Assad and the future of northern Syria

Syriaʹs Kurds hold the cards

International politics are subject to strange twists and turns. As Middle East expert Neville Teller writes, with a shared enemy and perceived advantages from co-operation, the outcome of current negotiations between the Syrian Democractic Council and Damascus could well be a continued Assad presidency, sustained by Kurdish support

Formed in 2015, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) is the political wing of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which controls north-eastern Syria. Kurdish forces have fought the Syrian military on several occasions during the 7-year civil war, but the SDC has clearly begun to seek better relations with the Assad regime. On 27 July 2018, in response to an invitation from the Syrian government, a delegation of the SDC arrived in Damascus to hold direct talks – its first official visit to the Syrian government.

There are several other signs of this shift in political direction. A few weeks ago the SDC announced that, as part of ongoing efforts to reach a "democratic" solution to the crisis in Syria, it intends to open an office in Damascus. And the day before the SDC delegation travelled to the Syrian capital, it announced that Kurdish forces were ready to join any military operation by government forces in the northern governorate of Idlib aimed at retaking the Kurdish area of Afrin. Afrin was captured by Turkish-backed troops in March 2018, as part of a drive by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to prevent the Kurds from dominating Turkey’s southern land border.

North-eastern Syria, although suffering the effects of current Turkish efforts to destabilise the region, as well as the consequences of past Islamic State (IS) occupation, is under Kurdish administration. Known as Rojava, the area covers some 27 percent of what used to be sovereign Syria. There is, therefore, a pragmatic political rationale for both Assad and the SDC to seek an accommodation.

Kurdish autonomy: quid pro quo

In bringing Rojava under Syrian government administration, Assad, who now controls some 58 percent of old Syria, would effectively be regaining some 85 percent of pre-civil war Syrian territory. As for the Kurdish administration in Rojava – known since 2012 as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) – they are not seeking independence, but a degree of autonomy.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem speaks during a press conference on 12 March 2016 in Damascus (photo: Getty Images/AFP/L. Beshara)
Advantages to accommodating the Kurds: although the Syrian government has not formally recognised the DFNS or the validity of its elections, Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said last September that his country was open to the idea of greater powers for the country’s Kurds. They "want a form of autonomy within the framework of the borders of the state, " he said. "This is negotiable and can be the subject of dialogue"

They perfectly understand that if Assad decides to grant it, a huge chunk of territory would be placed under government control but, just as important, Assad’s regime in general and himself as its president, would acquire substantial additional political support – and that Assad will need all the support he can muster, if Russian and UN pressure forces a presidential election on him as part of a peace deal. In short, both parties stand to gain from an accord.

The 2 million Kurds in Syria, accounting for 15 percent of the population, had aspired before the civil war to nothing more than a degree of autonomy – an aspiration always denied them. Under the regime of the two Assads systematic discrimination and repression was mainly their lot. Some 300,000 were denied citizenship and deprived of fundamental rights. Although revolts occasionally erupted, they were quickly crushed.

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