The “Syrian Democratic Council”—ostensibly a vehicle for Kurdish-Arab coexistence in former ISIS territories—is increasingly looking to normalize ties with the Assad regime, spelling disaster for the displaced residents of Raqqa and elsewhere, with no apparent opposition from its Western sponsors.
With the fall of Daraa and the end of rebel rule in Syria’s southwest, observers are beginning to talk more definitely about the conclusion of the country’s civil war. Advocates of the regime of Bashar al-Assad have claimed the conflict was close to ending consistently.
For over half a decade, this constant refrain has been repeatedly proven incorrect by the simple passage of time. But the war, though it is not ending, does appear to have fallen into a definite pattern. Syria’s future has taken a more solid shape.
Many media organizations affiliated with Syria’s rebellion have begun to shut down, their online archives disappearing from the Internet. Many of the rebels who once held out against the regime in southern Syria have now been co-opted into its structures, serving as de facto police or in continued campaigning against what remains of the territory of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Amid all this, other groups seek to increase their stock with Assad and his backers. The least surprising of these aspirants are the leadership of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. Its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) recently declared itself not only open to talks with the regime, but willing to establish what are effectively working groups to plan navigating the road ahead. Members of the SDC made the journey to Damascus in pursuit of that objective.
A coming together of the regime and the SDF is hardly unimaginable; the SDF and the regime have a history of co-operation, something which predates the former’s foundation. The regime worked closely with what became the SDF’s leading element, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is itself the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Kurdish groups which exercised real power within Syria before the revolution did so at the pleasure of the Assad state. Co-operation in kind continues in Qamishli and al-Hasakah, and during the Turkish-backed rebel offensive on Afrin, much was made of the possibility of regime forces aiding Kurdish ones. This did not, as time passed, occur. But the fact that it was seriously mooted betrays patterns of thought and behavior.
The SDF and the Assad regime have a shared interest in diminishing the strength of organizations and individuals associated with Syria’s revolution. As the revolution’s failure becomes accepted and solid, moves against its advocates and allies can become more overt.
What has happened in Raqqa provides an object lesson. That city was liberated from the regime early in Syria’s war. It was later infiltrated by agents of the Islamic State and became the Syrian capital of ISIS’ claimed caliphate. Groups which had opposed and chronicled first Assadist and latterly ISIS violence, notably Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, began documenting alleged violence by the SDF. Protests against the SDF presence were dispersed with force and followed by the imposition of a curfew.
It can be said with confidence that these protestors counted among their number remnants of those who had opposed the regime before. The regime's nature has not reformed and the prospect of its rule has not been softened in the intervening years. Such people would undoubtedly take to the streets in the future if Raqqa were given to Assad as part of a grand bargain.
The fall of Daraa comes amid an increased bureaucratic self-assurance on the part of the regime. Regime officials have made threatening gestures towards rebel enclaves, especially in Idlib province, which some, including this writer, did not expect to come so soon after an offensive in the south. Syria’s conflict could be frozen, but it is not close to ending.
There even came the suggestion, which has since been officially denied by its spokesmen, that SDF fighters may—with the sanction of its leadership or not—participate in any regime move on Idlib.
What this means in practice is less significant than what it represents. If the above came to pass, it would demonstrate that, for the SDF and the regime, the material end of the conflict is immaterial. A collective plan for what comes next may already be in operation.
That plan could well portend the kind of federalized Syria which the leadership of the YPG has long spoken of and advocated; "democratic confederalism" being the official ideology of SDF-ruled northern Syria in any case. But this federal dream is itself a mirage.
It’s perfectly achievable, in a sense.
The SDF exists under the protection of the United States and the global coalition. One might expect the Americans to feel a sense of paternal propriety when considering Syria’s north, and this is in part accurate. But the present administration is inconsistent and intemperate—the governmental outgrowth of one psyche.
The president wishes to dominate Syria to the detriment of Iran, and is infrequently appalled by the Assad regime’s capacity for cruelty. But his predominant wish is to be denuded of responsibility. The United States mooted an Arab occupation of Syria; this came to nothing, but the essential desire to relinquish responsibilities remains. Irritation at the SDF changing sides (if that is the calculation) would likely be overcome by relief at no longer having Syria’s problems to solve.
Other members of the Assad coalition could be expected to play along, at least for a while. Russia would be content for its client, Assad, to be strengthened. And previous Russian attempts to improve relations with the SDF and Kurds more broadly suggest that new entreaties in the same vein would hardly be unwelcome.
The Iranian situation is more confused. Apprehension about American assets remaining unpunished could be successfully put off until the regime destroys its enemies and entrenches itself fully. Then, after all that, if the SDF becomes a problem—perhaps a threat to Assad’s desire to exercise direct power over every inch of Syria, or to Iranian and regime control of the country’s eastern oilfields—it could be crushed, too, in an endgame we have seen before in Aleppo and Daraa and the suburbs of Damascus. This is the eventuality the possibility of which drives at least some of the SDF’s desire to co-operate with Assad. But if Rojava becomes troublesome, its leaders cannot expect to be spared punishment by dint of having signed their people over without force needing to be directly applied.
Even in an eventuality where this possible violence is averted, if the SDF is disentangled from the global coalition and brought within the regime’s system, the SDF’s worst elements will be accentuated and its redeeming features flattened. Arab refugees, who are already unwilling to return to places like Raqqa, cannot expect good or equitable treatment under either the regime or an SDF which is part of an Assad-administered system.
The Syrian Democratic Forces and its leaders therefore face two unappealing options when contemplating collaboration. Either the SDF takes its place within a system whose other participants have no commitment to Syrians of all kinds or to democracy, and thus sells out its values, real or imagined; or it faces the prospect of brutality followed by surrender. Subjugation in any case. This being known, attempting to treat with Assad at all appears quixotic. But given the perpetual Kurdish search for fair-weather friends in Syria, it seems unsurprising that the SDF’s leaders will risk the possibility of profoundly dark outcomes in search of a friend now the weather for the foreseeable future appears to be settling into what seems like a predictable pattern.
[Editor's note: This article initially referred incorrectly to the PYD as the Patriotic Union Party. It was amended on 17 August, 2018, to the Democratic Union Party.]