Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Early this year, the Syrian file has witnessed developments at the military and political levels, most of which were in the Syrian regime’s favor. Thanks to its international allies, namely Russia and Iran, the regime managed to restore large areas it had lost in the past years of the revolution. It has also played the political sensitivity card in an attempt to evade responsibility for the charges brought against it, and made use of the “War on Terror” as a pretext.
On the other hand, circumstances did not work in favor of the local opposition forces, but rather against it, for the Syrian opposition’s military and political actions have receded due to the failure to achieve its demands. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had also witnessed the same situation, albeit at a slower pace, starting with the signs of the US withdrawal, which was met by the Turkish fear of the proliferation of a Kurdish force near the Turkish borders.
Three years have elapsed since the formation of Syrian Democratic Forces. During this period, it has established itself as a military body and an influential force in the Syrian equation, after the military momentum it has achieved during its war against ISIS. It has also committed itself to one political discourse, which sprung from the concept of “federation” and the will to fight anyone who would undermine its pillars.
However, the current situation has been different, for the Syrian Democratic Forces rushed to seize the opportunity and redeem relations with the Syrian regime and its Russian ally through a series of negotiations that started last June. The US withdrawal from the Syrian file and the recent statements made by President Donald Trump played a major role in the SDF’s move.
It can be said that the forces, which control about 25 % of the Syrian territory, have lost the advantages that have been supporting it over the past years, especially the US factor that the SDF militarily and politically rely on. Syrian Democratic Forces have been unable to manage their territories properly, especially as regard to taking advantage of the economic potentials of the region.
The US policy has not been clear since late 2017, and its strategy has been ambiguous and puzzling, especially in relation to areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The US strategy may have become clear in June, after the map that the US and Turkey have agreed upon in the city of Manbij, which resulted in the complete withdrawal of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) (Kurdish) from the city. They have also agreed to conduct joint patrols until the formation of a local council that would be responsible for managing civil life and providing service. This has been considered as a surprising withdrawal of the most prominent forces that the US is supporting in Syria.
This roadmap gave an idea about the US fluctuation. It became clear that Washington’s policy could not be trusted and this was confirmed by the position it had taken regarding the city of Afrin, after considering that the battle of the Turkish army could not be stopped because it falls under the framework of the protection of national security.
The previous circumstances were one of the main reasons behind the Syrian Democratic Forces’ acceptance to negotiate with the regime. The first sign of this process manifested itself in June during a visit of the official spokesperson of the Syrian Democratic Front party, Mays al-Kareidi, to the co-chairwoman of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic forces, Ilham Ahmed, who expressed her willingness to directly negotiate with the Syrian regime in Damascus without preconditions.
The SDF’s position has become clear a month after the visit and following the conference held by the Syrian Democratic Forces on July 16. Ilham Ahmed headed to Damascus and met directly with the delegation of the Syrian regime. Her visit was one of its kind.
Commenting on the outcomes she talked about after the end of the visit, she said that her goal is to “lay the foundations for broader and more comprehensive dialogues, and to resolve all pending problems and resolve the Syrian crisis at different levels.”
She added that “these meetings were preceded by preliminary dialogues held in al-Tabqah city between the subcommittees of the both parties, which discussed the issues of service.” The meeting between the two parties resulted into forming committees at different levels in order to build up dialogue and negotiations.
The details of the visit have not been revealed yet. Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported a Kurdish leader saying that the initial talks in Damascus have reached some understandings, which provided that the regime will send engineers, technicians and workers to operate and repair the Euphrates dam. The regime insisted on sending security protection, but Syrian Democratic Forces refused and so did al-Tabqah local the Council.
The leader asserted that the delegation of the Syrian Democratic Council focused on the need to restore services, such as electricity, education, civil registration and health, so as to rehabilitate the seven turbines in the Euphrates Dam, reconstruct and operate schools and resume civil registry activity. These steps will act as trust-test and a first stage, then comes the transition to the second stage, which includes the delivery of border crossings and the security presence of the Syrian regime, according to the leader.
