Despite the attempts of the Kurdish parties in Syria to resume their dialogue, whose last round took place in August 2020, this continues to collide with the divergent priorities of the new US administration, given that Washington is the main sponsor of the dialogue between the National Unity Parties (PYNK) led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) on the one hand, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC, ENKS) on the other hand.
Mazloum Abdi, Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD, SDF), had launched, in late 2019, the initiative to start this dialogue with the aim of unifying the political rhetoric of the Kurdish parties in Syria, with US and French support. The QSD forces (with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as their backbone) constitute the military arm of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which politically corresponds to the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC, MSD) (controlled by the PYD). All those forces combined, represented by the latter party, constitute the main party in the intra-Kurdish dialogue process, in parallel with the second opposing party, namely the KNC, which is supported by Turkey.
Challenges to the dialogue
The intra-Kurdish dialogue was launched in April 2020. Both the KNC in Syria and the SDC entered into negotiations on the form and percentage of local government in the region, in addition to the form of the military presence of both sides, and other administrative and economic issues. A common political vision was reached by both sides in mid-June 2020. However, the KNC's lack of a serious and real desire for dialogue prompted it in July 2020 to join the Peace and Freedom Front (PFF) that includes a number of the region’s Turkey-backed components. This support seems to aim at blocking any attempt by the AANES and its political and military arms to put the internal Kurdish house in order, strengthen the factors of stability in the region, and initiate an Arab-Kurdish dialogue, which the SDC has expressed its willingness to launch after the success of the intra-Kurdish dialogue.
The accession by the KNC to a political formation that is opposed to the opposite party in the dialogue stands out as a hindrance to any progress in the negotiations despite Washington’s intervention to set the wheels in motion and push the dialogue forward. In September 2020, the two sides announced reaching an agreement to form the Supreme Kurdish Authority (SKA) on the basis of the 2014 Duhok Agreement, which is the reference that was said to be a negotiating umbrella that brings together the interlocutors. However, negotiations were suspended due to the US sponsor's preoccupation with the presidential elections. After the arrival of President Biden at the White House, and the appointment of new representatives to his administration in northern and eastern Syria, the new representatives, who had recently arrived in Hasakah, tried to push for a new date for the resumption of the dialogue, but this was prevented by some controversial points.
The presence of the Turkish side seems to impede the resumption of the dialogue, especially that the QSD wants to represent its political arm, the SDC, after the completion of the dialogue and agreement on its details, in the political process in Syria in all its particulars, which is not wanted by Ankara. In addition, an agreement between the Kurdish parties would result in a consensus requiring the deployment of military forces affiliated with the KNC called Peshmerga Roj (currently found in Iraqi Kurdistan) to contact points with areas of Turkish influence in northern Syria, which would prevent any possibility for new Turkish military operations inside the QSD-controlled areas, such as Operation Peace Spring in October 2019. Thus, Turkey would not rush the success of a US-sponsored intra-Kurdish dialogue that falls outside Turkish conditions, especially that US-Turkish relations during the era of President Joe Biden may not be at their best, in the light of the expected greater US support for the Kurds of Syria and the tension tainted by uncertainty in the form of the relationship between Washington and Ankara due to the Russian-Turkish rapprochement during the rule of former President Donald Trump.
On the other hand, there are Russian efforts to complete the rounds of negotiations and dialogue between the QSD and the Damascus government, which have been stalled for a long time, and which had not reached any significant results, in an attempt by Moscow to pull the QSD away from the US tutelage, although such an end may not ultimately be practically achieved. However, these Russian efforts may contribute to narrowing the margin of manoeuvrability for the Kurds, and may thus lead to disrupting the productivity of the dialogue. In addition, the pro-Ankara KNC would not seek to deepen the dialogue with the QSD when the latter has opened a new negotiation channel mediated by Russia.
In addition to the above, the continuation of the dilemma of Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS) and its sleeper cells, and the complexities of the issue of its detainees and their families, constitute a security challenge that haunts the QSD. The security challenge issue and the ability to solve it affect the capability to build on the dialogue sessions, especially that local Arab/tribal actors continue to attribute the causes of the security chaos and the failure to fix the state of stability to the form of administration of the region by the AANES, which is something on which the KNC agrees with the local tribal actors.
