QAMISHLI, Syria/JEDDAH: Kurdish leaders have begun talks with the Assad regime in Damascus on the future of Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military alliance backed by the US that controls about a quarter of the country in the north and northeast, has agreed with the regime to form joint committees after initial discussions on Thursday and Friday.
The aim is to create a “road map leading to a democratic and decentralized Syria,” said the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political wing.
“It is still very early to talk of an agreement but we are working on it,” said Sihanouk Dibo, an adviser to the main Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). “The negotiations will be long and arduous because the Damascus regime is very centralized.”
The talks are expected to infuriate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has launched three full-scale military operations in northern Syria in the past two years against the YPG, the Kurdish militia that spearheads the SDF.
Assad regime forces fled Kurdish-majority areas in 2012, a year after the Syrian civil war began, and the Kurds set up their own administrations there.
The SDF formalized the new administrative arrangements in 2016 with the creation of autonomous cantons in areas under its control that it regards as a model for a federal system nationwide.
The Assad regime officially opposes Kurdish self rule, but Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said last year a “form of autonomy” was “negotiable.”
Bashar Assad said in May he was prepared to open talks with the SDF but remained ready to use force if necessary to ensure the return of regime troops and state institutions to SDF-held areas.
He has described the Kurdish administration’s democratic bodies in the northeast as “temporary structures.”
Analysts said talks between the Kurds and the Assad regime faced hurdles.
“It’s hard to see how they will reach more substantive agreement in the coming months because you just have a huge gap between the two sides on what the future of this region should look like,” said Noah Bonsey, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Syria.
An umbrella group representing other opposition forces in Syria has said it wants to hold talks with the regime on reform demands of its own, but its bargaining power has been greatly reduced by its loss of territory in recent months.