Threats before negotiation
Syrian Democratic Council aspires to decentralization… The regime wants them to surrender
The US withdrawal was not the only reason that pushed the Syrian Democratic Forces to negotiate with the regime. Perhaps al-Assad’s latest threats might have been another reason, especially after he emerged as an “influential” player on the ground thanks to Russian and Iranian support.
The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, made Syrian Democratic Forces choose between two options. He considered SDF as the only problem facing his forces in Syria, in an interview with “RT Arabic” on May 31.
According to al-Assad, the first option was “opening the door to negotiations, for the majority of its troops are Syrians who presumably love their country and do not want to be the puppets of the foreigners.”
The head of the Syrian regime underlined the US support of these forces and highlighted that Americans should not be trusted for “they always say something and do the opposite. They are lying and this leaves us with only one option; that of living with each other as Syrians forever,” he said.
The second option is to establish control over SDF areas by force. He claimed that “in case we fail in implementing the first option, then we will resort to the liberation of those areas by force. We do not have any other options, with or without the Americans, we have no other choice.”
He went on saying that the territories held by the Kurdish forces are “our land and this is our right and it is our duty to liberate these areas. The Americans should leave, and they will leave somehow.”
The options put forward by al-Assad have been preceded by direct threats, for he accused the Syrian Democratic Forces of being “a traitor.” He declared during a press conference in December 2017 that “anyone who works under the leadership of any foreign country in his country and against his army and people is a traitor.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad described SDF as a “new ISIS” in northeastern Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces did not remain silent about being accused of being “a traitor” and responded during a statement that “the Syrian regime is the one that opened the door to the hordes of foreign terrorists who came from different parts of the world.”
The statement declared that “the regime is the one that released all the terrorists captured in its prisons, to penetrate then into the life of Syrians with their different ideologies.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces insisted that “Bashar al-Assad and the rest of his regime are the last to speak about treachery and its manifestations.” It considered al-Assad as being directly responsible for the release of sectarian factions in the country, which “wreaked havoc on Syria’s soil and people.”
On the table… Interests rather than charges
|In the decentralized administration, the administrative functions of the State are divided between the central authority and local or independent entities operating under the supervision and control of the central authority. This pattern is defined as the local administration system.
The administrative function in the central administration is held by only one committee responsible for its offices in the capital and its branches in the governorates. The administration manages all affairs and public utilities, including national and local ones.
During the last visit of the Syrian Democratic Council delegation to Damascus, a disagreement with the Syrian regime, concerning the decentralized administration that the Kurds aspire to establish in the northeast of Syria, came to the surface. Despite the Syrian Democratic Council’s emphasis on raising the issue during the visit, the regime denied negotiating this matter. The pro-regime media coverage of their meeting has been absent. Only al-Thawra newspaper has published a single piece of news, in which it declared that the issue of decentralization had not been addressed at all.
The administrative decentralization is the Syrian Democratic Council’s target ambition and objective after the Syrian Democratic Forces have adopted the federation system, which divided its regions into three governorates. However, this ambition is opposed by the apparent intransigence of the Syrian regime, which stipulated certain conditions, including surrender and the involvement of its security and military forces in any negotiation process as a first stage.
The Co-Chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, Riad Darar, said that the Council aspires to achieve a democratic decentralized administration. This “helps to consolidate democratic principles and needs a consensus constitution that would be the guarantor that unites democratic self-administrations within the common homeland,” as he put it.
Darar added in an interview with Enab Baladi that the decentralized governance of Syria’s future is an important goal for the future aspirations of the Syrian Democratic Council.” He pointed out that “the political document that the Council has been previously committed to highlighted the need for a decentralized federal Syria in a sense that does not completely eliminate the center. It would rather turn form a control instrument to a means of unity and coordination between all the regions of the whole country, while keeping the administration of specific core functions of sovereignty and general strategy.
