A US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters says it has agreed to work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government towards a “democratic, decentralised Syria” after preliminary talks in Damascus.
A delegation of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) – the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance – arrived in Syria’s capital earlier this week, in what was their first official visit there, at the invitation of the government.
In a bid to cement their autonomy in the war-torn country, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) said on Saturday they would form committees and chart a “roadmap” in coordination with the Assad government.
There was no immediate confirmation by Damascus, and the negotiations are expected to be lengthy.
The SDC’s statement comes after al-Assad, who is backed militarily by Russia, threatened to recover the swath of northern and eastern Syria controlled by the alliance – a development the SDF has said will only lead to more devastation and destruction for Syrians.
The SDF was formed in 2015 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, it managed to seize control of between 25 and 30 percent of Syria, including areas with rich oil and gas reserves.
Their political wing has long pressed for Syria to be divided along federal lines to form autonomous cantons in various regions.
In January, the SDF lost the city of Afrin to Turkish-backed rebels. Despite Washington’s intervention, which prevented Turkish troops from further seizing the hard-won town of Manbij, the group has remained unsure about US support due to conflicting statements over its military plans in the country.
Riad Darar, co-chair of the SDC, spoke to Al Jazeera about the reasons behind their decision to engage in dialogue with the Syrian government.
Darar, who hails from Syria’s Deir Az Zor, said the SDC is looking to set up a new state and a new system through negotiations with the government.
Al Jazeera: Why did the SDC meet with the Syrian government?
Riad Darar: The meeting that we, the Syrian Democratic Council, had with the Syrian regime was based on the request of the government in Damascus. What took place was the outcome of an initiative that we took after Assad said that it is time for the SDF to get ready for dialogue or to fight. We know that we are not ready to combat the Syrian government forces because our battle was against ISIL.
We run these areas [under SDC control] with the help of our people and the local administrative councils. These areas are all secure, peaceful and stable. The main objective of these talks is to work together towards a new, democratic, decentralised Syria with a new system and a new form.
Despite all of this, we made it clear – we headed towards the dialogue without any conditions. What happened was preliminary talks; we want to make sure to plant the seed for trust so we can move ahead and show good faith.
Al Jazeera: Will the SDF hand over areas it seized back to the Syrian government?
Darar: The areas that we liberated are all stable and peaceful and are under our control.
One day, we want to return them to a Syrian state and not to the Syrian regime. The regime is one thing and a new Syrian state is something else. We will only return these lands to the Syrian state once we are done with setting up a new state, a new system that we will build all together through negotiations. This is what returning land to the state means.
Al Jazeera: When will the SDC and the Syrian government meet again?
Darar: We did not set a date yet. After the delegation left, we agreed to start forming committees to prepare for the next round of talks. We agreed to a roadmap.
What these committees will do is to set up the base for more dialogue and we will go over all the details needed. We want to reach concrete results and not just talks for the sake of it.
Al Jazeera: Was the meeting prompted by a request from the US or Russia?
Darar: As you know, the US-led coalition supported our people in the fight against ISIL. We do not have political coordination with the US; our decision to move ahead with these talks is independent, based on the high interests of our people and our nation.
We have clear objectives in order to bring back stability to Syria and this is why we took our decision without asking anyone for permission.
We initiated dialogue because we want the best interest of Syria as a whole. We see the other Syrian opposition factions negotiating in Geneva more than three times.
The reason they failed was the regime – the government sabotaged these talks and we can say the mismanagement of these talks by the opposition itself. We, on the other hand, want to be more positive in our approach to achieve the best outcome for our own people.
Al Jazeera: Are you optimistic that Syria is heading in the right direction?
Darar: Syria must move towards stability and peace. It is time for the current authoritarian system to change – we want a new democratic, decentralised Syria. We will negotiate for that purpose and we will not give in to anything unless it is something that can benefit Syria as a whole.