Kurds have bargaining chips in negotiations with Damascus
After nearly nine years of the crisis in Syria, the Kurds are finally sitting across the table from the Syrian regime to negotiate their future in the country.
Following the US letdown, the Kurds may seem not to possess enough cards to bring to the table but the cards they have are enough to allow them to obtain what they have been dreaming of since 1970, the year Hafez Assad rose to power.
We will not talk about the dream of a Kurdish state. The self-administration of the eastern Euphrates has always said that the Kurds are not looking for independence. So, let’s place the ceiling of their dreams at obtaining their own autonomous region like the Kurds of Iraq got in return for their cooperation with the United States in removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.
But Syrian President Bashar Assad has not fallen like Saddam and the Americans withdrew from Syria instead of occupying it. The Kurds have an old rivalry with the Iranians and the Turks. That leaves them only Russia, which has the upper hand in Syria, to sponsor their negotiations with the Assad government in Damascus or to negotiate with Moscow what they want from Damascus.
The Kurds’ first winning card is that they have the flexibility to negotiate everything. Their main purpose is to ensure their rights in the next Syrian state, regardless of what has happened and regardless of Assad’s continued presence in power.
The Russians want the Kurds to have equal rights and duties in the new Syria, not because the Russians are seeking fairness but because it is in their best interest. The Russians want to end the Syrian crisis in a way that ensures their presence in Syria for decades. They want to provide a good model for countries suspicious of Russia’s intervention in the region.
The Russians have a vision for a settlement of the Syrian crisis and they will negotiate with the Kurds within the framework of that vision, meaning they will not grant the Kurds specific advantages that they can’t offer other segments of the Syrian people.
So, if the Russians want to decentralise the country’s administration, then the northern provinces, like all the other provinces, would have autonomy in managing their financial and development affairs but would remain subordinate to Damascus in foreign affairs and defence.
The Russians may like some aspects of the current system of self-administration in the north and may decide to generalise them to the rest of Syria but the idea of shared power between Arabs and Kurds does not seem a valid recipe for this. If Russia wants to preserve Syria’s unity, power must go through the ballot box without any other considerations.
The Russians do not wish to talk about Assad’s fate but they want to draft a new constitution for the country leading to parliamentary and presidential elections. The Kurds can easily acquiesce to that, provided Moscow guarantees their participation in drafting the constitution and in the elections.
The Russians are not going to let go of the Syrian Democratic Forces military formations; those would come in handy in rebuilding the Syrian Army after removing its sectarian officers.
Kurdish intelligence could also be part of the deal between the Kurds and the Syrian regime, if the Russians bless it, but not before Damascus issues a general amnesty for all wanted political leaders and individuals in the north and releases Kurdish detainees who have been rotting for years in the regime’s jails on political charges.
The Russians also will have no qualms with preserving the cultural rights of Kurds and of other identities in Syria. Solutions to controversial issues in this regard can be found, as long as the proposals do not benefit one identity over the other. In other words, belonging to the Syrian state supersedes all other affiliations.
Another strong aspect of the Kurds’ negotiation cards is that they are not listed on any Russian or international terrorist lists. Their political or military formations have never been accused of religious extremism. The Kurds were keen to keep their regions free of suspicious religious manifestations and they did that by separating religion and politics, even before the revolution.
In negotiating with the Russians and Damascus, the Kurds can also put forth their participation in protecting US-controlled oil fields.
The Americans have not completely abandoned the Kurds, as some believe. The Americans left some back doors open to support the Kurds in cooperation with the European Union. This is important because the Kurds are guarding detention centres holding Islamic State fighters and have important files about the leaders of the organisation and its sleeper cells in Syria.
The Kurds will not go to the negotiating table with Damascus empty-handed. It is true they received a big blow after the Turkish aggression on their territory but they have not lost everything. What the Kurds are negotiating with the Russians is to reclaim their Syria, which had been stolen by Assad, not just from them but also from the millions of other Syrians across the country.