The former Co-Chairman of the Democratic Union Party, Salih Muslim, said days after the visit of the Council’s delegation to Damascus: “We would like to figure things up and look for negotiation possibilities so that we could later hold serious negotiations on the future Syria.”
Muslim, whose party constitutes the nucleus of the Democratic Union Party, added: “We have the local administrations as a model. We want to generalize this model and negotiate the available models (federalism, local administrations, decentralization and the new constitution).” He considered that there should be an International grantor to any agreement because the regime wants to manipulate things up and force surrender, as happened in Daraa and other areas.
Despite the most prominent event of the visit of the Syrian Democratic Council’s delegation and the meeting between the regime and the Council, no clear steps regarding the future relationship between the two sides have been addressed. The political council is still holding on to the areas under its control and considers they are not currently debatable, as confirmed by Syrian Democratic Council’s Co-Chairwoman, saying that the Council would not hand over any area to Damascus.
The Co-Chairwoman added in an interview with Russia Today (RT) TV channel that: “The Syrian government has not made any guarantees to the Council about the areas, despite the Council’s demands to take them over.”
Why the insistence on “decentralized governance”?
Darar believes that the decentralized governance emphasizes the unity of Syrian territories, which is a key factor of strength, empowerment and overcoming the crisis that he described as “structuralism based on the monolithic nation state, tyranny and exclusion of the other.”
He also considers that the political solution must head towards decentralization, participation and genuine democracy, to enable all the society members with their different identities to affirm their existence in a common homeland, which must embrace them all without exclusion, elimination, domination, authoritarianism or monopoly. It also must be run by just laws and democratic institutions that will be the true constitutional guarantors to a Syrian State in harmony with this era.
Darar talked about the Syrian regime’s intransigence and rejection of the goal the Syrian Democratic Council is trying to achieve. He said that the regime rejects and is against the decentralized system and decentralized administration. However, this must not prevent the insistence on negotiating in favor of decentralization and following this path because there is an experience, “the self-management,” in the north and the civil councils. These councils operate without the need to return to the center as the local issue is locally managed by its democratically elected residents.
The Syrian regime put forward the idea of decentralization in the Local Administration Law issued in 2011 under Legislative Decree No. 107, which is still being adopted to date. The regime said that the law is firstly aimed at implementing the decentralization of powers and responsibilities and concentrating them at the hands of the people’s communities. It added that the law is in accordance with the principle of democracy, which makes people the source of all powers through an expansion and a clear and unambiguous identification of the powers and authorities of the administrative units’ councils in order to enable them to perform their functions and tasks in the economic, social, cultural and constructional development of the administrative unit.
However, Darar says that the law the Syrian regime has issued is fragmented and has not been implemented, as its decisions were transferred to the governorate and the minister of local administration, and the administrative courts have been the reference of its trials. “This cannot be useful in the future of work because the manipulative state, party and its members intensify centralization and keep corruption,” clarified Darar. He stressed that the Syrian Democratic Council supports decentralization and seeks to impose it and force the regime to adopt it, as it is the “optimal future solution.”
The Syrian Democratic Council is holding on to several points in the negotiation process. According to the Co-Chairman, the negotiation project is mainly based on self-building first. “We are part of Syria and we do not call for division and separation as rumored,” he explained.
Darar considers that “negotiation is the only way to bring the revolution back to its peaceful and civil side. The political solution opens the way for parties and political action, so it would be possible to fight from the interior through political competition and political programs. This requires us to achieve a constitutional vision that would allow such interaction.”
With the Syrian regime’s intransigence and unclear vision it wants in the northeast of Syria, Darar considers that it would be impossible for things to return as they were, and for the regime to go back to tyranny.
Will we monitor US weapons owned by al-Assad’s forces?
The Pentagon spent $ 2.2 billion to buy Soviet-era weapons and gave them to Syrian Democratic Forces and its pole the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, according to an investigation published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCRRP) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), in September 2017.
The Pentagon has purposely supported the People’s Protection Units with these weapons and has hidden records proving its arrival in Syria, to circumvent the failure of the opposition’s official training programs and the arrest of the extremist groups that have benefited from them, according to the investigation.
