The developments have been fast evolving in the autonomous administration areas in northern and eastern Syria since US President Donald Trump’s announcement Dec. 19, 2018, of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. A few days earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to invade the areas east of the Euphrates River, which forced the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) and the Syrian regime to revitalize a dialogue process that had been halted since late last year. Simultaneously, the Kurdish leaders spoke of resumed contacts with Russia to fill the void caused by the withdrawal of US troops.
Nevertheless, the latest developments relating to the US stance — particularly the US officials’ visits to a number of countries in the region and assurances they made to their allies, including Syria’s Kurdish community — add further ambiguity to the fate of the areas on the east of the Euphrates and standings of the forces running them.
Speaking to Al-Monitor in Qamishli, Aldar Khalil, a leading figure of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) — also described as the engineer of the autonomous administration — shares his views on the overall developments in the region and alternatives available for the Syrian Kurds.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: What are the latest developments in the Russia-mediated dialogue with the Syrian regime?
Aldar Khalil: Contacts have been ongoing with Russia in preparation for the dialogue with Damascus that is yet to start. I would like to explain that [the fact] that Russia was not directly involved as guarantor in the dialogue was one of the reasons that brought down the dialogue initiative with the regime that the SDC had launched last year. This time, the focus is on the Russians assuming a direct role in the dialogue process. Meetings were held [with the Russians] in Moscow to ask them to press Damascus to confer about ways for a solution. Trump’s announcement on the withdrawal of US troops from Syria brought the topic of the dialogue with the regime to the forefront. We [the officials from the SDC and autonomous administration] discussed the available options we have, which resulted in perceiving the resumption of meetings with Damascus to be an option.
Al-Monitor: What are the key items on the agenda of the negotiations with the regime? What matters do you refuse to bargain over?
Aldar Khalil: I can’t speak about these issues, considering that the dialogue has not started yet. Nevertheless, we [SDC and autonomous administration] are basically on the same page when it comes to general principles. We are not seeking Syria’s partition and we affirm the indivisibility of its territory. Also, we have embraced a pluralistic project where all of the region’s components are included based on the autonomous administrations’ model. This would mean that Syria would consist of autonomous regions that govern themselves, provided that they coordinate with Damascus. In addition, there is no problem recognizing the Syrian army as a national army to be present along the Syrian border, including our regions. Likewise, we do not have a problem keeping the Syrian flag as is. We will take any flag that the United Nations and the Syrians adopt. We are also OK with turning the autonomous administration-affiliated forces into internal security forces in our regions, as long as the earlier mentioned national Syrian army would be entrusted with fending off external attacks. There are certainly many other details that will be raised in the dialogue.
Al-Monitor: Which alternative would you go for in case the negotiations fell short?
Aldar Khalil: The dialogue shall necessarily succeed even if it will take a long time. The regime will possibly be too inflexible and insist on bringing back the Syria from before 2011. Yet the regime and everyone knows that its insistence on not reaching a solution would mean that more dangerous and complex conflicts are facing Syria. This is not a threat, but rather an analysis because in the absence of a resolution to the outstanding issues, [the situation] will be redirected to a more dangerous episode [of violence].
Al-Monitor: Sources close to the autonomous administration reported that the regime replied indirectly to the list of demands obtained from the Russians, and that the reply was, “Either you hand over the regions to the regime forces or the Turkish army will enter the area east of the Euphrates, thus repeating the same scenario as in Afrin.” What do you think about this?
Aldar Khalil: What you have just said was not an official response [from the regime]. Rather, it is closer to an analysis of the regime stance, considering its irresponsiveness with the initiatives for a solution so far. This conclusion stemmed from its stances. Nevertheless, the damage will not be limited to us in case of a Turkish offense in our regions. It will affect all Syrians as well as the unity of Syria and stability of the region. Turkey creates strife, conflicts and radical Islamic thought wherever it goes; the Islamic State [IS] and [Jabhat] al-Nusra emerge, and this could lead to Syria's partition and the revitalization of IS. The Americans, Europeans and Russians need to be keen that this never happens, because any further role Turkey would assume would generate major catastrophes.
Al-Monitor: Russia is due to serve as a mediator in the talks between the SDC and the Assad regime. Yet considering the claims that Moscow facilitated Turkey’s entry to Afrin in early 2018, do you fear that [Moscow] does not maintain a neutral position?
