Syrian Kurds need their “roadmap”

While Manbij Roadmap has been agreed on by the historic allies, US and Turkey, the need for developing the similar“roadmap” for Syrian Kurds in Syrian war has become inevitable. No wonder that Kurds havegrown increasingly concerned with possible scenarios and choices that their strategic partner US will have to make if Turkey continues its intense diplomatic and military pressure.There is not much on the table for US to pick: either NATO member state and his strategic ally with whom the West gains a lot or Syrian Kurds, whose counterweight potential is much weaker. Uncertainty for Kurds further exacerbates when it comes to Washington’s position toward them. Trump’s America has ambiguous stance on Syrian Kurdish Rojava: while the President wants “to bring US troops back home” from Syria, the Defense Secretary Gen. Mattis thinks that leaving Syria will be “strategic blunder”.

What can the endgame for Syrian Kurds in eight-year devastating civil war really be? The possibility to create a new proto-state in the Kurdish controlled territory called Rojava is far weaker than someone can imagine. Rojava is a peripheral, sparsely populated, agricultural territory with strong historical dependency on the center, Damascus. While core of the great Kurdistan, Turkish and Iraqi parts have been desperately fighting for independence for decades, it is hard to believe that its Syrian part of moderate size and considerable development problems will succeed.Windows of opportunity for attainment of Kurdish goals are closing fastin light of the latest harsh opposition of regional actors – Ankara crashing Kurdistan Worker’s Party(PKK), Baghdad and Tehran suppressing Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) independence aspirations.

Rationally, the future of Syrian Kurds lies within the Syrian state. Increasing Turkish pressure on Rojava and years-long Turkish-KRG embargo will force Kurds to turn their vector to Damascus sooner or later, but with legitimate right to demand autonomous status from the center. Before the civil war Kurds used to live in precarious conditions. Under the Hafez Assad rule most of them were ripped from citizenship and numerous political rights. Nor were they able to fully follow their cultural traditions, use Kurdish language and celebrate religious holidays. Those kinds of policies remained unchanged during Bashar’s government. The living memory of the past instills fear in Kurds who now want to change the status quo. Kurds are determined not to give up their right ofself-determination and aspirations for an autonomy. Reaching that goal by recognizing all those rights would be a significant transformation and a game changer for the life of Kurds.

However, the recent events have demonstrated that Rojavans are willing to talk with Damascus to clarify a place of Kurds in post-war Syrian state. In June, Damascus sent a delegation to the northeastern city of Al-Qamishli, where they reportedly met with officials from the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). In response, SDC declared its readiness for unconditional talks with the Syrian government. Later senior official of Rojava governing coalition (TEV-DEM) Aldar Khalil underlined the importance of “Syrian-Syrian solution” and ceasing the conflict between the sides.

Damascus is willing to trade off rapprochement as well, but with no clear policy. Last year Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said they would not rule out negotiating with the Kurds over autonomy just after eliminating Daesh terrorist threat. But Assad rhetoric appears more aggressive. He called Kurds “traitors” who collaborate with the US army. In May he noted that Syrian government had “started opening doors for negotiations” but threatened to use force if negotiations over Syrian territory would collapse.But reality is different on the ground. YPG is one of the strongest forces in Syrian conflict with more than 60 000 experienced fighters, including their women’s armed group YPJ. Not even today but in upcoming future SAA cannot afford itself to fight against Kurdish forces, especially when its strongest ally Russia refuses direct military confrontation with Kurds. Attacking Kurds will not stay unanswered by the US-led Western coalition too.

However, for a settlement process to kick off, the parties need to have negotiation capacity, which is one of the strongest preconditions for launching talks. During the civil war Kurds remained neutral towards regime forces. There were almost no facts of collision between Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and YPG, aside from latest short clashes at certain places in Deir Ezzor province. Moreover, they had share common nemesis in the face of Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front. YPG forces asked SAA itself to help in containing Turkish intervention during Afrin Olive Branch Operation. According to different sources, Syrian Army assisted Kurds informally. Besides, central government continues to pay salaries to civil servants in Kurdish regions and provide social benefits over the period of civil war.

Negotiating with Kurds would give Damascus several political advantages. By doing so, it would delegitimize presence of those international forces on Syrian soil which are called occupants by the government and would take a huge step to further territorial integration of the country.At the same time a successful deal with Kurds would boost Assad’s legitimacy while it would undermine motivation of the rebel groups and intention of international actors to confront regime any longer.

If the formal negotiation between Damascus and Syrian Kurds is to take place, Russia can be the potential mediator. Russian side has capacity to directly talk to each side and maintain trust and confidence at the same time. Apart from hosting so called Kurdish embassy in Moscow, Russia used to coordinate airstrikes with the YPG and provide some financial aid as well.Moscow supports Kurdish representation on Astana and Sochi peace platforms regardless of the Turkish staunch opposition. In the process of redrafting the Syrian constitution Moscow considers establishing Kurdish autonomy as a key for complete reintegration of Syrian state.

Russia’s long-term goal in Kurdish case coincideswith that of Assad’s: consolidate the regime’s power and delegitimize US presence in Syria as well. Accomplishing these “to-do list“ tasks will be crucial for Russo-Syrian coalition in order to succeed in its military-political campaign.

Shota Tkhelidze
Shota Tkhelidze
Shota Tkhelidze is an analyst of international affairs at the Georgian Public Broadcasting (GPB), mostly focusing on the Middle Eastern politics. He holds an MA in International Relations from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland.