Realistic Kurds seeking ‘honourable’ surrender in talks with Damascus

The Kurds are seeking assurances that they won’t be fed to the Turks by Damascus and Moscow.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Pragmatism trumps nationalism. Syrian Kurds march with a sign reading in Arabic “Afrin is the grave of Erdogan” in Al-Muabbadah in the north-eastern Hasakah province, last February.  (AFP)
Pragmatism trumps nationalism. Syrian Kurds march with a sign reading in Arabic “Afrin is the grave of Erdogan” in Al-Muabbadah in the north-eastern Hasakah province, last February. (AFP)

BEIRUT - A senior Kurdish delegation wrapped up a groundbreaking visit to Damascus in late July, aimed at gradually restoring the government presence to Kurdish territory east of the Euphrates River.

The delegation was headed by Ilham Ahmad, chairman of the executive board at the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. It included Ibrahim al-Qaftan, head of the Kurdish Future Party, and representatives from the cities of Manbij, Raqqa, Kobane and Qamishli.

The Syrians are demanding a full return of government agencies to all cities and towns in the north-east, the reopening of government schools and police stations and raising of the Syrian flag. The battle of Idlib is going to happen, the Kurds were told, with or without them.

The talks also focused on restoring government services — such as water and electricity and fixing the Euphrates Dam — to the Kurdish territories and returning the civil registrar of all towns and cities, from birth certificates and marriage documents to death notices, which were shipped off to Damascus seven years ago.

The Kurds are demanding the right to keep their weapons and militias, marketing themselves as the most effective fighters in the war on terror and asking that none of them gets deported to faraway cities and towns, such as what happened with other fighters since the Russians entered the battlefield in September 2015.

No agreement has been reached but the second round of talks is expected this month. Driven by need and pragmatism, the Kurds are seemingly ready for a negotiated settlement and are trying to reach one with maximal face-saving, seeing that neither their statehood project nor their federal government was going to see the light, obstructed by all stakeholders concerned: the Russians, the Turks, the Iranians and the Americans.

Although still a recipient of US arms, many Kurds have started a steady and very conscious shift towards the Russians, despite criticism within the Kurdish community at Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria. They don’t trust the Russians much, especially after Moscow didn’t lift a finger to prevent a Turkish onslaught on the city of Afrin in February, lying within Russia’s sphere of influence in Syria. Many had expected the Russians to protect Afrin from the Turks but argue that Afrin was given to the Turks in exchange for Russian and Syrian victory in Eastern Ghouta.

More recently, there has been talk of a Turkish offensive targeting Kurdish warriors who fled Afrin to villages north of Aleppo. They fear that a wider offensive will be signed off on by the Kremlin, given recent battlefield agreements between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Interestingly, Damascus is playing along, willing to grant certain concessions to the Kurds, provided they don’t lead either to separation or to autonomy. Kurdish schools are negotiable, they were told, and so is the right to use the Kurdish language.

Raising the bar, the Kurds asked for a share of their region’s wealth, given that Kurdish territories produce 70% of the country’s wheat, 75% of its hydrocarbons and oil comes from regions under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The Kurds are also demanding an elected municipality and governor, rather than having both appointed by the central government in Damascus. That, too, has been seemingly ok’d, with the government certain that it can control the vote and infiltrate any elected Kurdish body.

Confidence building is now being tested between the two negotiating sides, with the Kurds seeking assurances that they won’t be fed to the Turks by Damascus and Moscow — assurances, it seems, that are supposed to be decided in future talks.

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