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Syria’s Kurds make their own pitch as Arab states court Assad

Syrian Kurds, whom Bashar al-Assad once labeled “traitors” and “collaborators,” now seek a new peace with the Syrian government.
Kurdish Syrians protest the death of victims reportedly killed in a Turkish drone bombing the previous day, on Nov. 10, 2021 in the Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.

As Arab governments and Turkey seek to mend fences with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the country’s Kurds have unveiled a new initiative to make peace with Damascus, saying that Western governments opposed to normalization should not stand in their way.

In a nine-point declaration made public on Tuesday, the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) affirmed its commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and said that it was ready to “meet and hold dialogue with the Syrian government and all Syrian parties for consultations and discussions to provide initiatives to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.” It emphasized that such efforts would not be at odds with floundering UN-led efforts to end the conflict. However, the document emphasized that “the solution to the Syrian crisis must be sought inside the country” — in other words, the Syrian Kurds would not be taking their cues from Western governments. Those lines were clearly intended for Assad, who accused the Kurds during a visit to the Kremlin last month of “working for a foreign power” and labeled them “traitors” and “collaborators.”

Since 2018, when Turkey invaded the mainly Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, part of an escalating campaign to roll back Kurdish gains, the Syrian Kurds have been in talks with Damascus. Russia has been driving the reconciliation, saying that only peace with Assad can spare them from further Turkish attacks. Assad and Russia want the Kurds to scotch their partnership with the United States. Turkey wants America to do the same, insisting that their fledgling statelet poses an existential threat to its national security.

The Kremlin’s sway grew following Turkey’s 2019 assault on a broad swath of territory under US protection that was greenlighted by then-President Donald Trump. The Kurds long blamed Assad for the lack of progress, saying his government refused to accede to even a single one of their demands.

Hopes that the United States would move beyond its security alliance forged in 2014 to combat the Islamic State have also proved empty. The Biden administration has made clear its intention to continue to deploy an estimated 900 US Special Forces in northeast Syria until the end of its current term. Yet diplomatic engagement with AANES, limited at the best of times, and its interest in Syria writ large have been steadily shrinking since Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. The shift was glaringly on display when the State Department and the White House failed to condemn Turkey when it narrowly — or deliberately — missed a top US ally, Mazlum Kobane, commander in chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in a drone strike on April 7 near Sulaimaniyah airport in northern Iraq. Three American military officials were in his convoy.

Badran Ciya Kurd, de facto foreign minister of the Kurdish-led administration, acknowledged in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor Wednesday that conflict in Ukraine coupled with Arab outreach to Assad had altered the calculus. “We want Syrian-to-Syrian dialogue. We want international actors, the White House, Russia to support this initiative that will bring stability and peace to Syria. Any international actor that puts pressure on us to stop this initiative means they are against a solution to the conflict,” Kurd said.

“It is the strongest statement made to date by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria that it is committed to dialogue with Damascus and making peace with Damascus, provided that it is not detrimental to Kurdish gains and to those granted to non-Kurdish groups living under AANES rule over the past decade,” said Arzu Yilmaz, an associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kurdistan - Hewler in Erbil. Yilmaz said that the message to the United States and international actors opposed to normalization with the Assad regime was, “If you don’t want us to normalize with the regime, what are you proposing instead? If you don’t have a concrete proposal, then stop getting in our way and play a constructive role.”

A State Department spokesperson speaking to Al-Monitor on background did not convey any overt objections to the AANES calls for dialogue with Damascus, plumping for diplomatic talking points instead. The official said, “We have seen this initiative and note it affirms the unity of Syria as the foundation for any political solution, in accordance with UNSCR 2254, which we believe remains the only viable solution to the conflict in Syria.” The official was referring to a 2015 resolution adopted by the UN that calls for a negotiated solution to the conflict through political dialogue between all the Syrian parties.

AANES representatives have been excluded from UN-sponsored talks in Geneva because of Turkey’s objections.

The official noted, “US efforts in Syria under the Biden administration are focused on stabilizing the situation in Syria with a proactive policy to maintain cease-fires, to ensure ISIS cannot resurge in the region and to expand humanitarian access while pursuing accountability measures.”

“These efforts are focused on helping Syrians find a more stable and secure life that fosters resilience to ISIS influence, while also establishing the conditions necessary to advance a political solution as outlined by UNSCR 2254,” the official concluded.

At a recent Al-Monitor event, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf appeared to suggest that the administration had softened its stance on outreach to Assad. “If you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that,” Leaf said. It’s unclear whether the Syrian Kurds will get anything.

Aron Lund, researcher with the Swedish Defense Research Agency and fellow with Century International, argued that the declaration was “an attempt by the administration’s leadership to get into the diplomatic game.” Lund told Al-Monitor, “They see there are political talks underway and they do not want to be left out of what might be an important political moment. Even if I don’t think anyone believes that there is a final peace deal on the horizon, the future trajectory of the conflict may be influenced by partial agreements and by the repositioning of international actors.”

Damascus has yet to formally respond to the declaration, which asserts that Syria’s resources, including oil and cash crops that lie mostly in areas under Kurdish control, be shared “fairly.” It also calls for Syria to adopt its “social, democratic and environmental model of government based on gender equality and environmental sustainability” as a blueprint for future governance. Most strikingly perhaps, it says the AANES is ready to receive millions of internally displaced Syrians and many millions more unwanted by host governments in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Kurd insisted that his administration was acting out of “humanitarian concerns.” However, it’s clear that the Syrian Kurds hope to lure Arab countries into diplomatic engagement by holding out the promise of relieving them of Syrian refugees. “It’s not necessarily something the Syrian government cares about as such, but having a place to stick returning refugees could come in handy in talks with other actors,” Lund said.

In exchange, the Arab countries, notably cash-rich Gulf monarchies, would ostensibly lobby the Assad government to grant the Kurds some rights. Helping limit Turkish and Iranian influence in Syria would be an added bonus.  

“The primary goal of the Arab countries is to get rid of the Syrians,” Kurd asserted.  

The UN, the Arab League, the European Union and other international donors would need to step up to help resettle the refugees, who would reside in the northeast temporarily until a final settlement was reached. “The regime’s mentality has not changed, so people are frightened to return to areas under its control,” Kurd added.

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