Two women walk past a huge billboard bearing a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the capital Damascus. Photo: AFP / Louai Beshara

Even after an Islamic State-claimed attack ripped through the Syrian city of Manbij on Wednesday, killing four American servicemen, the Trump administration stuck to its guns on a planned withdrawal. 

“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Vice-President Mike Pence told American ambassadors gathered in Washington, hours after the attack.

In anticipation of the pullout, plans were in motion for Syrian government troops to enter areas long held by US-backed Kurdish forces, and for those Syrian Democratic Forces to retreat east of the Euphrates River.

The two sides have decided to set aside their differences in order to fill in the anticipated gap left behind by the Americans and to work shoulder-to-shoulder against both Islamic State and Syrian factions on the Turkish payroll.

Writing on the wall

The handwriting for a Syrian-Kurdish rapprochement has been on the wall since last year, when the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offered to surrender the cities of Hassakeh and Raqqa to Syrian troops, if Damascus sent reinforcements to protect Afrin from a Turkish onslaught. 

Trips by SDF officials to the Syrian capital continued over the course of the year, culminating in a December visit by a commander of the People’s Protection Units, Sipan Hamo. He again extended a working hand, on condition that the Syrian military would help them ward off an expected Turkish offensive against the border cities of Ras al-Ayn, Kobani, and Tel Rifaat, where Ankara claims Kurdish fighters from Afrin have been hiding since last February.

Multi-faceted talks are presently underway between Damascus and the Kurds, with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad 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 favorable for them to return to the state.”

“I feel that we must always be optimistic. The past experiences were not encouraging but now matters are reaching their conclusion. The conditions are favorable for [the Kurds] to return to the state.”

—Syrian deputy FM, Faisal Mekdad

That means surrendering heavy arms to the government while agreeing to keep their light arms to ward off any aggression, whether from the Turks or ISIS.

It also means allowing government agencies to re-enter Kurdish held territory, in addition to the administration of schools, hospitals and police stations.

Having run a semi-autonomous zone for years, the Kurds expect the right to open branches of their political parties throughout the rest of Syria and to promote their language, culture and music, in addition to running their own schools.

Finally, they are aiming to elect their own governors and municipal councils, without having either imposed from the central government in Damascus.

This is all easier said than done. Once the talks conclude and reach an executional level, initial agreements are likely to hit a series of brick walls. 

Issues to iron out

The two sides are in agreement that light arms should remain in the hands of the Kurds, to protect their cities and towns from Turkish advances or an ISIS rebound. But Damascus insists any military action must be made in cooperation with the Syrian military, rather than independent of it. 

There is no agreement yet on whether their mandate would be only to police and patrol cities or to shoot as well. Who gives the final order in times of battle? Will it be the Syrian government or local Kurdish authorities?

Damascus insists the Kurds should remain fully subordinate in any upcoming operation, even if it is against Turkish proxies. And if the line of command is breached, how will punishment and accountability be achieved?

There is no understanding as to how these light arms will be distributed and inventoried. Will they remain the property of the Kurdish parties or be under the authority of the Syrian military?

The Kurds are also demanding the right to maintain their own schools. In return, they would not object to the re-opening of government schools throughout territories presently held by them and the Americans.

Even if the government eventually agrees to this concession, however, they will never subsidize these schools from government funds and nor will they agree to put them on an equal footing with state-run institutions.

They might lead to a refusal to authenticate diplomas, relegating them to being second-class schools. They would always be in need of financial aid, forcing the Kurds to rely on foreign assistance, which is illegal from the government’s point of view.

When it comes to military service, some Kurdish leaders are pushing for a deal similar to that which was granted to the minority Druze community. Young Druze men serve their compulsory military time in the Syrian army, but never in far-flung places – always at home within Druze-majority areas.

That kind of arrangement is less practical for the Kurds, since unlike the Druze, they are not confined to one geographic area, but scattered east and west of the Euphrates, never as an exclusive and homogeneous majority.

Arab youth of the northeastern cities of Qamishly and Hassakeh will also oppose such a deal, because it would keep the Kurds in the comfort of their cantons, while sending Arab conscripts to remote and dangerous locations.

One step forward, two steps back

Over the past six months, the SDF discussed the possibility of opening branches in the Syrian capital. To operate a legal political party, however, they need a license from the Ministry of Interior.

By law, no license will be granted to any party that has an ethnic agenda, which is how the Kurdish-dominated SDF is viewed. By law, the parties need to be fully accessible to non-Kurds. If Arabs were to join the SDF in large numbers, this would swamp their ranks and eventually suffocate these parties, hollowing them out from any substance or purpose. 

And finally, for a new party to be registered, it needs a branch in every city of the country with 1,000 members. This is easy for places like Hassakeh and Qamishly, but where would they find 1,000 politically active Kurds in cities like Homs, Latakia or Hama? 

Ultimately, the proposed deal would allow the Kurds to elect their own municipal councils and governors. The loophole is that those public offices would also be open to Arabs, who might be loyal to the ruling Baath Party.

If the Baathists were to win the municipalities, they could simply recreate the very same system of rule that existed before 2011, depriving the Kurds of everything they had dreamt of.

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