Kurdish overtures to Damascus ‘reach their conclusion’

Sipan Hemo, commander of the People’s Protection Units, secretly visited Damascus to cut a deal with Syrian officials.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Few options, if any. Fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) monitor an area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.  (AFP)
Few options, if any. Fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) monitor an area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. (AFP)

BEIRUT - “We disagree on the future of Syria but not about Syria itself, its borders and unity.” These were the words of Sipan Hemo, commander of the People’s Protection Units, who secretly visited Damascus on December 26, trying to cut a deal with Syrian officials that would avert — or defeat — an expected Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria. Three days later, he landed in Moscow for similar talks with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu.

Earlier in December, he appealed to the Syrian government through an interview with the London-based Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, asking for help to “protect the borders and lands of Syria,” adding: “We are ready for joint action against Turkey.”

Ever since US President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing US troops from Syria, Kurdish leaders have been racing against time, trying to find somebody to protect them from a Turkish onslaught. Even if the Americans extended their stay for weeks, months or even years, they were bound to pack up and leave at one point or another, given that their long-term military presence in Syria was unsustainable.

Bracing himself for that golden moment, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been preparing an operation that would uproot Kurdish separatists from strategic towns such as Kobane and Ras al-Ayn, similar as to how he raided Afrin last February, west of the Euphrates River, deep within Russia’s sphere of influence. The Russians did not lift a finger to help the Kurds, neither did the Americans nor the Syrians.

Damascus was originally reluctant to commit to any battle between the Turks and the Kurds. Both had carved out fiefdoms in Syrian territory, making use of the breakdown of the state since 2011. Government authorities privately joked that they welcomed a battle that would either rid them of Erdogan or the Kurds.

Last year, they declined to help the Kurds in the battle for Afrin, after Kurdish politicians rejected a proposal put forth by the Syrian government. The Syrians had asked for the full return of government agencies to all cities and towns held by the Kurdish militias since 2012, along with the surrender of all heavy arms and the raising of the Syrian flag.

Still hoping at the time that the Americans would come to their aid, the Kurds refused, offering only to surrender the demolished Arab city of Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State (ISIS), which they had liberated in 2017. That illusion has vanished.

They are making a new offer, saying that, in exchange for government help, they would dismantle their positions along the Syrian-Turkish border, handing them fully to the Syrian Army. A “rehearsal” was staged in the Arab city of Manbij last December, which has been held by Kurdish militias since its liberation from ISIS in June 2016.

Days before New Year’s, Syrian troops returned to the city, in collaboration with the Kurds. Ankara did not object — although it has been eyeing Manbij for three years — preferring to see Syrian troops in the city, rather than Kurdish militias.

The only person talking to all sides is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has seemingly hammered out a deal that would restrict the Turkish operations to countryside border villages and towns only, steering clear from major cities Hasakah, Qamishly and others, half of which are in the hands of the Syrian Army. This would keep Erdogan happy, expanding the buffer zone he has been carving out of Syrian territory since mid-2016, one that keeps both ISIS and the Kurds away from his borders.

The Kurds have been promised they would not to be eradicated in exchange for full cooperation with Moscow and Damascus. They would have to accept what they rejected last year: Surrender of heavy arms, border positions and all manifestations of statehood.

They would get to keep their light arms for the protection of their towns and be given a say over their future, through joining local councils — only under the watchful eye of the state, rather than independent of it.

All talk of independence or semi-autonomy would be scrapped but they would be able to use their language while protecting and promoting Kurdish culture, which had been a taboo topic prior to 2011.

Friends in Damascus would also get accommodated, given the chance to return to vast stretches of territory from where they have been absent since 2011. On January 9, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was upbeat, saying: “I feel that we must always be optimistic. The past experiences were not encouraging but now matters are reaching their conclusion. The conditions are favourable for them to return to the state!”

This is a far cry from a statement by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in September 2017, when he said that Kurdish calls for semi-autonomy were “negotiable.”