After Donald Trump’s controversial but predictable decision to withdraw American troops from northeast Syria in October, followed by Turkey’s ongoing military intervention, negotiation between Damascus and the Kurds has become inevitable, with significant implications for the dynamics of the Syrian conflict.
In fact, long before the Turkish recent attack on Rojava (the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria), Syrian Kurds believed that talks with Damascus led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was the most likely scenario resulting from the situation developing from 2014, with legal international recognition for Rojava being the least likely scenario. Yet to understand the future and possible scenarios of Damascus-Kurdish or Assad-Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) relations, we need to ask three main questions. First, what is the ultimate goal of the leaders of Rojava? Second, what does the external support they have received (the US support) mean for their goal? And third, what are the main options for the future of Damascus and SDF relations?
Rojava’s Grand Strategic Goal (or Dream)
The goal of the Rojava leadership, and the ways in which that goal emerged, developed and strengthened, constitute key obstacles to successful political settlement between Rojava and Damascus. The grand objective of Rojava is a political autonomy similar to the de facto autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, but within the context of both Syria and the political ideology of Kurdish-led movement there, which prefers political autonomy to an independent nation-state. For Rojava, achieving this goal is not possible without external military and political support preventing a forceful integration of the entity into the Syrian state. From 2014 till now, the US has been providing this military support, which is essential for Rojava’s survival. The grand US strategic objective of defeating Islamic State has greatly relied on Rojava’s military and political capabilities on the ground in northern Syria. At the same time, Rojava’s goal to protect its de facto autonomy, supported by the US, is deeply divergent from the goal of Assad and Russia, to regain Damascus’s control over the Syrian territories.
Moreover, recently both the Kurds and Damascus have shown flexibility to adapt to changing internal and external circumstances. For the Kurds, the second-best option is a political settlement with Damascus that includes some form of power-sharing, as this provides the unrecognized Rojava with guarantees against being outvoted in the reintegrated Syrian state. The case of Iraqi Kurdistan may be helpful in understanding the dynamics in Syria. The 2005 Iraqi constitution gives Iraqi Kurdistan wide-ranging autonomous powers that include its own government, its own army, and the right to manage its own extensive natural resources. Tensions still remain, for example with respect to disputed territories and oil revenues, but the constitutional arrangement has maintained the territorial integrity of Iraq.
US Support: Necessary for Survival
Though the US has been increasingly unreliable and unpredictable to the Syrian Kurds, the Kurds still see the support provided by the US as synonymous with their survival. External military support from the US injects vital lifeblood into the arteries of the de facto entity led by the Kurds, and the SDF leaders believe that outside assistance makes forceful reintegration of the de facto entity of Rojava less likely. As long as there is American support for Rojava, a negotiated settlement with Assad would depend on how this settlement supports a kind of de facto entity in Rojava. In other words, Rojava’s survival depends on their capacity to balance militarily against Damascus. Currently, a dominant attitude in Rojava is that the Syrian government and government-backed militias are preferable to Turkey and the Turkish-backed militias in northeast Syria, and shifts in the balance of power in Assad’s favour are injurious to Rojava’s survival prospects.
However, the leaders of the SDF/People’s Protection Units (PYD) would seek negotiation and even be prepared to make compromises with Damascus, if they were certain that their security, administrative and political autonomy will be protected. It is fair to say that, if they had certainty regarding future US commitment to the support for Rojava, Rojava leaders have few incentives to commit to a settlement that gives them anything less than the status quo; a de facto entity with its own administration system and army.
Turkey’s attack on northeast Syria, which is the largest threat facing Rojava now, has made it clear that Rojava, without US support, operates under the constant threat of annihilation but also forceful reintegration into the Syrian state. The US support, as a third party involvement without the consent of Damascus, is not cost-free for Rojava, but doing without this support is not an option for Rojava, if the ultimate goal remains a de facto political autonomy.
If “securing oil” is the main reason for the US presence in Syria, its involvement in the region should not only be viewed as “illegal”, but it is also problematic for the sustainability of Rojava. This reveals a dilemma: the factors that enable the de facto Rojava to survive, also detract from the substance of its independence.
Moving Towards Peace or War?
The dynamics of Damascus-Kurdish relations depend on the reaction of external powers, such as the US, Russia and Turkey. Assad’s ability to regain control over northeast Syria peacefully depends on how Damascus can accommodate the goal, and the dream, of Rojava. In the absence of US support, and with continuous Turkish threat, a forceful reintegration of areas remained under the control of the Kurds, would be a possible outcome. The weakening and isolation of the Kurds may make their defeat more likely, but the human costs are great, and a long-term solution is unlikely to materialize. On the other hand, with US support, forceful reintegration of Rojava will be the least likely scenario. In this context, engagement with Damascus, based on a new political and legal situation in Syria, is the most peaceful and realistic scenario available.