Alwaght- The Syrian Democratic Forces’ leaders are “ready to talk” to the central government unconditionally, a statement released by the militant group has announced.
In the first view, the statement may not look that important but negotiations between Damascus and the SDF, a coalition of majorly Kurdish militants, can mark a start of a big shift in the war-hit country’s battleground equations to the detriment of the US and to the advantage of the Syrian government and the allied Resistance front.
Taking to the AFP news agency, Hekmat Habib, a leader in the Syrian Democratic Council, said his group was seriously ready to sit on the negotiating table with Damascus.
“Now we say we are ready to talk, without any conditions”, he was quoted as saying.
Habib went on to say that all of the foreign forces on the Syrian soil, including the US-led international military coalition, are seen as intervening forces. He hoped that in the future all of the foreign forces leave the country and intra-Syrian negotiations to end the eight-year crisis be resumed.
The remarks are seen as a fundamental change in the Syrian Kurds’ posture on the nation’s equations. Two points are of significance in SDF leadership member’s remarks. First, the foreign forces, including the Washington-headed military alliance which was founded by the US in 2014 for the so-called anti-ISIS air operations in Syria and Iraq and has been a backer of the SDF over the past two years, are occupying forces and have to withdraw. Second, the Syrian Kurds eye intra-Syrian dialogue, something Damascus government invited to over the past years.
But why do Syria’s Kurds take such a position in the present conditions? Tracking the course of their rise and power gain and role play in the conflict after 2012 helps answer the question.
Canton system and self-proclaimed federal rule in the north
According to unofficial figures, the Kurds in Syria are between 1.5 to 2 million, hence accounting for 10 percent of the Syria population. Before the crisis erupted in 2011, they were a marginal minority without a cohesive political organization and so sans a considerable place in the government. But the war transformed the climate for this ethnic group. Led by People’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is a Syrian branch of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Syrian Kurds officially announced federal self-rule in the north in a bid to seize the chance of a power vacuum as the government was engaged in more than one front. Their federal system covered the three cantons of Kobani, Afrin, and Island. Once all of the eyed territories are united, the Kurds can rule over a wide region starting from Ain Diwar village in Hasakah province and continuing to the western borders with Turkey where Iskenderun region is located.
AS the crisis in the county unfolded, the Kurds in late January 2014 founded their first canton, dubbed Island, in an effort to formalize their self-rule. A week later, they announced the creation of Kobani and then Afrin cantons. Co-leadership system was adopted for the newly-created self-ruled areas, and each one got a 22-minister governing cabinet.
The Kurds in 2014 formed a resistant force in opposition to the ISIS terrorist group’s push to seize Kobani, saving the city from falling to terrorists’ hands. Their show of force caught the US attention and since 2015 they, under People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women Protection Units (YPJ), swept more territories in the north and elsewhere. They initially broke the ISIS-imposed Kobani blockade, and then pressed ahead to cleanse the south and southeast Hasakah province of ISIS fighters under a US-led air cover. They then took from ISIS Tell Abyad in Raqqa governorate, arranging a special position for themselves in a multi-sided, multi-fronted conflict. In mid-November 2015, the Kurds founded the Syrian Democratic Forces under the US support. Upon creation, the SDF advanced to Kobani area and then wrested Tishrin Dam in Manbij town in Aleppo province from ISIS control. The progression continuation finally put the SDF in control of strategic Manbij in August 2016.
The Kurds were not invited to the Geneva 3 peace talks held in March 2016. The snub prompted announcement of foundation of Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, or Rojava, on March 17. The announcement came following a meeting of a council of 200 people representing the Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians, and the tripartite cantons in the north. A 31-member leadership body was picked at the summit. Their triumphs came to a climactic point when the SDF reclaimed control of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate capital Raqqa on October 17.
Despite the sweeping victories in the past years, 2018 has been a year of drawbacks for the SDF, and Syrian Kurds as a whole. On January 20, the Turkish army launched its Operation Olive Branch in Afrin along with its Syrian Arab militant allies. The Kurds resisted 58 days before the city fell to Turkish forces on March 18. Afrin fall unleashed strong Kurdish criticism against Washington dealing with Ankara campaign and the failure to provide military assistance. The Kurds in Afrin case felt falling victim to American treason. But their mishaps did not end with Afrin seizure. On June 5, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said discussions between Washington and Ankara came out with a deal to remove SDF from Manbij. The Kurdish fighters, thus, pulled out of the city and moved to the east of Euphrates. Now, the Syrian Kurds are in a state of deep doubt about whether or not they should continue relations with the US.
Washington disloyalty raises need to review alliance with US-led coalition
The key drive behind the Kurds taking new approach is the US promise breakings, which to the Kurds mount to treason. Since late 2014, they rose to prominence as key US allies in a multi-fronted war, with many analysts labeling them as “US infantry in Syria.” But to their frustration, the Americans avoided helping them repel Turkey’s Afrin assault. And very recently, they fell victim to a Washington-Ankara deal on Manbij. Now, they appear to see a necessity to rethink their alliance with the coalition.
Saleh Muslim, the former PYD’s co-chair and the current foreign affairs director of Movement for a Democratic Society TEV-DEM, has recently told the German DPA news agency that “we hoped this would not happen, but what should not happen has happened.” He continued: “At the present circumstances, we have our own control and the US cannot decide for us. As the Americans have their own interests, we have our own. We are not slaves to anybody. So if our interests dictate, we will talk to and ally with any force, including Russia and the central government. Certainly, out relations with the US are not permanent and will change.” The remarks are interpreted that the Syrian Kurds have made up their mind about going their separate ways from Washington and being ready to negotiate with Damascus.
Turkish occupation poses existential threats
The Kurds are seeing threats in the Turkish seizure of the northern cities and also further deals with Washington. This motivates their drift to the central government. Saleh Muslim pointed to the Kurdish concerns in his interview with DPA, maintaining it took many Kurdish lives to retake Manbij from ISIS, but the US betrayed them and that the Kurds are worried about further American accords with Ankara at the Kurdish price.
“This was a big US cruelty, so there is every possibility of an agreement with Damascus.”
These words reflect strong Kurdish concerns about an existential threat. They fear that Ankara could wrest more territories from them and change their structure demographically.
Accepting Damascus rule for protection
Another reason for readiness to talk to the central government stems from recent battlefield developments. The Kurds have the conviction that in next stages they have to either accept Damascus rule or enter a fight against the Syrian army in a war in which their defeat is certain.
On the other side, according to the international laws, Damascus has every right to extend its rule over the whole Syrian territories. Negotiating with the government helps them survive the Turkish attacks and secure interests in the future Syria.