Syrian regime renders talks with Kurds meaningless
From Syrian Kurds’ point of view, Damascus this week rendered talks between the two sides as meaningless. The talks were given fresh impetus by Turkey’s threat to attack Syrian-Kurdish forces in the wake of the announcement that the US would withdraw militarily from Syria.
Though talks between the Syrian Kurds and Damascus had taken place (without success) prior to the announcement, the former swiftly turned to the latter as a means to thwart the threatened Turkish offensive. The Syrian regime — hostile to Ankara, and sensing an opportunity to extend its authority to the largest piece of territory still outside its control — was happy to oblige.
But this week, the regime flatly rejected Syrian Kurds’ most important goal: Cementing their self-declared autonomy. “Autonomy means the partition of Syria. We have no way to partition Syria,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Bashar Assad.
This is not the first time that the regime has rejected Kurdish autonomy — for example, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem did so in October last year. But it is the first time that the regime has done so since the resumption of talks with the Kurds following the US withdrawal announcement in mid-December.
Shaaban said what she said while sitting next to Russia’s deputy foreign minister. This would suggest that Moscow and Damascus are on the same page in this regard. Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake the whole country, and Moscow has repeatedly expressed its support for Syria’s territorial integrity.
For all the enmity between Ankara and Damascus, Turkey’s threatened offensive may prove to be a hugely valuable gift to the Syrian regime.
But if Syrian Kurds had hoped that staunch opposition from Damascus and Moscow to Turkey’s threatened offensive might change their calculus, those hopes have been dashed. Ankara’s threat actually provided Damascus with a golden opportunity to play hardball with the Kurds, who control about a quarter of Syria but are desperate to forestall another Turkish offensive (previous ones having successfully rolled back their territorial gains).
The regime has likely calculated, correctly, that the Kurds would rather accept a negotiated capitulation to it than another — and this time more decisive — military defeat at the hands of Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies. Indeed, just days ago Assad warned the Kurds that the US would not protect them against a Turkish offensive. Following an American withdrawal, he is right.
The presence of US troops is currently impeding such an offensive, and after they leave, Washington would certainly not consider airstrikes against a military advance by Turkey, a powerful regional ally (despite current tensions) and a fellow member of NATO.
Mixed signals and confusing, contradictory statements from the Trump administration following the withdrawal announcement may have given Syrian Kurds hope that the pull-out would not end up taking place. But despite much domestic opposition to his decision, US President Donald Trump seems determined to implement it.
Indeed, the top US commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East, Joseph Votel, said less than a fortnight ago that the start of the withdrawal was likely just weeks away. The US special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, last week said the withdrawal will not be abrupt. However, there are no indications that Trump’s decision will be reversed.
The US has urged its allies to send troops to Syria as it withdraws, and has warned that it will sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) if it partners with Damascus or Moscow. But US allies have so far shown no interest in sending troops, and Syrian Kurds, feeling a deep sense of betrayal over Washington’s intention to withdraw, are unlikely to heed its warning, particularly if they sense a Turkish offensive in the making.
Shaaban’s words strongly indicate that the regime views its talks with the Kurds purely as a means to negotiate the terms of their surrender. So even if a Turkish offensive does not materialize, the heavy price that Syrian Kurds will have to pay for this will be no cause for them to celebrate. For all the enmity between Ankara and Damascus, Turkey’s threatened offensive may prove to be a hugely valuable gift to the Syrian regime.
- Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs. Twitter: @sharifnash