Negotiations between the Kurds and the Al-Assad Regime: Understandings and Potential Outcomes
Recent reports indicate that meetings have taken place between Syrian Kurds represented by the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD), the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD), and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to define the shape of their future relationship.
The prelude to negotiations
Pro-Assad media outlets have published the terms of these ongoing negotiations. These include the removal of all imagery, symbols and flags of Kurdish militias in all areas under their control; the incorporation of militiamen into Assad’s army; and the relinquishing of control to the Syrian government of the Al-Yarubiah and Simalka crossing points with northern Iraq, the Al-Darbasiyah and Ras Al-Ayn crossing points with Turkey, and all oil and gas fields.
It appears that the Syrian regime aims to regain control over Kurdish self-administered areas in northeastern Syria in exchange for an additional article in the constitution related to local administration, while continuing to reject Kurdish demands for federalism in Syria. Assad decreed that local elections would be held on September 16, 2018 – a concrete step toward dealing with the issue of Syrian Kurds as part of a “pure Syrian framework”.
The Co-Chairman of the MSD, Riad Darrar, denied the “start of negotiations” between the two sides from the outset, claiming merely to have “accepted to talk to the regime without conditions.”
In an attempt by the Kurds to cement their influence in northern and eastern Syria and strengthen their negotiating position when talks begin, the MSD held its 3rd general conference in Al-Tabaqa on July 16, 2018 in order to form a unified administration in areas under QSD control in northern and eastern Syria. To this end, the Kurds are planning to merge councils in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and other areas, including the self-administered area in eastern Al-Jazirah region.
Darrar has said that the QSD intends to “strengthen its administration of the areas under its control in light of the absence of a political settlement” (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, July 17, 2018).
AFP quoted Hikmat Habib, a member of the presidential body of MSD, describing the aim of the conference as to “establish a platform to negotiate with the Syrian regime. This platform will represent all self-administered areas and areas under the control of QSD, as well as Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Manbij” (Lebanese Al-Akhbar, July 17, 2018).
Areas of understanding
In what appears to be a gesture of good will to show its willingness to enter negotiations, the QSD has removed its flags, the photographs of its dead and the pictures of Abdullah Ocalan – leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – from the main streets of Al-Qamishli and Al-Hasakah.
Any talks between the two sides will cover three issues: Raqqa, the economy and security. There are expectations that the Kurds will hand over Raqqa to the Syrian regime as a first confidence-building measure.
The mutual economic interests of both sides also represent a basis for establishing common understanding. While they control oil and gas fields and wheat and cotton producing areas, Kurds cannot benefit from these resources unless they are able to sell their products on the Syrian market, as there is no other means to export them.
The Euphrates Post quoted a source close to the QSD who claimed that the latter had granted the Syrian regime the right to invest in oil in regions under their control, even in the absence of a final formula covering all aspects of cooperation.
The pro-Syrian regime newspaper Al-Watan reported that the two sides had reached an agreement stipulating that the Syrian government will run oil installations and sales. The paper added that a team of dam maintenance experts had arrived in Al-Tabaqa and met with the committee running the dam. The team will reportedly later head to Tishrin dam in southeast Manbij in east Aleppo governorate.
The Syrian regime insists on using security as the primary basis for all understandings; Kurdish leaks claim that the Al-Assad regime focusses all of its attention on establishing security zones inside key cities east of the Euphrates.
Shaheen Ahmad, a Kurdish unit leader, wrote on his Facebook page that Kurdish units will hand security zones to the Syrian regime in cities and governorates east of the Euphrates as part of the evolving deal.
Reasons behind negotiations and the fast-tracking of an agreement with the Assad regime
Negotiations between the Kurds and the Syrian regime will rest on existing cooperation between the two sides. Kurdish political ambitions seem to be more pragmatic; they demand neither separation nor an independent state. Instead, they only seek self-autonomy or the creation of a decentralized democratic structure in the country that can guarantee the rights of minorities including the Kurds.
However, the Kurds are fully aware of the conflict environment and the positions of all major actors; they do not trust the Russians, and arrangements with Turkey in Afrin and Tal Rifaat were made at the expense of their interests. Moreover, they now have an even more skeptical view of US policy in Syria, and therefore seek alternative options for defending their interests in the future.
They are confident that US forces will leave eastern Syria soon and Kurdish leaders have received signals of a forthcoming US “pivot” towards Turkey as part of an effort to rekindle that strategic alliance. That orientation was clearly reflected in the latest US–Turkish agreement on Manbij and Washington’s silence on the previous Turkish military campaign in Afrin.
The Kurds also believe that the eastern Euphrates region may experience unfavorable shifts in the near future that will see a stronger role for Turkish and GCC-backed Arab and local factions. The Kurds therefore believe that engaging with the Syrian regime now may be prudent, particularly in light of their aim to achieve self-autonomy in a potential new federal structure implemented with the assistance of Russia.
Scenarios for future relations between the Kurds and the Syrian regime
Three possible scenarios may shape future relations between the Kurds and the Syrian regime:
1: The Kurds submit to the regime’s demands without achieving any gains in return and are left with limited options in their dealings with the regime. Last year, the Assad regime asked the Kurds to choose between negotiations, relinquishing their territory, or war. Despite the fact that the US and France have yet to withdraw troops from Ayn Dadat village north to Manbij, the military situation on the ground is far from promising for the QSD.
2: The US leaves the Syrian situation entirely to Russia, which will end up committed to solving all the complexities of the Syrian crisis, including the task of ending Iran’s military presence in the country. Such a solution may guarantee some of the Kurds rights in line with Russia’s federal solution for a unified Syria. This would also alleviate the embarrassment caused by the Trump administration abandoning its allies, as Russia would quickly seize this opportunity to ensure a faster withdrawal of US troops and the dismantling of their bases in Al-Tanf and eastern Syria.
3: An Arab–Kurdish war breaks out and plunges the eastern Euphrates into chaos. In light of the incitement against the Kurds by Iran and the Syrian regime, and the already extensive anti-Kurdish sentiment engendered by the Kurdish militias’ proactive policies against the Arab tribes in Al-Raqqa, the Deir Ez-Zor countryside and Al-Hasakah, these tribes may engage with the Syrian regime – particularly following Assad’s major military gains in Damascus, Homs and southern Syria. This scenario has become more likely following the launch of the Manbij roadmap that undermined the confidence in the US’ allies. This may allow the Syrian regime to regain the popular support it lost in these areas. Recently, pro-regime military factions have been founded such as Sanadid Al Jazeerah, adding to existing Iran-backed factions in the area such as the Al Baqer Brigades established by Nawaf Al Bashir in Deir ez-Zor.
Given the current circumstances, the second scenario seems most plausible. However, Turkey, Iran and the Assad regime would oppose this outcome, as it appears inconsistent with their interests and security perceptions.