However, the policy of US President Donald Trump, who took over the White House in early 2017, was clearer in his support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, as the Pentagon has officially allocated $ 500 million for training and equipping the Forces for 2018.
It has also allocated $ 550 million in the 2019 budget, $ 300 million of which for training and equipment, and $ 250 million to support a border security force managed by the Forces.
At a time it was not possible to contact the Director of the Media Centre in the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mustafa Bali, the Co-Chairman of the Syrian Democratic Council, Riad Darar, did not confirm the fate of the weapons in case a settlement with the Syrian regime is reached. He predicted that the Syrian Democratic Forces would defend the areas as security forces, and that there would be an understanding through a military council to become part of the Syrian army that protects the borders and the country.
Darar did not give instant results. He left the fate of weapons and forces subject to negotiation, stressing that “the Syrian Democratic Forces will protect all the decisions of its political council and its positions until the final solution is reached.”
The Syrian regime had previously imposed the delivery of heavy weapons on areas where it has reached a settlement with the opposition factions, such as the countrysides of Damascus, Daraa and Homs. If it insists on this condition in the northeast of Syria, it will publicly receive US weapons for the first time, unless they are restored by Washington before reaching al-Assad’s forces.
The Syrian army is equipped with Russian equipment and weapons, most of them had been made during the Soviet era. The regime used to make weapons deals with Russia and Eastern European countries (formerly Soviet countries), but did not make any formal deals with Washington.
Economic files that may prevent the settlement
The area that is currently run by the ”self-management” is characterized by significant economic resources in the Syrian national output, which may make the competition to acquire them an obstacle to reaching a political settlement.
The self-management budget of 2016 reached two billion and 700 million Syrian Pounds. It was primarily based on several sources, mainly oil, gas and agricultural resources, as well as the imposed customs on goods entering the territory of Jazira from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The largest oil fields
Al-Jazira Region includes oil and gas fields of “strategic” importance, including those in Rmelan, al-Shaddadah, Jibsa and Suwaydiya, which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units took over in mid-2012, in addition to Rmelan refinery, as well as the fields of Krachouk, Hamza, Olayyan, Ma’shuq and Lilac.
The Region had also taken control over strategic fields in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor, following the battles against ISIS between September and October 2017. The most important fields of these are the fields of al-Omar, Koniko and al-Jaffrah.
Al-Omar oil field, located in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor, is considered the largest oil field in Syria, and its production before 2011 was about 30,000 barrels per day.
The Rmelan oil field includes 1,322 wells, in addition to 25 liquefied gas wells in the As-Suwaydah field.
Syria Food Basket
The agricultural economy currently accounts for about 75% of the region’s economic map, while the livestock sector accounts for 15%. This is in addition to trade via commercial crossings either to the Syrian inside areas or to Iraqi Kurdistan through the Semalka crossing or through the city of Jarabulus to the “Euphrates Shield” areas, according to the deputy of the co-chairmanship Commission for the Economy of Self-Management, Diruk Mulla Bashir.
Mulla Bashir explained to Enab Baladi earlier that “the agricultural sector is a priority in the region, mainly wheat, which has produced between 550,000 and 600,000 tons in the past years, as well as barley and legumes.”
Strategic crossings may be opened
The file of a number of Syrian-Turkish crossings has been unresolved since the Units’ control of the region. Turkey rejects any cooperation with them and classifies them as “terrorists.” This has caused the “self-management” to lose the resources of four main crossings: Murshid Binar, Tell Abyad, Ras al Ayn, and Nisibeen.
Under the recent understandings in northwestern Syria and plans to open vital projects in coordination with Russia and Turkey, an understanding to operate these crossings by the administration of the Syrian regime is not ruled out.
The forces also controlled al-Yaarubiyah crossing with Iraq in 2013, but it is also not operational.
The “self-management” currently maintains a single unofficial operational crossing point with Iraqi Kurdistan, commonly known as “Semalka,” and is opened and closed for political reasons.
