As the Syrian war enters a new critical stage, the relationships and ambitions of two actors in particular should gain more interest. Interlocked in a complicated struggle for regional power among various countries, it stays with the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces to realise their national ambitions and achieve peace in northeastern Syria. In a bid to finally end wide-spread violence in at least one part of the country, both will have to give concessions to one another to achieve a greater goal in the complicated, currently ongoing negotiations between the two.
The relevant actors of the Syrian government can be found in the inner circle of the ruling coalition led by Bashar al-Assad, containing some of the powerful individuals shaping politics and top level decision making in Syria. They come from a variety of backgrounds and include high-ranking military officers, senior Baath party officials, and influential businessmen. On the other hand, the political structure of the Syrian Democratic Forces is relatively unknown and for many, open to interpretation. The power brokers include members of the nine-man executive council, appointed by the elected parliament for SDF-held areas, the Federal Assembly. Interest groups active in SDF-held areas wishing to influence the negotiation process include for example senior Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) cadres which are now with the People’s Protection Forces (YPG) or the powerful Democratic Union Party (PYD), as well as political officials and other individuals which rose to power during the course of the Syrian Civil War.
Examining specific interests and negotiating positions of the two sides, there is an elephant in the room: their foreign backers. For the Syrian government, this mainly constitutes Russia and Iran and other countries, for the SDF, it is the US and others, such as Saudi Arabia and the UK. As regional and global power projectors, these states are invested into the wider Middle East region and Syria specifically in a military, political and economic way, especially Russia and Iran. The real interests of these states are ultimately subject to speculation, but some can be identified. By establishing friendly relations with the force that will ultimately control the ground, they retain the possibility of trading and economic ties, for example for re-construction deals. By developing local support bases in Syria, the states can spread their respective normative values and project military power by building bases or working with local militias. As the main contention point for this negotiation is the formulation of a future domestic governance model for Syria, the foreign powers have little interest in how exactly it will look like; they want it to not hinder their regional power projection ability and prevent future conflict which would come with more expenses and investment.
Far more important for this possible domestic political settlement however are the interests and ambitions of the Syrian actors themselves. Both sides have been involved in war for years now and the locals want to see an end to it. On both sides, a variety of different requests and demands need to be placated. On the government’s side, this includes the people most strongly affected by the war, families whose large majority of fighting age males have either died, are wounded or are still deployed to the frontlines today. They want the war to end and will demand their government reach a settlement which will exclude any possibility of armed conflict between the two parties at least in the short-term future. But not everyone would agree: Syrians with strong nationalist feelings will not accept a settlement which does not preserve the unity of the Syrian territory at minimum. The opinion on this matter is on a spectrum: some may agree to give some concessions to the SDF in accordance to their demands, others may accept no less than the full military takeover of all their controlled territories – regardless of the costs. For example, some would accept that the SDF over Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria, but not over Arab-majority areas. More pragmatically, the government needs to take into account the situation on the ground. The SDF has captured a variety of vital natural resources, including water dams, and gas and oil fields. While the government would of course prefer to bring back all of those under their control, the costs associated with it may not be worth the effort in the end. A distributional agreement with the SDF that would bring at least a part of the resources revenue to the government – and hopefully, its people – is possible. The specifics of this possible agreement will likely take a lot of discussions and concessions in some of the other fields where the two sides are connected. The government needs to balance their pragmatic needs, their regional and national future ambitions and the willingness of their international backers to decide the extent of their demands and concessions towards the SDF.
The situation is no less, if not even more, complicated on the side of the SDF. Many of its territories have been captured very recently and unlike the government, its power structure is less established or even known to the public – something lamented by Western diplomats. As a very diverse and broad coalition, the SDF needs to balance several interests of various actors. One of those is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Despite not acknowledging it officially, several members of the Turkish organisation enjoy senior posts within the SDF structure and its main Syrian armed group, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG). The regional and national ambitions of these members will likely overlap with those of some of the Kurdish nationalist elements present within the SDF. Their demands and negotiating position might in the most extreme case be the declaration of an independent state or strong institutions and rights for their people or region within the Syrian state. There will be those who are principally opposed to negotiating with the government in the first place; this can include for example Arabs but also Kurds with anti-government feelings. Many of the locals which were previously in ISIS-controlled areas or some of the armed groups which were later integrated into the SDF umbrella strongly oppose the government and would even wish to fight it, despite the possible consequences. On the other side, there are also locals and groups which are very much pro-government and would like to see the SDF-areas to return under full or almost full control of the central government again. The negotiating actors also need to take into account the limited future capacities a more or less autonomous northern Syria would have. While it may have gained resources like oil and water, much of the political and societal infrastructure in northern Syria was built and is partly still operated by the central government. Not having any agreement would also mean that the region would also be excluded from nation-wide projects like highways, education or healthcare policies enacted – and funded – by the central government. Many internally displaced people, which exist in both government and SDF-held areas, will also want to return to their homes after more of the conflict has calmed down. A framework agreement between the two parties will significantly ease up this process and allow for relief and better conditions for the hundreds of thousands of people, often living in miserable conditions.
