The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say they have agreed to work with the Syrian government towards a “democratic, decentralised Syria”, in an attempt to cement their autonomy in the war-ravaged country.
The SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), issued a short statement on Saturday saying they would form committees to develop negotiations and “chart a roadmap to a democratic, decentralised Syria”.
There was no immediate confirmation from Damascus, but Sihanouk Dibo, a leftist Kurdish politician, said he expected the negotiations to be “long and arduous”.
“It is still very early to talk of an agreement, but we are working on it,” he said.
Founded in 2015, the SDF was formed to defend Syria’s northeastern region from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and other armed groups.
Using American weapons and equipment, the SDF managed to seize control of between 25-30 percent of Syria, including areas which hold the bulk of the country’s oil and gas reserves.
Their political wing has pressed for Syria to be divided along federal lines and made up of autonomous cantons in various regions.
The SDC has set up cantonal administrations in areas it controls which raise their own revenues and operate their own police and other services.
They lost the city of Afrin in northwestern Syria to Turkish-backed rebels in January, and only intervention by Washington has prevented Turkish troops from seizing the hard-won town of Manbij from the SDF, whose Kurdish units have pulled back.
Marwan Kabalan, the head of policy analysis at the Arab Centre for Research & Policy Studies, said “fears” of being attacked again by Turkey may have prompted the Kurds to turn to Damascus, but was “unlikely” the Syrian government would deliver them autonomy as they expected.
“With US President Donald Trump saying he wants to withdraw his forces from northeastern Syria, the Kurds fear this could put them in direct confrontation with Turkey,” Kabalan said.
And with Damascus yet to comment, it appears both the Kurds and the Syrian government have two separate visions for the country, he added.
“It’s unlikely the Syrian regime will deliver the Kurds autonomy.
“Rather, what it will probably give them is local governance according to Law 107 that was passed in 2012.
“This will give them [greater] powers, not decentralisation, or autonomy. The Syrian regime will never accept autonomy.”
The Syrian government has been open to negotiations with the SDF since last year, with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem saying Damascus could sit with the Kurds and listen to their demands once ISIL was defeated.
“This topic is open to negotiation and discussion and when we are done eliminating Daesh (ISIL), we can sit with our Kurdish sons and reach an understanding on a formula for the future,” he said at the time.
Saturday’s announcement comes as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, have taken back most of the country’s rebel-held areas including the city of Deraa, which was the birthplace of Syria’s uprising seven years ago.
Alongside the military offensive, the government has also struck “reconciliation” deals – essentially a negotiated capitulation of a number of villages that have been in rebel hands for years – to restore government control there.
The Syrian civil war started as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad in March 2011, but quickly developed into a full-scale conflict after the Syrian leader refused to concede power.
The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, estimated at least 400,000 people had died over the first five years of conflict. The current death toll is unknown.