Kurdish National Council: We reject any understandings that are not based on international resolutions
Although the Democratic Union Party has dominated the Syrian al-Jazira, at the security, military, political and civil levels, the opposition Kurdish National Council has maintained its presence in the self-management “governorates” since their establishment. Its members and loyal activists continued to carry out their activities on a limited scale and under strict security control by self-management bodies.
This presence, though restricted, is now threatened to disappear, with the possibility that the Syrian regime enters into the Syrian al-Jazira at the civilian and military levels, according to the recent understandings between the Syrian Democratic Council and officials of the Syrian regime in the capital Damascus.
Several files between the Kurdish National Council and the self-management have not yet been resolved, especially the file of detainees. The self-management was silent about this file and refused to disclose the detainees’ fate, which raised fears and questions about their fate in case the Syrian regime enters.
In addition, the Kurdish National Council participates alongside the Syrian opposition in political bodies and adopts an anti-regime stance, which could expose its members or supporters in al-Hasakah to the risk of arbitrary arrests.
In favor of the regime
The representative of the Kurdish National Council in the Syrian Opposition Coalition and member of its political body, Hawass Saadoun, pointed out that the statements of the Syrian Democratic Council did not disclose the results of its meetings with the regime, but there was “a focus on service-related matters, and then on building confidence to discuss other topics.”
Saadoun said in an interview with Enab Baladi that “as for our position, we focus on the importance of political dialogue based on the Geneva Declaration 1 and international resolutions, specifically 2254.” He asserted that “any negotiations without relying on these international resolutions will be in the interest of the regime.”
Concerning the reasons for the rapprochement between the Syrian Democratic Council and the regime, Saadoun said: “There are a lot of problematic issues that have occurred recently, including issues in the south of Syria and the guarantor countries’ abandonment of their role in the south of Syria, which was one of the reasons, in addition to what happened recently in Afrin.” He added: “I do not think that this delegation has gone to Damascus without a US permission.”
An unknown fate of the detainees of the National Kurdish Council
The self-management has gone beyond the policy of “restricting” the right of the National Kurdish Council and its members to the “repression” manifested in the closure of party headquarters, the arrest of members and the prevention of peaceful demonstrations.
The representative of the National Kurdish Council in the National Coalition Opposition, Fouad Aliko, told Enab Baladi in a previous meeting that the self-management closed all the headquarters of the Council and its affiliated parties, which amount to 70.
In addition, self-management arrested several members of the Kurdish National Council. According to Hawass Saadoun, “there are many detainees whose fate is still unknown, such as Behzad Dorsen, Abdul Rahman Abo and Fuad Ibrahim, as well as many supporters of the Kurdish National Council and young Kurdish revolutionary activists who are in the self-management prisons and little is known about whom, because they have not yet revealed the fate of many of them.”
Saadoun stressed in his meeting with Enab Baladi that the return of the regime to any Syrian region creates fears “because the regime is continuing its arrogance, is still thinking of a military solution and is practicing arbitrary detention and forced displacement.” He added: “This regime cannot be trusted in any way.”
The US’s abandonment and the fear of Turkey are two reasons for the rapprochement of the regime and SDF
A poll conducted by Enab Baladi showed that the US’s abandonment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the latter’s fear of possible Turkish intervention were the reasons that led Syrian Democratic Forces to negotiate with the regime.
Enab Baladi asked its readers through the website and its Facebook page: “What prompted Syrian Democratic Forces to negotiate with the regime?”
1,000 users participated in the poll, and most of them were divided between the two options: “US intervention” and “fear of Turkish intervention” by 46 percent and 45 percent, respectively, while 8 percent of the respondents believed that Russian pressure was the reason.
A number of users commented on the poll publication on Enab Baladi’s Facebook page. “This is how the US wanted to hand over things to Russia after circumvention, lying and laughing at the people,” commented user Rafat Abu Khaled.
While users Zuhair Wali and Khaled Fattal asserted that there is an old rapprochement between the regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces.