Syria's Kurds prepare for a future without the US

With Bashar Al Assad on edge of victory nation's Kurds have begun tentative negotiations with regime

FILE - In this Wednesday, April 4, 2018 file photo, a U.S. soldier sits on his armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. Even as President Donald Trump mulls a U.S. pullout, insisting that the Islamic State is “almost completely defeated,” the extremist group is showing signs of resurgence in Syria. Talk of a U.S. troop withdrawal has alarmed the Unites States’ main ally in Syria, the Kurds, who fought alongside the Americans to roll back the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
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For the past seven years, Syria's Kurds have maintained an uneasy truce with President Bashar Al Assad’s government. The differences between them have been overshadowed by greater threats.

But today, with ISIS all but defeated and the Syrian army in control of most of the country, those differences cannot be put aside any longer.

The two sides are tentatively beginning to address seemingly incompatible positions: Mr Al Assad's aim to recapture “every inch” of Syria, and a long-held Kurdish desire for decentralised government.

"The Syrian panorama is more clear now," Zozan Alloush, a senior member of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), told The National. "They recognise our power on the ground. Our people have sacrificed enough and we think now is the time to negotiate."

Late last month, representatives of the US-backed SDC – whose military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), controls 30 per cent of the country, travelled to Damascus to meet the government for the first time.

The meeting lasted an hour and a half and mostly covered the restoration of public services. But SDC officials said the government also agreed to "chart a roadmap to a democratic and decentralised Syria".

There has also been movement on the ground. In June, the local administration in the SDF-controlled city of Tabqa agreed to jointly run the city's dam on the Euphrates River with Damascus.

And last week, Syrian government officials took their first steps in Raqqa since 2013, at the invitation of the SDF, to collect the bodies of Syrian soldiers killed by ISIS.

The rapprochement represents a recognition by the government that the status quo formed during the civil war will continue, at least for now. But the question remains whether Mr Al Assad, who has repeatedly dismissed the idea of conceding any control, is serious about change.

"From a strategic perspective, a deal that gives the SDF areas of self administration in exchange for Damascus getting access to resources such as water, wheat, and oil makes sense," said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.

"But the view from Damascus is that decentralisation is a tactic to buy time for the regime to gather its strength and to put it in a position, eventually, to reassert full control over all areas of Syria."

In the chaos of the civil war, the Kurdish-dominated SDF emerged as the dominant power in the northeast and east of the country. The Syrian government was facing an uprising that threatened its very survival, and so it largely left the Kurdish majority areas to their own devices.

When the Kurds faced their own threat, in the form of an onslaught by ISIS, they gained a powerful friend in the US, which provided massive military support and a degree of political backing. This protection provided the Kurds cover to pursue a long-held dream of autonomy.

They declared the establishment of an autonomous federal system, which they hoped would outlive the war. They moved beyond a purely Kurdish nationalist project, setting up civil councils in majority Arab cities such Raqqa and Deir Ezzour, made up of tribal leaders – although many in majority Arab areas resent the dominant role of the Kurdish YPG in the SDF.


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But the last year has demonstrated that those gains are not guaranteed. Turkey invaded the SDF-held Afrin region in January, ostensibly to push out the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia which makes up the largest contingent of the SDF and which Ankara views as a terrorist organisation.

That the US could do little to stop the offensive, and that it had the tacit approval of Russia, also served as a reminder that the survival of the SDF project could not rely on outside help.

The election of Donald Trump gave the SDF more reason to be pragmatic. The US president has repeatedly spoken of his desire to withdraw roughly 2,000 American troops from the country. The uncertainty over exactly how long the US will remain in Syria was a major motivation for the Kurds' negotiations with the government.

"The SDF wants the Americans to stay as long as possible, which would allow them to strengthen its position even further and get an even better deal from Assad," said Mr Heras.  "The best Assad's government can do for the time being is talk to the SDF, offer it incentives to work more with the regime, and bide its time for when America decides it is done with the Syrian adventure."

The US has officially stayed silent on the talks, but behind the scenes there have been efforts to encourage the SDF to open the door to the Syrian government again.

Col Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, told The National that "there is still a lot of work and fighting to be done. However, a political solution will eventually have to be made and we understand the SDF's right to negotiate as they are Syrians."

He added that “discussions are still in the preliminary stage and too early for any decisions to be made”.

By agreeing to a deal while the US still has forces in Syria, the SDF hopes to strengthen the position on the ground: the longer the civil councils and decentralised system they created operate, the harder it will be to remove them.

SDF officials have been told by the coalition that they are in Syria for the long-term, but they are preparing for their exit nonetheless.

“We are not saying that if they go they are betraying us. We understand that they have their own interests. Nobody can stay in a land that is not theirs forever,” said Ms Alloush.

As far as the SDF is concerned, the negotiations with the government are a first step, and have no guarantee of success. But they are adamant that a return to direct government rule is out of the question.

“We are not the same people we were after all these years of revolution. No one can eliminate us," said Ms Alloush.

“Syria is divided, and the only way to make it a country again is to decentralise. These areas are out of the control of the regime. We are also out of the control of the regime,” she said.