The negotiations have not been standing at a standstill in recent times. Since the eastern Aleppo campaign in early 2017 and the establishment of a common border between the two south of Manbij city, a variety of closed door meetings happened. This includes for example a deal in which several Chechen ISIS family members were handed over by the SDF to Russia or the entry of Russian troops into Conico gas plant east of Mayadin. Most recently, a senior official within the Syrian Democratic Council confirmed their willingness to integrate the armed groups of the SDF within the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) when a political settlement is reached. This is not surprising: the SDF has been supported by the US and often accused to be a “US/Western puppet”, they know that the US’ stay in Syria has a departure date and they will want to secure their future before that happens. While historically not necessarily on friendly terms due to past confrontations, the SDF is not looking to confront the Syrian government and most likely could not even if they wanted to. Their views on the political future of Syria are different as well, as the SDF wishes for an at least partial federation and the government would prefer to continue the current central state. By giving just a specific region some sort of autonomy the government risks other regions demanding the same for themselves or in the worst case aspirations of independence. While actors such as Hezbollah, Iran or friendly militia groups from Iraq and elsewhere might be willing to follow Syria wherever they go, recent actions by Russia indicate that they have no intention to further escalate and prolong the fighting in Syria by opening a front against the SDF. The Syrian government will thus think twice whether they want to place their bets on a military victory against the SDF. Russia’s planned Syrian People Congress in Sochi about the future of Syria includes discussion over re-writing of the Constitution, possibly a first step towards a new administrative order in Syria and away from the “regime” it has known so far. This comes not without problems: Turkey, seeing the SDF as a Syrian proxy organisation of the PKK and thus a terrorist group, is pulling all of its diplomatic levers to make sure they are not invited to the congress. But since the SDF is the second biggest national actor in Syria right now, it’s hard to imagine what a political settlement without them would look like. While their presence is helpful, neither the Syrian government nor Russia need Turkey to define a future path for Syria; the worst reaction by Turkey could be an escalated effort to support anti-government groups in northern Syria, but these have long lost their chance to pose a significant challenge to the Syrian government. So far, Russia has always moved to suppress or otherwise appease any sort of demand by Turkey regarding the SDF and with the few leverages Turkey has at its disposal, this stalemate situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. By disengaging from Syria after the SDF reached peace and integrated within the Syrian state, the US could finally leave one Middle Eastern country with an at least somewhat positive balance after defeating ISIS and avoiding their involvement in more conflict in the country.
Luckily, this careful balancing act of various differing interests of multitude of actors comes in good timing. Even as ISIS has been declared as defeated, they group still controls more than 30’000 square km of territory around the Syria-Iraq border which will take months to clear. When ISIS as a territory-holding armed group is really mostly defeated, the Syrian Government will turn their full attention to the last anti-government enclaves in western Syria. While unclear just how far they are willing to go to recapture this territory, any kind of future offensive will likely take months before its end may even be considered. The newly expanded presence of ISIS in the eastern Hama province at the expense of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the now-rebranded former official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and other rebel groups is also a prime opportunity for the government to take back more territory under the pretext of fighting ISIS. The Syrian war has always been characterized by the current strategic military situation and this is now once more the case. Clearing ISIS from the border, securing recently captured territory and attacking opposition groups will take months – valuable months which serve as a window of opportunity for a political settlement that could finally bring peace and a more or less certain future to at least one part of Syria. Such a prime window of opportunity has so far not existed for any sort of political settlement between the Syrian government and opposition-held areas such as eastern Qalamoun or southern Syria. It will ultimately lie with the two parties to find common ground and find this crucial agreement. It all depends on what Assad’s vision of a future Syria looks like and how bent the SDF is on achieving their political ambitions. No success bears high risks of just prolonging the human suffering and continuing the killing and hopefully, this is not in the interest of any of the actors involved.