A new offer from Assad to the Kurds

Musa Özuğurlu writes: While the world is busy with Afghanistan, there are significant developments ongoing in Syria. Bashar al-Assad while addressing the new cabinet ministers on Aug. 14 said that decentralization should be implemented. The Kurds are approaching the issue with cautious optimism. The Kurds are concerned that once the Syrian regime regains full authority it would go back to its “former reflexes.”

Musa Özuğurlu

While the world is busy with Afghanistan, there are significant developments ongoing in Syria. The main development is a statement from Bashar al-Assad regarding the Kurds, who are key players in the Syrian crisis.

Bashar al-Assad recently presided over a new cabinet, and the most notable part of Assad’s speech addressing the cabinet ministers is of direct interest to the Kurds. Assad said decentralization should be implemented and claimed that this approach would “allow for the elimination of inequality between rich and poor regions, and rural and central areas.”

Though this seems like a new offer, it is anything but. The authorities are now discussing a law (Law number 107) that passed before the war. However, with the outbreak of the war, it was shelved along with other reform decisions.

Now it has taken on a new significance as the regime acted with full authority prior to the outbreak of the war. It did not provide for any political rights for the Kurds. That is no longer the case. The Kurds have obtained several gains in their region.

The Kurds have long had a problematic relationship with the Syrian government. The Kurds argue that they should be granted fundamental rights on several issues, including political autonomy, which would ensure their right to self-determination. But the Syrian state has never addressed those requests.

After the outbreak of the war in 2011, a vacuum emerged which was beneficial to the Kurds. The Kurds began to gain strength in their own region and were able to fill that vacuum. Later, with the help of the US, a formation emerged which is now capable of “negotiating more strongly, acting like a state in its own region, becoming internationally engaged and putting forward their identity against Damascus.”

During this time period, both sides avoided confrontation except for small, individual conflicts. Distrust and controlled cooperation, though, continued in certain fields. For the moment, this cooperation is ongoing in certain segments of the Kurdish-populated regions. Damascus continues to pay the salaries of its civil servants; airports are operated by the central state, and flights continue between Damascus and Qamishli.

Of course, these two (Damascus and the Kurds) are not the only parties that are directly and indirectly involved. The issue is also of direct interest to Russia, Turkey and the US. Before explaining the situation for the parties, let’s examine the issue in terms of Syrian law and practices.

Syria’s new constitution, which was adopted through a referendum in 2012, has eased the central authority over local governments. Local elections in Syria are held differently than how we conduct them in Turkey.

Previously, Baath Party members had certain allocated seats in municipal councils. Other than these guaranteed seats, other parties in the National Progressive Front, members of farmers and workers as well as independent representatives took their seats in local governments. The city council would then elect a mayor among its members. Of course, since the Baath and the parties within the same front always had a majority, the outcome was generally predetermined.

More importantly, however, was that a board ran the city. The chairman of this board was the governor. The Baath representative, the relevant local intelligence officer and the mayor also served as members. Thus, in fact, the mayor was like an officer implementing the projects and services proposed by the council and approved by the relevant ministry.

The famous Article 8 of the previous constitution was removed with the 2012 constitution. This article was the article stating, “Baath is the leader of the people and the state,” which gave the Baath an absolute authority in all matters. In parallel to the abolition of this article, functions and elections of the local (municipal) council have also been relaxed. It is debatable whether this is sufficient or not but the intention of Assad to “pave the way for decentralization” that he announced in his last speech is based on this practice.

Indeed, one can draw the conclusion, from the talks held by the Kurdish side after 2011 or the statements they issued, that this was insufficient.

The Kurdish side stated that they wanted to stay within the Syrian entity, but what they wanted was more than “the framework announced by Assad.

Still, Assad’s statements were welcomed by the Kurds as a step toward the process in achieving what is “ideal” and for protecting their gains.

Ilham Ehmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, said they welcomed Assad’s statements but that there was need for “deeper” discussions. Ilham Ehmed stated that they insist that Syria should not return to the pre-crisis state. She said that decentralization was one of the principles of the autonomous governance project.

Riad Darar, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, also welcomed the statement, saying Assad’s words that decentralization would ensure economic inequality was correct, but that the issue was not only economic.

These two statements suggest that the Kurds are approaching the issue with cautious optimism but without distancing themselves from their ultimate goal. In the wake of Assad’s statements, talks between the Kurds and Damascus could resume. But the distrust and the red lines coming from the past are still there.

In short, the Kurds are concerned that once the Syrian regime regains full authority it would go back to its “former reflexes.” Damascus has so far refused to accept political autonomy. The other red line of Damascus is the US presence on Syrian territory; whereas the Kurds see the US as assurance against Damascus and organizations like ISIS. On the technical side, it is unclear what Damascus understands from decentralization and whether the practice will satisfy the Kurds.

In the event where talks start and turn out positively, new possibilities may arise. Turkey regards any Kurdish achievement in Syria as a threat to its own security. A positive result could mean that the US “mission” is complete, so will Biden withdraw from Syria after Iraq and Afghanistan? It doesn’t seem to be a problem for Russia. Russia is already a state with a culture of autonomous governance and sees Kurdish gains as problem solvers, provided the Kurds remain inside the Syrian entity.

Since Assad has mentioned decentralization, we have pondered upon the issue through local governments. But is there any possibility that the issue will be brought to the parliamentary level? That is not clear yet. The Kurds have had such a wish, but the administration does not want a Lebanon-like formation or a “federal Syria.” It is unclear what the parliamentary dimension would be, but if an agreement is reached, domestic politics will ease to a great extent and the country’s economy will start to recover.

On the other hand, the consolidation of the forces of two “secular” dynamics such as the Kurds and Damascus will also impact models such as the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nusra and others, or nowadays, the Taliban.

Finally, it should be emphasized that the red lines of both sides are still present. The expectations, goals and interests of parties such as Russia, Turkey and the U.S. regarding Syria continue to challenge each other. Therefore, it is necessary to add the possibility that there may not be any further developments even if a “positive” outcome is achieved. In this case, even if relations between the Kurds and Damascus will not become severe, the actual situation will remain as it is. Which suggests that the uneasiness and problems will continue.