AMMAN — While Syrians opposed to the regime were still arguing over the Constitutional Committee, announced on September 23, another, more severe debate erupted over Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring,” launched on October 9, against the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) east of the Euphrates.
The greatest beneficiary of Turkey’s offensive, fought by the Syrian National Army (SNA), is “the Syrian regime,” Kurdish politician and academic Dr. Abdulbasit Sieda, told Syria Direct reporter Ammar Hamou. It is further telling that both the formation of the Constitutional Committee and launch of “Operation Peace Spring” were subject to approval from Russia, which has provided steady support for the regime since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011.
Consequently, Syrians must focus “on Syrian interests first,” the former president of the opposition-affiliated Syrian National Council (SNC) added, and “develop relationships with all parties and players based on friendship and mutual interests, rather than dependency that only leads to more fragmentation and division among Syrians.” Thus, “Arab and Kurdish elites, a well as influential local community figures, must intervene quickly to emphasize an inclusive national discourse.”
Shortly after the formation of the constitutional committee, Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” east of the Euphrates. Is there a link between both events, and who benefits from them?
It’s no secret that there is a clear relationship between the announcement of the formation of the Constitutional committee [to draft a new Syrian constitution, whose first meeting was held on October 30 in Geneva, Switzerland] and “Operation Peace Spring.” Anyone following what has happened since the start of the Astana talks can see this, especially since the changes on the ground coincide with Russia’s conception of how things ought to be. The results confirm the existence of Russian-Turkish-Iranian understanding and coordination under the umbrella of “Astana.”
At the same time, I believe there is a US-Russian consensus on a future solution in Syria, with each side keen to use its cards while still taking into account the other party’s calculations and interests at the same time.
Undoubtedly, the regime is the one who is benefiting from both the formation of the constitutional committee and Operation Peace Spring. Everyone knows that this pressure on the SDF, rather than negotiations or diplomatic communications by a third party, means that the SDF will turn to the regime. This is especially true considering that the SDF has always kept its relationship with the regime alive.
We hoped that the Americans would be able to distance the SDF from the regime so that it could be part of a future process that would serve the interests of the Syrian people, not the regime. However, the way the Turkish forces entered [east of the Euphrates], along with the abuses committed by the SNA, terrorizing and frightening citizens, is what pushed the SDF towards the regime. One can see this from people’s reaction to the visit of Ahmed Badr Eddine Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria, to Hasakah city.
It also seems that there will be a military operation in Idlib soon after the Russians take control of the situation in northeastern Syria. Further, the Russians are paving the way for a constitutional committee that will not deliver what is required from it as long as the regime feels that it regained power and got a green light, even from the United States, to contribute to fighting terrorism. All of this contributes to the rehabilitation of the regime, except that now there have recently been some major developments that changed the situation. The region is currently experiencing a major political earthquake. What is happening in Lebanon and Iraq will undoubtedly also affect Syria.
In an article published a recently in the London-based “al-Quds al-Arabi” newspaper, you said that Kurds are the party most harmed by the recent political and military developments in Syria. Do you think that there is a deliberate exclusion of the Kurds from the constitutional committee and targeting of the (Kurdish) Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria under the pretext of fighting the PYD?
The Kurdish issue is extremely complicated. All parties are keen to link the Kurds in Syria with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the [internationally designated terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK. Everyone, however, knows that the Kurdish issue predates the existence of the PYD and will continue to persist in the long run.
The regime supported the PYD, [but] then the Russians entered the fray and then after, the Americans. This pushed the [PYD] to the forefront and marginalized the Kurdish National Council (KNC) [comprised of 13 Kurdish parties], which was preoccupied with its internal divisions and squabbles. Some suggest that the Kurds are excluded from the constitutional committee, but in reality, they are participating in it. There are two representatives from the KNC in the committee; however; their presence does not match their size or role of Kurds [in Syria].
On the other hand, Turkey seems to have a veto on the PYD. We could say that the Turks had to assure the Kurds and create an impression that Turkey has a plan to resolve the Kurdish issue, even in Turkey itself, in order to block the PKK’s attempts to exploit this issue in Syria. And in actuality, the PKK has exploited the Kurdish issue effectively in its calculations and agenda.
I think that the next phase calls for efforts focused on opening up negotiations between the Turkish government and Kurdish parties in Turkey, including the PKK, in order to find a solution to the Kurdish issue there. Such a solution will ease the burden on Turkey first, and will also reflect positively on the Kurds of Syria and in general, all Syrians, thus reinforcing the entire region’s stability.