Aldar Khalil: Russia did not make the attack on Afrin easier. Rather, it agreed with Turkey on it; it was a part of it and they both had a joint operation room in Gaziantep. Back then, we [SDC and autonomous administration] said that it is the first time in history that a NATO state agrees with Russia on a particular military matter, namely Afrin. Yet we can’t pass over Russia’s major role and capacity to influence decision-making and outcomes in Syria. There is Russia on the one hand, and the United States and the US-led coalition on the other. We are trying our utmost to take advantage of the reality and communicate with decision-makers to avoid a scenario similar to that in Afrin. Given its influential role, we wish for Russia to serve as a neutral guarantor, not a party standing by the regime’s side. In case there are [Russian] guarantees in such dialogues, we can only buy them and act accordingly. Refraining from delivering on the promises would tarnish Russia’s reputation. We really hope for honesty from it, which is something that has to do with [Moscow], not us. These fears will not prevent us from buying its promises and acting accordingly when it presents itself as a guarantor.
Al-Monitor: How do you reply to US national security adviser John Bolton’s appeal to the Kurdish allies to refrain from seeking protection from Russia and the Assad government?
Aldar Khalil: Syria is the battlefield of a third world war right now. There is conflict between the United States and the US-led coalition on the one hand, and Russia, Turkey and Iran on the other. Each of the parties is seeking to win the battle. The United States and Russia know that we consist of influential forces on the ground and that any move we make could tip the balance of power. Based on that, it is only normal for the Russians and Americans to have fears in this regard. Mr. Bolton and US officials seek that the balance be in their favor. They unfortunately turn their backs to the fact that there are issues that need to be resolved, such as the other Kurdish components’ causes, the democracy cause in northern Syria. It does them no good to continue to just watch things happen.
Al-Monitor: The Kurdish military commanders perceived the US withdrawal to be a stab in the back. Is the new US position reassuring? Can you bank on it, particularly since a delegation of the SDC visited Washington?
Aldar Khalil: The SDC delegation is still in Washington, and I cannot answer this question on their behalf. Nevertheless, [although] there was no official request, one can ask how could the United States ask for us not to reach an agreement with the Russians and the Syrian regime, at a time when it did not offer an alternative compared with what the other two sides have. We cannot rely on such a vision that refrains from giving alternatives.
Al-Monitor: Following the announcement of the US withdrawal, did any of the countries in the US-led coalition make pledges or guarantees that they will support you?
Aldar Khalil: There are many countries stating that we have a just cause and that they are by our side. For instance, France has positive and encouraging stances. Likewise, some Arab and European countries voiced the same positive stances as well. But it all depends on [these countries’] ability to convince the others of supporting them in what they intend to do.
Al-Monitor: What fate awaits IS captives detained in your prisons?
Aldar Khalil: It is a thorny and dangerous issue that requires a follow-up. Thousands of IS gunmen are locked in the autonomous administration’s prisons and one cannot anticipate what would happen. Security chaos in these prisons is likely to happen in case of an offensive against the region and could lead to catastrophic consequences.
Al-Monitor: Why have you opposed the establishment of a safe zone [in northern and eastern Syria] under Turkish tutelage? What’s the alternative?
Aldar Khalil: I would like to underline that any equation involving Turkey must necessarily lead to the spread of terrorism. Initially we are the ones who need the safe zone, provided that a line separating us from Turkey exists. A UN force — similarly to UNIFIL in Lebanon — could be deployed on the separation line. This way we will be able to protect ourselves from the Turkish threats.
Al-Monitor: Do you expect the recent attack in Manbij to speed up the US withdrawal from Syria? In your view, which party was behind it?
Aldar Khalil: The blasts occurred at a very critical time and I believe that international parties are responsible. The question that arises, however, is which party ordered IS to carry out such attacks, and whether or not IS is the one conducting them or that there are other parties carrying out such attacks under the cover of IS. Our suspicions are directed at Turkey, because the Turkish intelligence has contacts and is involved with the various terrorist organizations in the region. We expect [the blasts] to be a mere tool to pressure the United States and the US-led coalition to meet some demands. The relevant security services in the region are yet to determine which party is behind these bombings and divulge the outcome of their inquiry. My remarks are only based on analysis and available information.