Is an Assad-YPG agreement in the horizon?
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political branch of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), last week issued a statement saying it agreed with the Syrian government to form committees to develop negotiations and “chart a roadmap to a democratic, decentralised Syria”.
Syrian authorities have yet to comment on the news but, at the beginning of last month, a signal in that direction was given by the Syrian President Bashar Assad. “We are going to use two methods to deal with the SDF: First, we open doors for negotiations. If that fails, we will liberate those areas by force,” Assad said. Pro-Assad newspapers at that time said an agreement had been reached between Damascus and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to increase the Syrian army’s presence in areas under the YPG control. The YPG makes up the bulk of the SDF coalition of forces.
Despite these contradicting statements, it is apparent that there is a move among the Kurds towards Damascus and they have several reasons to do so. Firstly, the power balance is shifting steadily in Assad’s favour. Secondly, U.S. President Donald Trump keeps saying that the United States must withdraw from Syria. The Pentagon brought some clarifications to Trump’s statement saying the United States should not leave Syria before the Islamic State (ISIS) threat is entirely eliminated and Iran’s settling in Syria is not prevented for good. This may be interpreted as meaning U.S. troops will stay in Syria indefinitely, because Iran does not seem to give up its aspiration to stay in Syria.
Thirdly, Turkey-U.S. relations are going from bad to worse. The Pentagon tries to use positive rhetoric on these relations and give the impression that setbacks will be eliminated as time goes by. But Ankara-Washington relations are rich in controversies and prospects for their solution in a short period are dim. Kurds cannot bet on the hope that these relations will boost their cause.
In light of this, the Kurds must have felt that it would be safer to keep the door open for negotiations with Damascus.
The Kurdish aspiration for autonomy in the areas where they constitute a majority has been a declared position for many years. In practice, this aspiration extended even to districts like Afrin, where the Kurds are in a minority. Damascus, already in 2011, acquiesced to a limited de-centralisation when it found it more expedient to withdraw its soldiers from certain northern districts such as al-Hasakah and Kobane, either because it needed these soldiers elsewhere or in order to embarrass Turkey, or both. The SDC has set up de facto cantons in areas under its control and collects taxes and operates police and other services.
Damascus proposed, during talks last month, to establish joint checkpoints in the districts controlled by Kurds to be manned concurrently with the YPG. In return, the government would include the Kurdish language in Syria’s school curriculum. Another important step was to consider military service in the YPG equal to service in the Syrian army and the creation of a permanent post for a Kurdish official in the Oil Ministry. This proposal has yet to be finalised.
After preliminary contacts last month, the YPG agreed to remove the posters of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdish terrorist organisation Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from the roadside billboards. The Kurds said this was part of an administrative measure to regulate roadside advertising. Whether this is part of an administrative measure or of a political deal, Turkey could use the Damascus-SDC thaw to re-adjust its Syria policy to the reality in the field.
Ankara and Damascus have several overlapping interests in the Syrian Kurdish issue such as the reconfirmation of Syria’s territorial integrity and barring the Syrian Kurdistan’s autonomy. If Turkey was able to cooperate with Damascus, it could weaken the links between the YPG and PKK. Damascus was able, without acrimony, to persuade the YPG to remove Öcalan’s posters, which is part of this goal. Turkey is also very much eager to do the same, but its present policy pushes the YPG more towards the PKK.
In a period when Turkey-U.S. relations do not offer any promising perspective, Ankara could achieve concrete results by cooperating with Damascus, if it wakes up to see this reality.