There is no dispute about the negative ramifications on the Kurds in Syria, but do you think the Syrian opposition was also adversely affected by the formation of the constitutional committee and Operation Peace Spring?
The Syrian opposition is also paying the price, on top of its involvement in matters that don’t concern it or [help] the Syrians. What happened in Afrin [following its seizure by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition in March 2018] and al-Jazira [a region east of the Euphrates], and what might happen in other areas is all based on agreements with the Turkish side, while [reconciliations] in southern Syria were based on an agreement with the Russian side. These agreements did not reflect the Syrian people’s will and institutions. Therefore, a national project, as I always say, must be “for all Syrians and by all Syrians.”
Turkey is a neighboring country with overlapping geography and demography with Syria, as well as common interests. It has also done a lot to welcome refugees and provide them support within its borders. But these issues do not preclude consideration of Syrians’ interests, which in many ways intersects with Turkish interests.
For some Syrians, to have their case co-opted by Turkish policy based on its internal or regional calculations means that we have brought our cause into the bazaars of states at the regional and international level, thus losing credibility to our people. As a result, we become a part of the regional agendas being implemented in Syria.
What Syrians need now is to focus on Syrian interests first; to communicate with various parties that are willing to help the Syrians, but on the basis of friendship, equality and mutual interests, rather than on dependency, which has unfortunately proven to only lead to further division and fragmentation between the Syrians.
In light of recent developments, what are your expectations for the future of east of the Euphrates, specifically SDF-controlled areas?
Based on the current conditions, it appears that the regime will return to the region. The regime has always been present in Hasakah, Qamishli, and some of Deir e-Zor’s countryside, but it will now return with Russian cover and possibly with Turkish consent. The Russian-Turkish agreement in the Sochi resort [in October] may confirm this development.
In the same way, the United States, as illustrated through the statements of President Donald Trump, has no objection to what is happening east of the Euphrates. [US forces] will remain in some areas, especially those that contain oil fields, border Iraq and do not put it at diplomatic odds with Turkey. The United States is betting on Turkey, a NATO member. Turkey also needs the United States.
Returning to the Kurds, how can they achieve their civil and political rights in Syria amidst these changes?
The Kurdish issue pertains to all of Syria, so it can’t be separated from the broader national issue. As for the talk of separatism among the Kurds, it’s used to dramatize and intimidate. There are many statements from Kurdish political parties denying the Kurds’ intention to secede. In addition to these statements, there is no possibility of such a separation. Many requirements are lacking along the border strip that must be met before separation is to be seriously contemplated.
From this standpoint, I emphasize that the Kurdish issue must be resolved within the framework of a national project, which will be for and by all Syrians. Therefore we hope that the Syrian people will return to their senses and work on a Syrian project that will be for everyone and worked on by everyone; this is something that will reassure everyone.
Syria has always been a victim of cross-border projects, including pan-Arab and Kurdish nationalisms, Islamic and even communist ideologies. Therefore, we need a project based on respect for individual and human rights; one that allows everyone to participate and benefit from the state’s resources. Through this project, Syria could become a cornerstone of stability in the wider region.
How do you view future relations between the Kurdish and Arab components of the Syrian people?
Despite the persecution that Kurds have faced at the hands of the regime for decades, and the official policy that treats the Kurdish population as a danger to be mitigated, the historic relations between Arabs and Kurds in al-Jazira and Kobane in particular, and Syria in general, have been friendly and harmonious. At the grassroots level, people generally ignore [the aforementioned] policies. But this relationship has without a doubt been negatively affected today.
I believe that since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, we faced parties seeking to destroy the Arab-Kurdish relationship in various ways. For example, when the PYD forces turned towards the towns of Tel Hamis, Tel Barak, and other areas in Hasakah province, we realized that [this] was a project that was aimed at severing the relationship between Arabs and Kurds. Also, the attacks against Ras al-Ain in late 2012 and the beginning of 2013 by factions claiming to be from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) confirmed the existence of efforts to disturb this relationship.
Earlier, we stressed the importance of an inclusive national discourse. But the entrance of the Islamic State (IS) in Kobane and the American reliance on the SDF to fight IS in Raqqa led to the emergence of a nationalist discourse, as well as populism and hate by extremists on both sides.
Today, Arab and Kurdish elites, as well as influential community figures, whether they be cultural, academic, artistic, or political, must intervene and work to calm the situation, and stress the importance of an inclusive national discourse. I do believe that the relationship between Arabs and Kurds will continue and things will calm down, but we need to intervene quickly to mitigate the damage.
This interview was originally conducted and published in Arabic and translated by Lauren Remaley and Will Christou.