The news last week, reported by the daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, went largely unnoticed, despite its importance. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the powerful alliance in the northeast of Syria formed by Kurdish and Arab fighters, armed and trained by the United States, have said they were ready to start talks with the government in Damascus and President Bashar al-Assad.
It is a highly significant development, although not an unexpected one. It comes as a direct result of obvious political and strategic considerations given the current situation in the country, and, in addition, as a reaction to the green light given by the Trump administration to Turkish expansionism and the offensive launched by Ankara earlier this year against Afrin.
The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, has said it was willing to start “unconditional talks” with the Syrian government, and that they are committed to taking part in a negotiated solution to end the conflict.
In a statement to the AFP on behalf of the SDC and SDF, Hekmat Habib confirmed that they “are serious about opening the door to dialogue” with Damascus. “With the SDF’s control of 30 percent of Syria, and the regime’s control of swathes of the country, these are the only two forces who can sit at the negotiating table and formulate a solution to the Syrian crisis.”
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and that pushed the Kurds, or at least a large part of them, to say they were ready for dialogue with the central government was the agreement reached by Washington and Ankara for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Manbij. This agreement provided for both Turkish and US forces (at least 2,000 men, according to some sources) to patrol the cities of northern Syria and the border areas, even though it had been the SDF which had wrested them from under ISIS control in 2016, at the end of an offensive in which the SDF took heavy losses.
This agreement was seen as a betrayal of the Kurdish aspirations toward autonomy that the US had previously made clear they wanted to help them achieve, at least in part. However, right after ISIS collapsed in Iraq and Syria, thanks in part to the sacrifice of Kurdish fighters, the Trump administration immediately chose to bend to Turkey’s wishes instead—a NATO member—in order to appease the tensions with Ankara that had been growing in recent years.
The interview that Assad gave last month to the Russian RT television network also played a part in laying the groundwork for a possible opening of official talks between the Kurds and the central government. Employing both the carrot and the stick, the Syrian president gave a sort of ultimatum to the SDF fighters: “We started opening doors for negotiations—because the majority of them are Syrians. And supposedly they like their country, they don’t like being puppets to any foreigners,” Assad said. Otherwise, the government would resort to the liberation of those areas by force, since “this is our land, it’s our right, it’s our duty to liberate [these areas], and the Americans should leave. Somehow, they’re going to leave.”
If negotiations start in earnest between the SDC-SDF and the government concerning the status of Rojava and northern Syria, this could open a path toward a real solution for Syria.
One should also take into account that the government’s armed forces, having taken control of the southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus, are now engaged in rooting out the myriad Jihadist and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups from the south of the country, who have had control over this area for years.
Damascus will be ready to launch a broad military campaign once they manage to push out the ISIS militants who still have control over the city of Sweida. The Syrian army is also strengthening its air defense systems near the Golan Heights, deploying the Pantsir Russian anti-aircraft system, which will be able to counter Israeli air raids more effectively.