What's the Status of Negotiations over Northeast Syria?

A number of Syrian news outlets have reported that the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration (AA) is negotiating with Damascus over the future of the resource-rich quarter of the country that the AA controls. Are negotiations actually underway, and, if so, what do they mean for a possible political settlement to the civil war?

Officials within the AA have denied they are talking directly to the government at present, an account backed by Navanti researchers. “There are rumors about talks that are being published by government-supported Facebook pages, and the [rebel] opposition spreads them,” says a Kurdish journalist living in AA territory, which encompasses most of northeast Syria, including the majority of the country’s oil, gas, agricultural, and water resources. The goal behind these rumors is to present the AA as weak and forced to barter for its survival.

 The Tabqah Dam, currently under Autonomous Administration control.

The Tabqah Dam, currently under Autonomous Administration control.

However, Kurdish officials have said repeatedly that they are willing to sit down at the bargaining table with the central government, and it appears developments are moving in that direction. In June, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad presented the AA with two choices: negotiations, or, “if that doesn’t happen, we will liberate those areas by force.” The Kurdish-led administration understood this statement as an invitation to dialogue, despite its threatening tone, and the next day Damascus dispatched a delegation of pro-government Kurdish figures to Qamishli to explore the future of direct talks. The Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces, then issued an announcement on June 10 declaring that “we look positively at statements that aim towards a meeting of Syrians, and opening the door to begin a new chapter.”

The Syrian government and AA have long cooperated on a host of issues despite their hostility towards one another. Both parties jointly provide municipal services in cities across northeast Syria, and they have traded territory depending on military contingencies. One senior Kurdish official said last month that talks between Damascus and the AA are an “expected step, although it might take a while.”

 Fighters with the Manbij Military Council, affiliated with the AA’s military arm.

Fighters with the Manbij Military Council, affiliated with the AA’s military arm.

The anticipated outcome of negotiations — a degree of autonomy for AA territory, which will remain part of Syria — is in the interest of both parties. The AA will be able to preserve some aspects of self-rule and protections for Kurds, while Damascus will be able to claim that it has regained control of the country. Global powers involved in Syria stand to gain as well. Russia has long preferred an end to the conflict that preserves Assad’s power, which an AA-Damascus deal would likely accomplish (to this end, Russia has historically encouraged both sides to sit down and talk). The United States, meanwhile, could maintain influence in a future Kurdish-led zone, in order to prevent the resurgence of ISIS and check Iranian influence. Even Turkey could be amenable to such a deal if it entailed the AA staying formally loyal to Damascus rather than acting as an independent Kurdish zone.

It is no surprise that Aldar Khalil, considered one of the most influential political leaders within the AA, wrote last month that “anyone who agrees with these principles [a unified, democratic, pluralistic Syria] shouldn’t ask us if we are ready for a dialogue — because we are ready.”