Furthermore, it is possible that Tehran and its ally Damascus would seek to dispel any opportunity for civil rapprochement in the region by fueling discord and increasing security unrest therein, given that the rapprochement would unite the Kurdish and Arab efforts alike to confront the Iranian influence in those areas. On the other hand, it would be a big step on the road to changing the form of local government in the country, starting from the regions of eastern Syria and under US and western sponsorship, as opposed to the loss by Damascus of its influence there, as well as the loss of the economic gains in addition to other political and administrative losses.
The potential for consensus and its political and field implications
The development of the Kurdish dialogue mechanisms and moving them to a more important domain seem to depend mainly on US orientations. The Biden administration is expected to pay more attention to the Kurdish forces and their administrative apparatus (the AANES). On the one hand, the Biden administration aspires to end any impact of the Daesh terrorist organisation, and on the other hand, it seeks to economically and politically empower the local allied actors, which means that Ankara may collide with Washington if the former remains insistent on not converging with the QSD and the AANES. Perhaps the first step that could be taken by Turkey would be to show good intentions towards the Kurdish dialogue in terms of calling on the Turkish-supported political opposition (the Syrian opposition coalition) to engage in a dialogue with the SDC and refrain from placing restrictions on the upcoming dialogue sessions between the latter and the KNC, especially that the latter has set several conditions for completing the dialogue during the current period, the most important of which being the establishment of a real partnership in all political, administrative and military aspects, without separating any aspect of them from the others. The KNC also demands stopping the media statements it described as "provocative" by leaders on the opposite side of the dialogue, and stopping the practices that harm the dialogue, such as arrests and burning the offices of the KNC and the parties affiliated with it, and putting an end to compulsory recruitment by the AANES.
Therefore, looking into overcoming the obstacles and assessing the potential for consensus relates to multiple levels, mainly the political one, and ensuring that Turkey does not incite some of the Arab tribes that it supports there and the societal and political actors, preventing any civil strife from disrupting the dialogue, as well as driving the Turkish-backed political actors towards rapprochement with the AANES and ensuring that there is no military and political escalation in the region. This is something that could be driven by Turkey if it wants to ensure the stability of the region and that its current areas of influence in northern Syria remain unaffected, or to avoid the effects of any potential escalation resulting from the disruption of the Kurdish dialogue.
In parallel, the completion of the intra-Kurdish dialogue would draw a new map of influence in the regions of northeastern Syria. On the one hand, it would politically contribute to a real and effective involvement of the Kurdish component and the region’s other components. On the ground, the dialogue and possible agreement between the parties would lead to the deployment of military forces that are "neutral" from Turkey’s perspective and that are affiliated with the KNC, thus preventing any potential military tension in the region, both against the QSD forces and against the areas of Turkish influence and the Ankara-backed military opposition in northern Syria.
Likewise, the intra-Kurdish rapprochement, if it does take place, and the ensuing possible Kurdish-Arab rapprochement in the region, would lead to uniting the tribal/local efforts to confront the threat of Daesh and heed the growing Iranian presence which has made the region one of the foundations of its strategic project in Syria.
The prospects for the success of the intra-Kurdish dialogue in Syria remain linked to the dynamics of US-Turkish relations and their impact on the Syrian issue. Currently, Ankara does not seem to tend to support this dialogue. On the contrary, it wants the dialogue to be a card in its hand that it can negotiate over with the US side in the future.
The Kurdish dialogue is expected to have an impact beyond the northeastern region of Syria, as it would extend to the particulars of the political process after the wide Kurdish participation therein, in addition to the possibility of rapprochement between the Kurdish AANES and the Syrian political opposition, which would contribute to supporting the opportunities for a political solution in Syria. It would also facilitate reaching common understandings between the interfering forces in the Syrian affairs that support both the parties to the dialogue and the parties that would be affected by its outcomes.
Ahmed Nadhif | 12 Apr 2021
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi | 31 Mar 2021
EPC | 30 Mar 2021