The Syrian civil war is moving into a new phase, presenting opportunities for powers great and small to gain advantage over one another. As the United States talks about withdrawal, other actors — from the Kurdish-heavy Syrian Democratic Forces to Turkey to President Bashar al Assad himself — are preparing for the day after.
A delegation from the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) — the political wing of the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which controls much of Syria's north — traveled to Damascus on July 27 to discuss electricity infrastructure. And the SDC's Arab co-chair Riad Darar hinted that talks could widen to include political and security matters as well.
The delegation came at the invitation of the Syrian government and, according to the SDC, there were no preconditions for meeting. While the SDC did not say the talks were the deliberate start of negotiations over the future of northern Syria, Darar said that it was time to "solve our problems ourselves" — a hint at how his group views its future with the United States.
Why It Matters
The United States is a key partner for Syria's Kurdish-dominated regions, but the Trump administration has recently gone public with its desire to withdraw from Syria under the right conditions. That possibility worries the SDF, which is concerned that without support from U.S. troops, it will be unable to stop any potential assault by Damascus or the Turkish military. (Turkey sees the SDF as an offshoot of Turkey's banned Kurdish militants).
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al Assad's goal of retaking all of Syria is no secret, and it puts him in potential conflict with Turkey and the United States. But the Syrian government's military forces are no match for these powers. Damascus is thus using the SDC's uncertainty about U.S. loyalty as an opportunity to open up talks and possibly lure the group back into its arms. A deal with the SDC allows Syria to avoid an expensive military campaign against the group and also cuts down on U.S. influence in a post-civil war Syria, giving al Assad more control and making his Russian backers look more successful as allies. (Both Russia and Iran would be pleased to see SDF-controlled areas back under al Assad's control.)
Though a deal between the SDC and Damascus is far from certain, the situation in Syria remains highly fluid, with an array of influential stakeholders vying for control — of some or all — of the fractured country.
Moreover, the potential deal could deny Turkey the excuse to engage in further military intervention along the lines of the Afrin campaign earlier this year. That's particularly important because, while the United States is an extra-regional power with strong domestic political incentive to withdraw from the conflict, Turkey is a neighbor — with a recently empowered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — whose regional ambitions involve asserting itself from the Horn of Africa to Qatar in the Persian Gulf. Already, Turkey is setting up for a long-term stay in Syria, investing in infrastructure and establishing political institutions in territories it occupies in northern Syria. Damascus is eager to do anything it can to resist continued Turkish involvement.
A deal between the SDC and Damascus is far from certain. The SDC has long sought a more federalized Syria with greater autonomy, but past deals Damascus has cut with other rebel groups did not allow for political change in its centralized system, suggesting the SDC may not get what it wants. Moreover, if the United States pulls out of Syria sooner than expected, it would strengthen Damascus' hand and allow it to simply impose conditions on the SDC and SDF without any pretense of negotiation. Finally, another more remote possibility is that the United States could get an international force, anchored by regional Arab powers, to replace its presence in Syria, allowing the SDF to continue its political purgatory in the northern area of the country for the time being.