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As Syria constitution talks kick off, is Kurdish administration 'finished'?

As representatives from Syria's government, opposition and civil society meet in Geneva to draft a new constitution for the war-torn country, Al-Monitor spoke with French academic Fabrice Balanche on prospects for the talks.
U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen talks with Ahmad Kuzbari, co-chair for the Syrian Government, and other members ot their delegation after the first meeting of the new Syrian Constitutional Committee at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse - RC145F453450

Some 150 delegates representing Syria’s government, opposition and various civil society groups convened in Geneva today to draft a new constitution for their country after more than eight years of devastating civil conflict. The UN, which is overseeing the talks at the Palais de Nations, insists that they will be “Syrian owned and Syrian led,” yet it's an open secret that Russia, Iran and Turkey hold most of the cards.

UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen in his opening remarks stressed that the talks needed to uphold the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a political transition process that would establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” together with a new constitution and free and fair elections. The resolution was adopted nearly five years ago, and there has been virtually no progress recorded in achieving any of its goals. 

Pedersen acknowledged the difficulties today. “I know that it's not easy for you all to be here together in this room. The fact that you are here today sitting together face to face, ready to start a dialogue and negotiations, is I believe a powerful sign for Syrians everywhere."

Syrian government co-chair Ahmad Kuzbari used his time to praise the heroism of the Syrian army and said its “battle to protect the state” had been legitimate.

Syrian opposition co-chair Hadi al-Bahra responded, “Terrorism cannot be stopped with terrorism. The memory of 1 million victims must guide us out of this dark tunnel."

The largest Kurdish-led Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Democratic Council, is not present because of Turkey’s objections to its supposed links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging an armed campaign inside Turkey. 

The talks are open-ended and their outcome will depend in large part on what Russia, Iran and Turkey can agree upon, rather than what the constitutional committee members themselves say.

The three countries, all of which have boots on the ground, have been legislating Syria’s future through the so-called Astana process, launched in 2017. Foreign ministers from all three countries met with Pedersen on Tuesday and issued a communique reminding everybody who is really in charge.

The Astana agreement has effectively allowed the regime to reclaim territory held by Turkish-supported rebels in so called “de-escalation zones” and its next target is the northwestern province of Idlib, where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jihadis have yet to be dislodged and Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed over the weekend in a US raid.

In exchange, Turkey has been allowed to pursue the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) who are linked to Kurdish rebels fighting the Turkish army within Turkey. The YPG dominates the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the United States’ top partner in the battle against IS. The SDF suffered a dramatic reversal when President Donald Trump ordered US troops to pull back from the Turkish border in the northeastern chunk of Syria it jointly ran with the Kurds, paving the way for Turkey’s Oct. 9 offensive.

Trumps actions have been called a betrayal. Congress is pushing back with a slew of resolutions to punish Turkey. Trump has since reversed course, saying large numbers of US troops will remain in Deir Ez-Zor to protect the oil there. But the truth is that the United States has lost much of its leverage and credibility in Syria and will have little say over the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva. 

Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor at University Lyon II who has long studied and traveled across Syria, predicted this outcome at least two years ago. He said then that the US-Kurdish alliance was not sustainable and that US forces would ultimately be forced to leave Syria. He does not believe that they will be able to remain for much longer in Deir Ez-Zor, either. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Balanche called US plans to control oil fields in Deir Ez-Zor “rubbish.”

The French academic was in Raqqa when Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies invaded the areas lying between the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad and pressed on toward the M4 highway to truncate the Kurdish-controlled zone that previously stretched from the east of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border and was protected by US forces.

Balanche had labeled Tell Abyad, an Arab-majority town that the YPG seized from IS in June 2015 with US support, “the Kurds’ Achilles heel,” predicting that Turkey would target it first in its long-threatened assault against the Syrian Kurds. 

Al-Monitor asked Balanche what he thought would happen next. Here are the highlights of today’s interview, which was lightly edited for clarity.

Al-Monitor: What will be the outcome of the constitutional committee talks? 

Balanche: Nothing. In order to get anything accepted, they need 75% of the participants to agree. The opposition will effectively have to either accept or not what the regime wants. The regime controls roughly a third of the civil society representatives, so they have more of a say. The opposition is fractured. And it's mostly Turkish supported. Turkey has the power on the opposition side. The so-called Geneva process is now the Astana process. That’s the hard reality.

Al-Monitor: What would it take for Turkey to use its influence to allow the talks to succeed?

Balanche: Russia has to offer Turkey a carrot of some kind. It would have to get the regime to agree to some kind of opposition representation in the government. That was what Turkey was pushing for before the conflict began. Without Turkey, it's impossible for the regime to win back enough territory to meaningfully reassert its control. All the opposition weapons and fighters were coming through Turkey. In the spring of 2017, for example, it was only after Turkey told the rebels to stop fighting regime forces in Hama that the regime was able to retake Bukamal [also known as Abu Kamal] and Mayadeen. The same dynamic was in play in Aleppo when it fell in 2016.

