US-backed opposition authorities in northern Syria push for ‘de-centralization’ agreement with Damascus: SDF

Members of the SDC meet in Tabqa on July 16. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP.

AMMAN: US-backed, majority-Kurdish authorities in the de facto autonomous region of northeastern Syria are pushing forward with plans to negotiate with the Syrian government for a “de-centralized, democratic system” in areas under their control, officials told Syria Direct on Monday.

Last week, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), publicly acknowledged for the first time that it had entered into talks with the Syrian government for a “roadmap leading to a democratic and decentralized Syria.” However, analysts—as well as SDF officials themselves—acknowledge that major challenges stand in the way of future talks.

On Tuesday, several parties that make up the SDC met to discuss the outcome of recent talks, with delegates reportedly agreeing on the need for confidence-building measures towards a “Syrian-Syrian political path,” an SDC statement said.  

Details on what those confidence-building measures might include remain unclear. However, Maher Abbas, a member of the SDF’s legal office, told Syria Direct on Monday that negotiators are interested in establishing “serious, real negotiations with international guarantees” revolving around coordination of services in areas currently under SDF control.

“A political and military alliance...is preferable to war in any case,” Abbas added.

Local SDC chapters also met with Syrian government representatives in Tabqa in Raqqa province in mid-July, to discuss the hand-over of the city’s river dam to government control and the potential return of workers to operate the dam, the news outlet al-Monitor reported.  

Talks between the Kurdish-majority SDF and Syrian government could ultimately impact large swathes of territory captured in the wake of IS withdrawals throughout north and eastern Syria.

A multi-ethnic coalition comprised primarily of Kurdish fighters originally founded in 2015, the SDF became the US-led international coalition’s main fighting partner on the ground against the Islamic State (IS), retaking key IS-held territories in Manbij, Raqqa and Deir e-Zor.

Although an independent self-administration stepped in to manage governance and reconstruction in areas formerly under the control of the hardline Islamist group, the future of these territories remains unclear.

In April, US President Donald Trump announced US plans to withdraw forces from Syria once the Islamic State was defeated, though without setting a specific deadline. The US administration has also decided to cut funding for stabilization and civil society projects in northwestern Syria, while a State Department official told Syria Direct that other projects are “under review.”

Pending withdrawal or waning support, the SDF has continued to make rapid military advances in the east—retaking a large IS-held pocket along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq last week.

According to a statement by SDF spokesperson Leilwa al-Abdullah, SDF forces pushed IS fighters into retreat from an area of ​​3,100 square-kilometers to a small slither of territory close to the strategic border town of Abu Kamal last week.

A local SDF commander, speaking to Syria Direct last week on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press, said that the “crackdown on the border area” had gone ahead in coordination with Iraqi forces and international coalition airpower.

Still, recent territorial gains by the SDF may have little bearing on talks with the Syrian government, which could be unwilling to actually cede territorial control or administrative authority to Kurdish-majority forces. Sihanouk Dibo, from the majority-Kurdish leftist Democratic Union Party (PYD), acknowledged last week that any future talks could be “long and arduous because the Damascus regime is very centralized.”

The advent of the Syrian uprising and ensuing conflict in 2011 saw Kurdish political groups including the PYD—and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG—gain greater autonomy in areas of the country, particularly after pro-government forces withdrew from several majority-Kurdish areas in Syria’s northeast in 2012. Parts of northern Syria governed by the leftist PYD are organized around communes that constitute the base unit for the local democratic confederalist system.

And despite the Syrian government’s history of solidly centralized governance, SDC negotiators appear to be hoping for a devolution agreement along the lines of a 2011 decree issued by the Syrian government detailing the role of local authorities.

Decree 107, also known as the “Local Administration Law,” was introduced as part of a package of political reforms passed in August 2011 in response to demands by a civil uprising by then already sweeping the country. The decree was designed to devolve political and administrative responsibilities to institutions at the local level, but it was never fully clear how it would be implemented.

Decree 107 has been a “key component” in the United Nations-led negotiations for a political settlement to the conflict, and would form a central component of the SDC’s negotiations with the Syrian government, SDC member Ibrahim al-Quftan said in an online statement last week.

However, according to visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Fabrice Balanche, differing interpretations of “de-centralization” could pose a fundamental challenge to future SDF-government talks.

“For the Syrian regime, de-centralization means administrative de-concentration,” Balanche told Syria Direct.

“But the Kurds want more...for the Kurds, de-centralization means federalism.”

American withdrawal would leave the Kurdish-majority region of northern Syria vulnerable to attacks by the Syrian government, Balanche said, and the latest talks appear to reflect an SDF leadership “anticipating” US withdrawal, while attempting to maintain some form of autonomy in the region.

And while Balanche said the Syrian government does have an interest in “retaking” control of the area with as little bloodshed as possible, any concessions on decentralization would most likely be “according to the Syrian rule...not the PYD model.”

This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

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.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.

Tom Rollins

Tom Rollins is a journalist and researcher from the north of England, who graduated with an English BA from the University of Cambridge. He previously worked as an independent journalist in Egypt between 2013 and 2015 and Lebanon between 2016 and 2017, and has written for Al Jazeera English, IRIN, Mada Masr and The National.