Will Syria's Assad grant autonomy to the YPG to stay in power?

  • Saim Kurubas
  • 1 Aug 2018

The Syrian regime and the US-backed YPG group appeared as enemies while avoiding conflicts during the country's civil war. Now both sides are holding talks that could lead to a partnership against Turkey-backed opposition groups in the north.

In this picture taken on December 5, 2016, a Syrian soldier stands guard at a checkpoint in western Aleppo, Syria. ( AP )

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Council, SDC, which is dominated by the YPG – the Syrian affiliate of the PKK terror group – announced on Saturday that they were having talks with the Assad regime to find a possible political solution for the areas it controlled in the northern part of the war-torn country.

The SDC said that they were holding negotiations with the regime and are ready to accept Bashar al Assad’s rule in their territory in return for autonomy.

The council is a rebranding of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) formed by the PKK-linked YPG terror group with the support of the US, which allied with the group in Syria to fight the Daesh terror group.

It has been controlling nearly a quarter of the country thanks to Washington’s funding and arming despite Turkey’s vehement objections.

The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU which has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state since 1984, and it has been responsible for killing over 40,000 civilians and security personnel.

US Army Lieutenant General Paul E Funk, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, presents awards to four SDF members, a group formed by PKK's Syrian branch, in Syria, July 11, 2018.(Reuters)

The SDC said it met Syrian regime officials at Bashar al Assad’s invitation, but there was no immediate comment from Damascus.

Following the expulsion of Daesh from major cities of the country, the Assad regime has regained most opposition areas and has taken control of Golan Heights in the past few months with Russian and Iranian help.

Confident about the support from his allies, Assad in May had threatened to attack areas held by the US-backed group.

"The only problem left in Syria is the SDF ... We have one option, to live with each other as Syrians. If not, we're going to resort ... to liberating those areas by force," he said in an interview with the broadcaster Russia Today.

Speaking to TRT World, Abdullah Agar, a Turkish security analyst, said that the negotiations were not addressing the main problems of the Syrian nation.

“The Sunni-Arab population comprises the main core of the demographic structure in this region, but there was no mention of them in these talks,” Agar told TRT World.

“There is a very complicated balance of power in Syria, and the sides are testing each other according to gains they have made during the seven-year-long clashes. These negotiations could only be defined as an early stage for a possible political solution, however, it doesn’t have a potential to solve the crisis across the country.”

In this July 25, 2017 file photo, Ilham Ahmed, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council speaks during an interview with the Associated Press, in Ayn al Arab, also known as Kobani, Syria.(AP)

What was on the table in Damascus?

The Syrian regime and the US-backed group have seemed to be enemies, whereas they mostly avoided conflicts during the long-time civil war.

“I am not surprised of the negotiations between the two. The [Assad] regime has left them a vast territory at the very beginning of the Syrian revolution. Both are against the opposition,” Ali Bakeer, a political analyst and researcher in international affairs told TRT World.

Military cooperation, economic autonomy and integration of the YPG-controlled areas and partnership against Turkish influence in the region topped the agenda, Anadolu Agency reported on Friday, citing security sources.

The group in Damascus was represented by Ilham Ahmed and Ibrahim Katfan, who both have good ties with the Americans, the source said.

Local media close to the PKK-linked group reported a 12-point roadmap, which said Raqqa and Deir Ezzor – Syria's oil-rich eastern provinces – would be handed over to the regime “without any trouble.”

“Even if the PKK gives control of these areas to the regime, they would still continue to pose a threat for Turkey’s national security,” Agar said.

The document also said the PKK-related group would cut off its ties with foreign countries.

The SDC said on Saturday that it had decided with the regime to “chart a roadmap for a decentralised Syria."

“Assad is trying to find a balance between Israel and the US on the one side and Iran and Russia on the other to stay in power. However, such talks raise questions about the US’ position. It is endorsing these talks could also be very dangerous for the stabilisation of the region,” Bakeer said.

A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the opposition-held Idlib city, Syria, June 8, 2017.(Reuters)

Partnership in Idlib? 

A YPG member who spoke to Reuters signalled that the terror group could join forces with the regime in a possible offensive against armed Syrian opposition groups in Idlib province bordering Turkey in an attempt to lessen Turkish influence there.

Idlib, a stronghold for armed opposition groups, is set to be a de-escalation zone in the Astana meetings, endorsed by Turkey and Assad's staunch allies, Russia and Iran in a bid to end the war in Syria.

Last week, Anadolu Agency reported that the regime began a military buildup in the southwestern part of the province that counters the northwestern Turkmen Mountain region, which is located within the de-escalation zones. 

“The areas controlled by the armed opposition groups can become open to direct attacks and asymmetric warfare. There is no place they can move right now, thus it can trigger a new refugee influx to Turkey. So, Ankara should assure stabilisation in the region,” security expert Agar said.

Syrian civilians are seen after a convoy carrying opposition fighters and civilians set out from Syria’s southwestern Daraa province en route to opposition-held parts of Idlib in the country’s north, Syria on July 24, 2018.(AA)

Turkey has already hosted some 3.5 million Syrian refugees – more than any other country in the world. Ankara says it has spent around $32 billion helping and sheltering refugees since the beginning of the civil war.

Nearly 200,000 Syrians have voluntarily returned to regions in northern Syria following Turkish military-led operations, Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, which were launched against the PKK, its affiliated groups as well as Daesh.

Turkish soldiers atop a tank pose for pictures with Syrian children, holding a Turkish flag in Afrin, Syria on March 24, 2018.(AP)

Still a threat under regime control?

The YPG had declared its desire for an autonomous region in northern Syria in the early years of the Syrian civil war.

US armed support for the YPG in Syria has also been a bone of contention between Turkey and the US.

The terror group has always been presented as a "democratic and secular" force by the US, but several rights groups have documented many human rights violations against its rivals and other ethnic groups including the use of child soldiers.

However, the US has decided to work with the group on the ground against Daesh in Syria despite Ankara’s strong objections.

The US formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Syrian militants from different ethnic groups in 2015 in an apparent attempt to appease Turkey.

However, the group is dominated by the YPG and it was just a rebranding.

The group has changed its name many times, presented a secular identity and targeted Turkish soil several times while the US repeatedly denies the group’s ties with the PKK.

“The PKK members, who were captured in our southern border recently while preparing to launch a terror attack in Turkey, sneaked into the country from Latakia, Assad's political stronghold,” a Turkish security source who didn’t want to be named told TRT World.

Turkey repeatedly says that it is not going to step back or detente on fighting against terrorism inside and outside that poses threats to its unity and national interests.

“Our active fight against the terror threats originating from Syria will continue with determination,” Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Tuesday.