The Gordian knot of Kurdish unity talks in Syria
On September 20, US Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey visited northeast Syria for a meeting with delegations of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and allied Kurdish parties who have been engaging in so-called unity talks since November 2019.
Hailed as a “historical step” towards greater understanding and cooperation, the US-sponsored process still suffers from longstanding rifts between the two sides. Yet, two days before Jeffrey’s visit, the PYD apparently accepted a US proposal for equal power sharing in an envisaged joint political body for northeast Syria. This concession displays the US’s bargaining power, but an overall deal is still far away.
Since November 2019, delegations from both sides have held a series of consultations under the auspices of the US government at the United States’ and Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) joint headquarters in the city of Hasakah. Initiated by the Syrian Democratic Force’s (SDF) General Commander Mazloum Abdi, under pressure of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring and the US’s partial withdrawal from border areas in northern Syria, the negotiations marked the end of the diplomatic standstill between the deeply divided Kurdish parties. The first results of the process were made public eight months later. A joint statement published on June 16 announced that both sides had concluded the first phase of Kurdish unity negotiations. The official Twitter account of the US embassy in Syria praised the statement as “an important first step towards greater political coordination between Syrian Kurdish and political factions.” However, the following day the KNC publicly denied the existence of an agreement, emphasizing that there were only some understandings, including considering the Duhok agreement as a basis for further negotiations.
Named after the provincial capital in Iraqi Kurdistan where it was signed in October 2014, the Duhok agreement, sponsored by Iraqi Kurdistan’s then president Massoud Barzani, foresaw the creation of a joint political body that intended to unite the Syrian Kurds and enable them to fight back against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In reality, though, it was never implemented. Instead, a number of KNC senior officials were expelled from northeastern Syria by the Democratic Union Party and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). While other officials—like Mohamed Ismail, Abdulla Kaddo, Ne’mut Daoud, and Faisal Yusuf—were detained, some—such as Mahmoud Wali Abu Jandi and Walaat Hissi—were killed by PYD or PKK gunmen according to KNC members. In fact, at least five of the seven KNC negotiators who are part of the current negotiations spent time in PYD-prisons during 2016-2017 or, in the case of Ne’mut Daoud and Faisal Yusuf in April 2018, directly after the Turkish offensive on Afrin.
KNC officials also claim that they are not able to travel safely to northeast Syria. For example, Ibrahim Biro, former President of the KNC, said that the PYD/YPG threatened to kill him if he ever crossed the border after he was expelled from northeast Syria in August 2016. Mohamed Ismail, the KNC’s main negotiator, recalled his colleague tell him that he was shot by PKK gunmen in the province of Hasakah in February 2012, causing him to die several days later in a hospital. Members of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, push back on this accusation, however. They argue that some KNC officials don’t travel to northeast Syria because it would damage their relationship with the Turkish government and that the KNC is ultimately not interested in Kurdish unity.
Against the background of these longstanding rifts, several KNC officials state in private conversations that they are highly skeptical of the PYD/YPG’s commitment to engaging in any kind of power-sharing. They remark that a minimum level of trust would require the PYD/YPG to address the file of the disappeared KNC members Bahzaan Dorsen, Nadaal Saleem, Idris Alo and Ahmad Zaido, and a few others who they believe have also been killed. Another key issue is the PYD/YPG’s close relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its ongoing intricate cooperation with the Bashar al-Assad government, with whom the KNC rejects cooperation even on a technical level.
The KNC is part of the Syrian National Coalition, which opposes the ongoing negotiations with the PYD. Several Syrian National Coalition officials stressed that they see the PYD as an integral part of the transnational PKK, which they consider a terrorist organization. From the KNC’s perspective, any results of US-sponsored negotiations will fall short of real unity as long as the PYD/YPG does not publicly distance itself from the PKK, a move that would require the expulsion of non-Syrian cadres. In fact, KNC negotiators remarked that the only reason they engage at all is due to US pressure. While they recognize the US’s leverage over the PYD/YPG, they are skeptical of Washington’s ability to force the PYD/YPG into concessions and guarantee the implementation of agreements.
For months, the details of an envisaged political body with a joint mechanism for making major decisions have been an issue of dispute. A source involved in the negotiation process emphasized that the allocation of seats was the main bone of contention. The US proposal, in line with the Duhok agreement from 2014, gives both the KNC and the PYD 40 percent in addition to another 10 percent that each group can assign to third parties. According to the source, the KNC accepted that proposal whereas the PYD rejected it. While the KNC refuses to subordinate to a system that is dominated by the PYD/YPG, the PYD/YPG’s perception is that the KNC’s demands for equal power sharing deviate from the actual situation on the ground, where the PYD/YPG is the dominant actor both politically and militarily.
Nevertheless, on September 18, the PYD eventually accepted the US proposal that stipulates a body composed of forty delegates (sixteen seats reserved for the KNC, sixteen for the PYD and its allies, and four that each side can allocate to third parties and independents). The deal is far from done and dusted, though. KNC officials point out that an overall agreement requires an investigation of the file of the disappeared, a revocation of the PYD-issued school curricula, and the return of the KNC-linked Rojava Peshmerga—an armed faction made up of Kurds from northeast Syria, who were expelled by the PYD/YPG to Iraqi Kurdistan—to list just a few examples.
Besides the ongoing negotiation process between the KNC and the PYD, both parties have recently engaged in additional unity initiatives concerning northeast Syria. The KNC, on the one hand, co-founded the “Peace and Freedom Front” in late July, which includes Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, the Arab Council of the Euphrates, and the Jazira and the Assyrian Democratic Organization. On the other hand, the PYD-led Syrian Democratic Council has signed a memorandum in Moscow together with a Russian-backed Syrian party close to Damascus. Meanwhile, a PYD official declared that the SDC refrain from official negotiations with Damascus, citing that the Government of Syria isn’t serious about negotiations and that it is responsible for assassinations of tribal leaders in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. Yet, authorities from al-Bagaara and Ogeidat, the largest Arab tribal confederations in Deir ez-Zor, pointed out that the PYD/YPG is responsible for the security situation and demanded their retreat in multiple conversations. Authorities from al-Bagaara and Ogeidat also expressed frustration over not being included in the so-called Kurdish unity talks, given that the political body is supposed to govern areas in the provinces of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, which are overwhelmingly populated by Arabs.
The aforementioned initiatives can be considered as part of the struggle for power in northeast Syria, which increasingly revolves around local legitimacy and regional unity since the PYD/YPG significantly extended its authority with US support starting in 2014. The fight about both the narrative of the conflict and control on the ground is ongoing. The US-sponsored negotiations between the KNC and the PYD are part of this struggle to the same extent that they are another chapter of the longstanding dispute between rival Kurdish blocks extending beyond the Syrian border. While the apparent agreement on a political body that would significantly limit the PYD’s dominance is a considerable development, the history of intra-Kurdish negotiations has shown that a formal agreement and its actual implementation are two different matters. Ultimately, the success of the process will depend on the US’s commitment and capability to exert pressure on the PYD while not pushing it further towards Damascus and its Russian ally.
Rena Netjes is an associate fellow with the Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael in Istanbul. She is a former correspondent in Egypt and Libya for Dutch BNR Radio and Parool Newspaper. Follow her on Twitter: @RenaNetjes.
Lars Hauch is an independent researcher and journalist who focuses on the Syrian conflict. His work on non-state armed groups, humanitarian response and political dynamics in Syria and the wider region has appeared in numerous German and international publications. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsHauch.