Kurdish political body gains increased independence in opposition’s negotiating committee despite rankling over Afrin operation

Members of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in Riyadh in June. Photo courtesy of HNC.

In late June, the Syrian opposition’s main negotiating body, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), recognized the Kurdish National Council (KNC) as an independent political body for the first time, granting it increased representation.

Prior to the June decision, the KNC participated in international negotiations under the umbrella of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC). However, ties between the KNC and the SNC grew strained earlier this year over Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch to take control of Kurdish-majority Afrin region in northwestern Syria.

At the time, the KNC broke ranks with its allies in the SNC to publicly oppose the Afrin operationand the participation of Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions on the ground.

Today, as the FSA and Turkish presence in Afrin persists, “we refuse this destruction and military operation as a whole,” says Ibrahim Biro, the former president of the KNC and current member of its public relations body, “since it creates [ethnic] tensions in the area.”

But while the KNC’s new status comes against a backdrop of recent tensions with their partners in the SNC, Biro says the move towards greater independence came not out of bad blood, but rather to “have more space to express the justice of our cause” as an independent body. Now separate from the SNC, the KNC has seven members rather than six and may act on its own within the HNC.

But as Assad’s forces regain more and more of Syria, what does a seat at the negotiating table actually mean?

For Biro, ongoing engagement in the political processwhich is now focused on drafting a new constitutionis the only way left to press for change as facts on the ground swing decisively in favor of the Syrian government.

“We will continue negotiating as a choice to save our people, all our people,” Biro tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim. “We have no choice but complete cooperation with the international community.”

Q: Why did the Kurdish National Council just now decide to participate in the High Negotiations Committee as an independent body after years of participation under the Syrian National Council? Had the relationship between the KNC and the SNC been productive?

Since the Syrian revolution began, the Kurdish National Council has had a broad heading: to engage in the Syrian situation through the opposition in our belief that this will facilitate our calling to defend the Kurdish cause. And, by doing so, [we aim] to strengthen the opposition to fulfill its responsibilities towards the suffering of the Syrian people.

The success of a political bond between us [and the SNC] involves a shared vision to solve the Kurdish issue in Syria. From the start, we have exerted diplomatic efforts to be a notable body embodying the Kurdish character within international fora, and especially the negotiations.

We have been able, after intensive efforts and communications, to convince our allies in the opposition of the importance of the KNC as an [independent] body with its own notable character and particularity to represent our cause [within the HNC].

This does not cancel out our serious shared work with the opposition’s SNC, which is still considered our best political partner, despite our different views on many issues.

Q: In January, the KNC came out against Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, which the SNC supported. Did you feel the KNC’s position was taken into account by your partners in the SNC at the time, and that you had equal standing with other members of the coalition? Has what happened in Afrin changed the KNC’s relationship with other opposition bodies?

Afrin is part of Kurdish geography in Syria. When the Turkish annihilation of Afrin began—with reinforcement and support from armed [opposition] factions—our position as the KNC was clear: We refuse this destruction and military operation as a whole, since it creates [ethnic] tensions in the area and complicates the situation. That, in addition to the looting, killing and dangerous demographic changes in Afrin by militant groups that have carried out retaliatory and barbaric policies against our people.

The SNC supported Turkish intervention and armed factions on the basis of expelling the People’s Protection Units (YPG) [Ed.: The YPG is the armed wing of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)]. This was the fundamental point of dispute with the SNC, and [at the time] we suspended our membership in the SNC in protest at their support for the armed groups [participating in Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch].

We have been in contact with a number of international parties, including the Turkish foreign ministry, and explained to them the serious repercussions of their intervention in Afrin. As the KNC, our stance was influential to some extent, and a number of meetings were held with the SNC to contain the crisis.

We stress here that our participation with the SNC is purely political. We have no understandings or affiliation with any military faction. I believe that the KNC’s unified vision was a pivotal point and a real test for the groups and elements within the opposition. Unfortunately, some of [those opposition groups] have started to view the situation in Afrin from a perspective of superiority, revenge, pursuing selfish calculations and limited considerations that are harmful to the Syrian people as a whole.

Q: What practical changes could result from the decision to form an independent delegation, in your opinion? Do you expect the KNC to have a stronger voice within the HNC?

Any practical changes to the Syrian situation are linked to factors controlled by the countries influencing the Syrian crisis—the extent of their agreements and understandings, and score-settling through proxies currently on Syrian soil.

Unfortunately, the international community directs the Syrian crisis while at the same time adopting multilateral zones of influence. We interact with the anticipated facts.

Any advance in the political process will be positive. Especially after the KNC [has gained] representation [as an independent body] in the negotiating body and increased representation in the opposition councils—most importantly the constitution-drafting council—as an independent entity we will have more space to express the justice of our cause. This is a positive development.

Q: What are the primary demands of the KNC moving forward for Syria generally, and for Syria’s Kurds in particular? What is unique about the demands of the KNC? How might the increased independence of your delegation help achieve them, in your view?

On the level of Syria as a whole, our demand as the KNC since the beginning of the Syrian crisis has been to stop the massacres, end the era of dictatorship and find a political solution that includes a return to civilian life, return of the displaced and a transition towards a democratic system that incorporates peace, safety and rights for all components of the Syrian people.

We as the KNC have a clear vision and complete project on the level of Syria in general and Kurds in particular: the end of the centralized dictatorship. It has given the Syrian people nothing but increasing suppression of their freedoms, deprived their civil life, and played different components [of the Syrian people] against one another while creating a polluted political environment because of the regime’s racist policies. As well as the ruling Baath Party’s taking exclusive possession [of the country] through its oppressive security services.

What sets us apart as the KNC is the crystallization of a culture of diversity and safeguarding the rights of all Syrian people through a decentralized political system (federalism) as a political remedy for the problems and aspirations of the Syrian people.

We will exert all our efforts with our allies in the opposition for the Syria of the future to be for all Syrians, without discrimination or dismissing the federal solution, which is ideal for the cause of our Kurdish people and for all Syrians. This model has proved its worth in many countries.

Q: How do you view the current role of the HNC, as the government continues to advance and seize opposition territory? What do you see as the goal, or purpose, of continuing negotiations at this stage?  

The HNC is a part of the Syrian situation, which is complicated by regional and international interventions and understandings, and a lack of seriousness from the international community to find a solution to the suffering of the Syrian people, against whom crimes against humanity have been committed—from killing with barrel bombs and forced displacement, to demographic change, and chemical weapons.

The regime and its allies continue the same systematic killing to this day. In light of this tragic, inauspicious scene, we have no choice other than complete cooperation with the international community, to force the regime into dialogue and urge it to accept the relevant UN decisions.

On multiple occasions, the regime has made a great effort to provoke the opposition delegation in order to cause the political process to fail. The political process means an unhappy ending for the regime, no matter how hesitant the international community is.

But as for the regime’s continued advance against the opposition, I believe that the regime is weak. It is not the one calling the shots. Rather, it only extends its control over opposition areas with direct support of all forms from its allies: the Russians, Iranians and Shiite militias. This [occurs] amid the silence—no, the negligence—toward the opposition by the allies of the Syrian people, and not fulfilling their legal and moral responsibilities as influencers and decision-makers. At their head is America, which runs the crisis according to its calculations and alliances, and Syrians pay the price as a result.

We will continue negotiating as a choice to save our people, all our people, in all their components, from their ordeal. [We hope to do this] by creating a new constitution that truly expresses a Syrian state that guarantees the rights of all its components, and, through UN guidance, pave the way towards a political transition and free elections to lay the foundation for a decentralized and pluralistic state that ends Syrians’ tragic situation.

For us, negotiating is an important and ideal choice. Our goal is to stop the shedding of Syrian blood, to urge the international community to compel all the parties to the UN decisions and Geneva I statement, and to draft a new constitution expressing a secular state and reflecting the nature of Syria as a state with diverse identities and ethnicities, until reaching a peaceful political transition.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman. Follow Mohammad on Twitter: @mohamma59717689.

Mateo Nelson

Mateo Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Mateo holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.