Al-Monitor: What will happen to Idlib? 

Balanche: The regime will take it back in the coming months and Turkey will be permitted to keep a chunk in the north to accommodate some 1 million people fleeing the area who would otherwise try to enter Turkey. The official excuse for the Turkish presence will be to protect the Turkmen minority there and the Russians will force the regime to accept.

Al-Monitor: Why would Russia do that? Doesn’t it want Turkey to eventually leave?

Balanche: Not necessarily. The Turkish presence gives the Russians leverage over the regime. It's somewhat similar to Moscow’s strategy in the Caucasus where you have frozen conflicts over disputed territories. Russia plays the “useful mediator” between the occupied and the occupiers. Russia also doesn’t want Turkey to leave northern Syria because it sees Turkey as its Trojan horse within NATO. For as long as Turkey is in Syria its military cooperation with Russia has to continue.

Al-Monitor: Iran, though, is fiercely opposed to a prolonged Turkish presence.

Balanche: Yes, because Turkey is a NATO member. And in Iran’s view Turkey could yet flip, that is to say it could resume cooperation with the US in Syria. That is why they have been telling the Kurds to sit down with the regime and they are telling the regime to be smart, to not seek revenge from the Kurds but rather to do "as we do with our own Kurds. Let them speak their language. Let them celebrate Nowruz [the Kurdish new year]. All they want is equality. And don’t try to use the [pro-regime] Arabs to fight the Kurds. The Kurds could then join the [Turkish-backed] opposition." It was the Iranians who facilitated the recent rapprochement between the regime and Syrian Kurds, resulting in the agreement at the airport in Qamishlo [the Oct. 13 agreement struck between SDF commander Mazlum Kobane and the Syrian government, which allowed regime forces and Russian military police into areas along the Turkish border that were previously controlled by Kurdish forces.] The Russians tried the same thing and failed.

Al-Monitor: It doesn’t seem, though, like the SDF or Mazlum Kobane are ready for the sort of capitulation that the regime is demanding. They say that their cooperation with the United States is continuing. They are calling for a coalition enforced no-fly zone to protect them from the Turkish army.

Balanche: The Kurds have no other choice. If they don’t let the Syrian army retake the remaining cities, the Russians will allow the Turks to continue shelling and attacking them. The YPG and the SDF will forces will be reintegrated into the Syrian Arab Army. It will take weeks, months, but that is what will happen. They would make very nice border guards against Turkey, as the regime sees it. As for the PKK cadres in their midst, they will need to go back to Qandil [the PKK’s mountain headquarters on the Iran-Iraq border]. And as for Mazlum, there is no future for him in Syria. He is no longer important and Turkey has asked for his head. They will try to kill him. Kobane’s best future is in America. Northeast Syria is finished. The Kurdish authority is finished.

Al-Monitor: But the US says it will stay to guard and exploit the oil fields together with the Kurds in Deir Ez-Zor. The US and the SDF have vowed to continue their cooperation against IS.

Balanche: That is rubbish. First of all, ordinary Kurds are very angry about the American betrayal. The YPG protected the Americans in the Kurdish-dominated areas very well. But it's a different story in Arab-populated areas. The Arab militias of the SDF are unable to do that because they are SDF during the day and Daesh during the night [Daesh is the Arab acronym for IS]. Deir Ez-Zor is the kingdom of Daesh. You have no foreigners left there since the spring of 2018 because it's too dangerous. The US will have to move out of all of its remaining bases in northern Syria, including Rmeilan. It's very easy for IS cells to target US forces if they want. And Turkey just made it much easier. 

Al-Monitor: You mean by invading Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Balanche: Yes. Before the Turkish invasion you had checkpoints throughout the region, one every 20 kilometers [12 miles]. After the Turkish invasion the SDF/YPG abandoned the checkpoints to fight the Turks. So IS began to move freely. When I traveled to Qamishlo from Amude on Friday, Oct. 11, there were no checkpoints and Daesh set off a car bomb in the city. The Daesh cells have been reactivated by the Turkish offensive. Many of these cells are in contact with Turkish proxies [opposition rebel factions fighting alongside the Turkish army under the Syrian National Army banner]. The guys in Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad are former Daesh fighters. The first thing they did was to bomb the Ain Issa camp [where IS families were held] and you had the mass [escape] of 800 jihadists. Most of these people are now under the protection of pro-Turkish Arab militias and are in Tell Abyad.

Al-Monitor: Aren’t they a big threat to Europe? 

Balanche: The Europeans and the French who I talk to are denying reality. The French went to Baghdad to make a deal with the Iraqi government for them to take French nationals [among captured IS fighters] but it's too late. The only solution is for the Syrian government to re-establish its authority in all those areas, to take charge of these prisoners and for an international tribunal to try them all in Damascus. The Syrian Kurdish administration in northern Syria no longer exists. 

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