Top Kurdish politician calls for direct talks with Damascus
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is ready to have a direct dialogue with the Syrian regime in Damascus, a senior Syrian Kurdish leader said on Monday.
The leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which governs the AANES, Aldar Khalil, told Rojava TV that Damascus should be considered the de-facto representative of Syria on the global stage. As such, Khalil continued, discussions on the future of Syria should be held in Damascus rather than Geneva.
The AANES has carved out a largely-autonomous region in northeast Syria, comprising nearly a third of Syrian territory. It has instituted a largely Kurdish-dominated political system which is based on the principles of democratic confederalism. Its military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is the local partner force for the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat IS.
To Turkey, the Kurdish autonomous region is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s to establish an independent Kurdistan. Ankara has repeatedly stated that it considers the presence of the SDF on its southern border as a security threat.
Khalil’s comments come as rumours swirl about an imminent Turkish assault on AANES held-areas in northeast Syria. Media reports have pointed to troop movements by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and regime forces in northwest Syria as evidence that preparations are underway for an assault on northern Syria.
An article by Middle East Eye, citing unnamed sources, reported the existence of a Turkish-Russian deal wherein Turkey would seize Tal Rifaat and Kobane while Russia would be given the border town of Ariha.
Ariha has a large IDP population and is currently under the control of former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
No official sources have confirmed the existence of such a deal, and SNA spokespeople have denied that a Turkish military operation is imminent.
The US Defense Department Spokesperson, John Kirby, when asked about a potential incursion, said he had no knowledge on the subject. Kirby further added that the US works with SDF “specifically and solely on the ISIS threat in Syria.”
In October 2019, US troops withdrew from their positions in northeast Syria and Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring” offensive into AANES areas. The operation lasted just over a week and displaced around 250,000 people in the process.
In order to stop the advance of Turkish-backed troops, the AANES signed a deal with the regime. The agreement allowed regime soldiers to deploy along the Syria-Turkish border and outside major cities within Kurdish-controlled areas.
Shortly after signing the deal, Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF, penned an op-ed in Foreign Policy titled “If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people.”
The agreement with the regime launched a renewed round of negotiations between Damascus and the AANES regarding the latter’s status within Syria. Negotiations have largely stalled since, despite periodic attempts to revive them.
“PKK-Damascus relations have not changed a great deal, though they are in a kind of stasis because of the American presence,” Kyle Orton, an independent Syria researcher, told The New Arab.
“The negotiations have not progressed very far because the PKK still has the Americans to rely on – and governing a third or more of Syria is more attractive than returning to being an instrument in Assad’s foreign policy,” Orton said.
Syrian Kurds have historically experienced oppression under Baathist rule, with 2004 protests in northeast Syria ending in a bloody crackdown. When the AANES was founded in 2013, it was the realisation of long-time Kurdish ambitions for political autonomy within Syria.
Stuck between what some see as an unreliable partnership with the Americans and submission to Damascus, the AANES is hedging their bets. Accordingly, opinion among the leadership of the AANES as to the best path forward is not uniform.
One faction, which Khalil is a part of, prefers to reconcile with Damascus, while the other has insisted on maintaining autonomy and thrown its lot in with the US. A renewed Turkish military incursion could change this decision calculus, however.
“If Turkey launches another anti-PKK incursion it will increase the sense that the bet on the Americans is subject to diminishing returns,” Orton explained.