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US wants Kurdish groups to reconcile in eastern Syria

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Abdul Karim Mohammed of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria talked about the US initiative to bring disputing Kurdish parties in eastern Syria closer together, with the ultimate goal of preventing the return of the Islamic State.
Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) take part in a military parade as they celebrate victory over the Islamic state, in Qamishli, Syria March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said - RC1E6CB8BBB0

The Kurdish public in Syria is divided into two rival camps whose relations, without mediation, would be heading toward a complete rupture. The United States and France are working to provide that mediation, hoping to create a unified political and administrative Kurdish body. 

Syria's Kurdish National Council (KNC/ENKS), which includes a number of Kurdish parties and representatives of youth, women and independent parties, aims to create a constitutional Kurdish national entity in Syria. The KNC is a member of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and has a strong alliance with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq headed by Massoud Barzani. 

The KNC’s rival on the Syrian scene is the nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has close ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PYD formed the self-administered area in northern Syria, which includes Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian parties. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the PYD is part, is a member of the international coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in northern Syria. 

But so far, the Syrian opposition has rejected any attempt by the PYD to join it because of their dispute over the future of Syria. The opposition accuses the Kurdish party of being against the Syrian revolution. 

The conflict among Kurds in Syria revolves around ideology and politics. One camp, represented by the PKK and PYD, says the revolutionary struggle seeks to promote the rights of Middle East peoples and to establish a democratic nation based on the brotherhood of the people. 

The KNC is in the second camp and proposes a national project to peacefully achieve Kurdish rights under a Syrian federal government. The second camp includes the KDP in Iraq.

Concern about the Kurdish situation in Syria is growing amid fears of Turkish intervention, the return of the Syrian government to the north, the escalation of the Kurdish-Kurdish conflict and a potential direct confrontation. This is especially true in light of looting, robberies and slayings in Afrin by armed groups loyal to Turkey — namely, the Sultan Murad Division, the Hamza Division, Sham Legion, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Ahrar al-Sham, the Mountain Hawks Brigade, al-Jabhat al-Shamiya and Jaish al-Nasr. 

Meanwhile, in the area east of the Euphrates, international pressure is mounting for a Kurdish-Kurdish rapprochement. In mid-May, representatives of the US administration and the US-led international coalition met with a KNC delegation at the Kharab Ashk US military base at Kobani in northern Aleppo province.

The KNC delegation included leaders of three parties: Abdul Karim Mohammed, a member of the political bureau of the KDP in Syria; Fasla Youssef, secretary of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party; and Naamat Daoud, secretary of the Kurdish Democratic Equality Party in Syria.

The KNC has announced it is committed to the initiatives proposed by the United States, France and the international coalition.

France is working to achieve Kurdish-Kurdish rapprochement. During a KNC delegation's visit to Paris in April, France called for resolving the Kurdish situation east of the Euphrates and signing inter-Kurdish agreements in Syria. By doing so, Paris is trying to prevent a Turkish intervention east of the Euphrates. Paris and Ankara aren't on good terms, because France rejected Turkey's request to join the European Union, and commemorated the Armenian Genocide this year.

So far, no results or official statements from the talks have been issued.

Sources told Al-Monitor that the meetings focused on the importance of establishing communication channels between Kurdish parties and finding common ground to overcome differences. The concerned parties also discussed ways to achieve reconciliation between the KNC and its rival PYD, which leads the self-rule administration.

The sources added that more meetings will be held. The US delegation, they said, is working to ensure security in the buffer zone in northern Syria and fend off threats by Turkey and the Syrian government. 

As a sign of good faith, the KNC also announced that it will suspend its hostile discourse in the media against the PYD, which in return agreed to the initiative.

For a closer look at the initiatives and meetings, the KDP's Mohammed spoke with Al-Monitor earlier this month in the city of Qamishli.

Al-Monitor:  The US military base in Kharab Ashk in Kobani hosted two meetings between the KNC and representatives of the US administration. What were the results and what's in store for the future? Who attended the meetings and to what extent did the council benefit from them?

Mohammed:  We met twice over the past three months. The first meeting included from the US side, William Roebuck [senior adviser to the US-led coalition] and diplomat James Jeffrey, and was held in February. … At the time, IS was close to total collapse. The second meeting was different because it was held in mid-May at the headquarters of the US Department of State in Kobani, and included the head of the political division in Jeffrey’s office and representatives from the US-led international coalition and the US administration. The meeting came after the fall of IS in Baghouz was announced in March. The goal of the meeting was to establish political arrangements in leading the region, to agree on the situation east of the Euphrates, to set trust-building strategies among the different elements, and to regulate the reconstruction of the area east of the Euphrates. 

Al-Monitor:  How will the KNC and the KDP in Syria agree on a new administration and political partnership to govern the Kurdish area in Syria? As a council that is also part of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces — which refuses to work with the KDP and describes it as a spy for the Syrian government — don’t you think a political agreement with the KDP would affect the [influence] of the council within the negotiations committee, the parliamentary committees and future elections?

Mohammed:  We are aiming for a new administration. This time, it would be backed by the international coalition and the US Department of State. The UN bureaus will play a major supervisory role. These would be the same ones that oversee the Geneva talks, the constitutional committee, and the negotiations committee. For this reason, any agreement between the two Kurdish sides would be under the supervision of the parties we mentioned here. The KNC’s link to the opposition does not present a problem. Now, each party has to determine a position as it sees fit.

Al-Monitor:  Treaties often involve conflicting countries of heavy political influence and significance. A meeting between the KNC presidency and Jeffrey was held in Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and the KNC met with officials from the State Department in Washington. Also, the KNC met to discuss the French initiative, while another meeting was also held with Jeffrey in Kobani. What is the significance of the meetings happening in the remote region of Kobani? 

Mohammed:  We don't deny the previous meetings with different external actors. The Kurdish people have also previously signed three agreements among each other, but it's important to have a side that could guarantee such agreements. [Those] agreements had direct support from Barzani, but the PYD did not commit.

When the guaranteeing side is a power like the US, the agreement has more weight. This was the case of the Dohuk agreement signed in 2014, which called on the Kurdish parties to work jointly on the military, political, security and diplomatic levels. The agreement succeeded at first and the peshmerga [Kurdish militia] forces reached Kobani and participated in the fight against IS as per the Dohuk agreement. 

We held a meeting in the headquarters of the US Department of State east of the Euphrates, in the presence of the leadership [of the anti-IS coalition]. Those working internally in line with the US vision are the most capable of executing and making decisions at the field level. We are ready to implement the outcomes of the US sponsorship and to work on their successful execution. We are also working on meeting the demands of the Kurdish people and other internal elements.

Al-Monitor:  The KNC is asking for the involvement of the council's military wing, the peshmerga, in Rojava [the autonomous but unrecognized Kurdish province in Syria] — in leading the region and exercising control over it. Information was being leaked to the media saying that the US administration wants to involve the SDF in an attack on [Iranian militia] — which the SDF denied. If that happens, will the peshmerga be involved in the attack? How would this affect the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, especially since the pershmerga trained under the KDP in Iraq?

Mohammed:  We have always called for the return of the peshmerga so that their forces could help protect and govern the safe zone east of the Euphrates. The peshmerga is one of the institutions of the KNC, and we are committed to it as it has been trained directly under the KDP of Iraq. It was reformed to protect the national Kurdish existence and ideology and protect the region from terrorism, especially after the major role they played in fighting IS in Iraqi Kurdistan, which the international coalition witnessed. However, we won't participate in any war outside of our areas, and we won't sign any agreement that would jeopardize the rights of the Kurdish people. The peshmerga is here to protect the region, not to participate in external wars.

Al-Monitor:  The PYD said it has lost 12,000 martyrs and fought IS with the help of the international coalition forces. It also said the KNC sacrificed nothing to protect the region. On what grounds are you asking for a 50/50 partnership?

Mohammed:  We can't deny that a great number of martyrs from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) [PYD’s armed wing] or the peshmerga competently fought terrorism. The [concept of a] 50/50 deal is now gone because the new administration … will include all elements and parties, not just two. It's time to think beyond who has the priority to rule. The important thing is to fight IS ideology, include all components, and stabilize the region. After that, the region will hold internationally sponsored transparent elections, and their results will be decisive. However, I think that the US will intervene to determine the parties’ participation in the rule.

Al-Monitor:  There is some opposition to Kurdish dialogue and political partnership. For example, KNC supporters feel strongly because they were oppressed, arrested and beaten by the PYD and its followers under the self-administration rule. KNC supporters were even banned from practicing political work in the area. They feel they were the only ones who paid the price with blood. So, how will you reach an agreement? 

Mohammed:  We can't get rid of the noise caused by our opponents. Such attitudes exist everywhere. In fact, the region would have seen Kurdish-Kurdish or opposition-government agreements years ago, were it not for such people. Saving the region from any potential IS return is what matters now. We need to make sure this ideology is eradicated. We need to protect our region, otherwise, we will have the same fate as the bloodiest regions. Dialogue must reign, as it is for the people's benefit.

Al-Monitor:  What if the Kurdish-Kurdish agreement fails? What is the future of Kurdish-Kurdish relations amid the mutual popular tension between both sides and the nature of the international pressure? 

Mohammed:  I think the level of opposition will be low. In the same house, members support different parties. Some families have peshmerga members and YPG members. This is why, just like families, we care about preserving a cohesive society and preventing divisions. Usually, it's the ruling elite that is in conflict. If we have political agreements, the region will enjoy more social cohesion and will greatly improve the popular base. International efforts push in this direction because any future conflict will not only involve parties, but also members of the same household. So, a disagreement could lead to the entire collapse of the Kurdish family. 

Al-Monitor:  We hear a lot about France and the US pushing for a Kurdish-Kurdish rapprochement. Are their positions and interests in the region conflicting and why are they seeking inter-Kurdish rapprochement? 

Mohammed:  We haven't been pressured by France. The French are only trying to mediate for dialogue and rapprochement. The US, meanwhile, aims to establish a shared administration east of the Euphrates under direct UN supervision. There is no conflict between the US and French interests, although the US is the greatest power in the region, especially when it comes to the fight against IS. I don’t think anyone can function without dealing with the US.

Al-Monitor:  In your meetings, did you ask for Afrin to be returned to its [displaced] people and for giving them governance? Are there promises to drive out the armed opposition forces? [Afrin is currently controlled by Turkish and rebel forces.]

Mohammed:  In both meetings, Afrin was considered an essential Kurdish part. No dialogue should be held without finding a solution to the issue of its occupation, especially since there is a serious demographic change within. Almost every week, there are cases of murder, kidnapping and ransom requests. The original Kurdish people are being kicked out and attempts to help strangers settle instead of original residents are happening. This is a crime against humanity. We demand the return of local people to their homes, the expulsion of strangers and the prosecution of criminals.

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