MSD eyes opening channels of communication with Arab states, parallel to normalizing relations with Assad

Co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, Mahmoud al-Meslat (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, Mahmoud al-Meslat (Edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Mahmoud al-Meslat, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD), stated that the council has plans to take actual steps to rejuvenate the “Syrian dialogue” through consultations with Syrian parties and regional and international powers. During an in-depth interview conducted by the Hawar news agency, he mentioned MSD’s intention to open new representations in Arab and foreign countries.

Starting from what he called “the importance of the Arab role in Syria,” he believed that the council cannot be isolated from the “brotherly” Arab states, pointing out that MSD has been in touch with countries like Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, marking the beginning of openness towards these countries for “Syrian national reconciliation.”

MSD’s initiative towards the Gulf states is not a radical shift, as it was preceded by the visit of the Saudi Minister of State, Thamer al-Sabhan, to the eastern region of Syria, controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Riyadh’s involvement in the region was not about Syria or even the Autonomous Administration as much as it was a nuisance to Ankara, which considers these entities extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) listed as a terrorist organization by them.

Following the resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Riyadh’s interference in northeast Syria diminished.

About a year ago, the Autonomous Administration has been trying to introduce reforms and new laws, the latest of which was its intention to hold local elections and ratify the social contract, coinciding with changes in the Syrian Democratic Council evidenced by the appointment of Mahmoud al-Meslat as co-chair, who is close to the United States and has no issues alienating the Turks, as his tribal background helps secure local acceptance.

An old plan revived

The Autonomous Administration has been trying to build relations with Arab countries for years, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt among others, and has succeeded in forming some diplomatic threads with these countries, but it still awaits the outcomes of its efforts in other places.

Saudi Arabia increased its relations with the Autonomous Administration in 2017, and in 2019, the Saudi Minister of State Thamer al-Sabhan along with US officials visited northeastern Syria, meeting a number of sheikhs, dignitaries, and administrators from the tribes and councils of Deir Ezzor province, following a visit to Raqqa in 2017.

The New Arab newspaper reported at the time, citing a source in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military wing of the Autonomous Administration, that the visit revolved around Saudi financing for Arab forces supported by Washington to resist Iranian expansion attempts in northeastern Syria.

This relationship declined after the Saudi-Turkish settlement in 2021, which resolved the disputes between Riyadh and Ankara, superficially addressing the relationship with the Autonomous Administration.

Research assistant at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Osama Sheikh Ali, told Enab Baladi that MSD started to cultivate its relationships with Arab countries that it already had ties with, in addition to forming new relations with other countries.

He added that the Gulf states’ ambition to be leading and influential in the region is a reason for MSD’s push to enhance its relationships with them, not to mention countries that inherently have regional weight, making closeness with them a goal for local actors.

The scholar specializing in sub-state actors believes that one of the reasons MSD chose Mahmoud al-Meslat as co-president was its desire to get closer primarily to the Arab Gulf states.

MSD elected at its fourth conference in the city of Raqqa on December 20, 2023, Mahmoud al-Meslat and Layla Qaraman as co-chairs, with participation from representatives of the Autonomous Administration.

The new names carried aspects of change, as al-Meslat comes from a tribal background and is a nephew of Salem al-Meslat, head of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition, and he was living in the United States with good relationships with the Americans during the same time.

MSD anticipates future opportunities

Researcher at Omran Center, Osama Sheikh Ali believes that MSD anticipates a significant role for the Arab Gulf states in the future Syrian file, and is currently trying to preempt the start of this shift by opening communication channels and forming good relationships in advance.

He added that the early recovery fund being pursued by the United Nations, and the prominent Gulf presence in constructing this fund, motivates the Autonomous Administration to seek closeness with these countries.

Sheikh Ali thinks that the rapprochement steps recently taken by MSD cannot be separated from previous steps like the social contract, and talks about upcoming local elections, which came as messages towards the outside.

The researcher sees that MSD understands the concerns of the Gulf states, especially those that previously aligned with the regime, which are manifested in the unity of Syrian territories, and the council tries to provide assurances in this context.

Al-Meslat said in his talk to Hawar news agency that he is working on expanding MSD’s relations with Arab countries, as it owns offices and representations abroad, and is working on opening others, indicating that MSD does not forget that there are Arab countries that have normalized with the regime, considering that MSD is part of the “state,” and should have an “external efficacy” with the Arab states.

According to the researcher, al-Meslat’s speech was phrased in a way that distances himself from the Syrian opposition, considering the Autonomous Administration a third party unrelated to the opposition, and that it can occupy a broader space in any Syrian solution plan.

Mazloum Abdi paved the way for transformation

At the end of 2023, SDF commander, Mazloum Abdi, during his participation in the fourth general conference of MSD, called for intensifying efforts and working to organize the ranks of the “national” opposition throughout Syria.

He stated then that “the opposition linked to an external agenda has no programs and has become out of the equation,” noting that international powers do not have “strong programs” to lead the solution, nor do they show the will to force all parties to come out of the crisis.

Abdi sees that the “foreign-based opposition” has failed to find any solution to the “Syrian crisis,” considering it has left the scene to “terrorist and radical groups.”

He added that it was necessary for the “real opposition” to emerge, which prompted the establishment of MSD, noting that SDF took MSD as a political umbrella to represent it in international and local political forums.

Regarding the Syrian National Coalition, Abdi said that it does not possess any programs and has become out of the equation, considering it is linked to an external agenda.

The Coalition and other segments of the Syrian opposition adopt the same position as Turkey regarding the Autonomous Administration and its political arm the MSD and military arm the SDF as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Syria.

Abdi considered that given the lack of international seriousness in finding a solution to the “Syrian crisis,” it is necessary for MSD to intensify its efforts to find solutions within broader initiatives to organize the ranks of the “democratic opposition” throughout Syria.

Over the past years, the Autonomous Administration has proposed plans for dialogue with the Syrian regime to reach a consensual solution, but the regime’s continued refusal has thwarted these plans and initiatives, according to previous statements by Kurdish officials.

The Syrian regime views the Autonomous Administration as a “separatist entity” supported by a foreign country (the United States). Consequently, it has previously expressed its support for the armed tribal uprising that took place in Deir Ezzor province against the SDF.


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