue meeting that was sponsored by Russia in January 2018.
Kraidi’s stance towards the regime has drastically changed over the past few years. Her demands from the regime are now limited to reform from within, while emphasizing on keeping Assad in power.
Kurds: between a rock and a hard place
The military inroads made by Kurdish forces against ISIS militants in the past few years have given Syrian Kurds an unprecedented opportunity to maintain self-rule and to expand their territory.
Major developments in recent months, however, have made the Kurds realize that nothing is indefinite in this seven-year conflict in Syria. This is particularly true after the Kurds lost the northwestern region of Afrin, one of their main strongholds, to Turkey in March.
Major developments in recent months, however, have made the Kurds realize that nothing is indefinite in this seven-year conflict in Syria.
Most recently, the Kurdish YPG – which makes up the mainstay of the U.S.-backed SDF – was forced to withdraw from the northern town of Manbij after a U.S.-Turkish agreement was reached. Manbij was liberated from ISIS by the Kurdish group in August 2016.
With no clear U.S. strategy in Syria, the Kurds continue to be worried about what will come next. Moreover, what happened in Manbij could be replicated elsewhere, they think.
This has left the Kurds, particularly the PYD, with little time to ponder their options.
Making rapid advances against ISIS and rebels throughout the country, Assad is perhaps stronger than even in this conflict to consolidate his control over as much geography as possible. Recent statements by him and his top officials make it very clear that the Kurdish region – and other eastern areas controlled by Kurds – won’t be excluded from the regime’s ambitious plan.
A glimmer of hope that Kurds still possess is their U.S.-trained and equipped semi-military force that is the SDF. The group has nearly 60,000 battle-hardened fighters who have shown increased dedication and commitment to their cause. This force could potentially be a useful leverage in any future talks with Assad.
The Kurds actually have a lot to bargain with when it comes to negotiating with the Assad regime. They now control some of the richest areas in the country, including the Kurdish heartland, Raqqa and much of the oil-rich Deir Ezzor.
The PYD/SDC going to direct talks with Assad may not be the smartest strategic choice at this point, but it is certainly not the most bitter one. It is perhaps time for them to hedge their bets more carefully.
A day later, Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish official in northern Syria, said that they were ready to hold talks with Damascus. “The aim would be to develop a Syrian-Syrian solution and close the door on conflicts and wars,” he was quoted as saying in an AP report.