by Maher Hamdan
Recent developments in northeastern Syria have spurred a series of consequences, as is the case with the “Peace Spring” military operation launched by Turkey in October with the help of the opposition-aligned Syrian National Army, against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) east of the Euphrates River. Turkey sees the SDF as a terrorist organization with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group designated as terrorists by Ankara.
The operation changed the map of control in northeastern Syria, and shifted alliances between powers there. Government and Russian forces were able to reach the border, and in turn there was Kurdish-Kurdish rapprochement between the Self-Administration and the Kurdish National Council, which had suspended its membership in the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition.
Previously, the SDF played a main role in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), with the backing of the US-led international coalition. But this was later impacted by US-Turkish negotiations that ended with the withdrawal of American troops from the area, followed by their redeployment.
In an exclusive interview with Mari, Syrian Democratic Council co-chair Riad Darar sheds light on the most important issues impacting northeastern Syria, including the council itself as well as the Self-Administration.
Lately, there seems to be a rapprochement with the Kurdish National Council. What is your vision for Kurdish reconciliation in eastern Syria?
Attempts at rapprochement between the two competing Kurdish political sides did not stop, because there are no other disputes preventing them. However, there was no interest or motivation among the forces supporting them for their meeting.
The Syrian Democratic Council and the Self Administration are open to reconciliation and participation with the Kurdish brothers inside Syria, and they are working towards this through more than one initiative, attempt and conference.
As for the brothers in the Kurdish National Council, they have become dependent on relations and agreements, whether with the Syrian National Coalition or due to their presence on the ground in Turkey, where it is not possible for anyone to make a decision without Turkish permission. So, when members of the Kurdish National Council can rid themselves of this dependence, perhaps they can make their decision to participate and contribute to drawing regional policy, and everyone is prepared for this.
There is also a lot of talk about negotiations between your side and the Syrian government. Do you anticipate a solution that can please both these sides?
We negotiated with the Syrian government in Damascus, and the goal of the negotiations was to establish or build shared trust factors to reach understandings that serve all residents of the area–especially as we in this area did not enter into a war with the Syrian government or its army. Our battle was with the terrorists and Daesh [Islamic State], to liberate the areas that the Syrian army abandoned due to its inability to confront its opponents in more than one place [at the same time].
And now, when we go to negotiations, we confirm that our project is not a separatist one, nor do those carrying it out want partition, and that our goal is in the interest of Syria and Syrians. But at the same time, we want real political change. That is why all attempts at negotiations have failed–because there is stubbornness from the Syrian government or its representatives in negotiations. We hope that these stubborn attitudes will change so that we can reach understandings that can lead Syria to safety, and that we are a part of it.
There are still attempts to resume the negotiations, and this is now a stage with a new pulse. We focus in our negotiations on services and constitutional recognition of all constituents, as well as recognition of the Self-Administration as well as the decentralized system that we want to apply in a future Syria.
What are your thoughts on the future of the military wing of the Syrian Democratic Council and the Self-Administration? Do you expect it to integrate with the Syrian army?
We have long suggested that the Syrian Democratic Forces become part of the Syrian army after settlement, since after settlement there can be an administrative plan for relations between the forces present in the area and the centrality of military decision-making–because this force was able to protect and defend the area and it can continue its anti-extremist operations.
On the other hand, we can affirm that service in its areas serves its residents, and they can defend against any changes that occur. Therefore any later relationship must have the understanding of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has an organized leadership and has gained experience in administrative matters as well as combat.
What sort of solution for Syria do the Syrian Democratic Council and the Self-Administration want?
The Syrian Democratic Council seeks a political solution based on partnership, recognition and the rights of constituents. This demands constitutional change and a model for the state based on decentralized democracy. It is the system that we put in place in the Self-Administration, and we hope that this first experience can be applicable in all regions of Syria, that it can organize itself in terms of administration, development and services, while the central administration would be in the capital Damascus.
Contrary to what you are seeking–participation in the administration of Syria through decentralization–the Council and the Self-Administration did not participate in the constitutional committee. What is your response to that?
The Syrian Democratic Council and the Self-Administration were absent from participating in the constitutional committee, just as they were absent from many events that were carried out to find a solution for Syria. That is due to the Turkish veto first, as well as Russia and the US seeking at the time to draw Turkey to their sides, because they are competing for who will win over turkey in the area. This bargaining was at the expense of Syrian land as well as our exclusion from participating.
The model that we have presented does not view Turkey favorably because [Ankara] does not accept Kurdish rights in their country. It does not want this model to succeed. On top of that, [Turkey] constantly issues threats on the pretext of our relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This has become mixed and unacceptable. We do not have relations with [the PKK], nor do we work with anyone but the Syrians for a Syrian solution that is based on the principle of a unified homeland for all its people.
Perhaps one of the most controversial issues in eastern Syria is that of oil. Where is the oil revenue going, and what is the future of it if you don’t reach a solution with Damascus?
The Self-Administration provides services to around five million people in the area. The oil wells in the area need repairs, and some of the fields from which oil is extracted are almost not enough for the area’s needs. They do not go to other areas, including those under the control of the Syrian government. This is a kind of barter, because the area does not have a refinery and it needs refined fuel. This is an exchange that is in everyone’s interest.
Also, we have obligations such as the salaries of employees and workers, and expenditures on services. This requires that we have internal wealth for the area, so that we can serve its residents, provide stability and build services.
What are your comments on freedoms in eastern Syria, and accusations that the military wing of the Syrian Democratic Council is arresting civilian activists?
When we talk about freedoms, the greatest amount of freedoms in Syria are in the areas under the Self-Administration in northeastern Syria. We do not have political prisoners. Freedom of movement exists without pressures or restrictions, and security follow-up on crimes is present here just as is the case in all countries.
On the other hand, we have 12,000 Islamic State detainees. If they were held as detainees in any other place, they perhaps would have been executed, and received severe punishment or abuse. But now they are detained and they receive humane treatment. So discussions about restricted freedoms are malicious accusations with the goal of abuse and defamation. Those working in the media or in other organizations should be aware of this.
This does not mean that there are individual cases who are arrested for investigation, but I affirm that there are no personal arrests without proven charges. And it can be confirmed from the accused people who were released or from those who know the facts and follow them closely.
When you talk about Islamic State detainees, what is going to be their fate? How do you handle those among them who are not Syrians?
Initially, we handed over the children of Islamic State members to some countries, and there are negotiations surrounding the families of IS fighters and the mechanism of their return. But some countries refuse to accept them, and refuse that they are their own citizens. In general, this is a very large file and there are many attempts.
As for the detainees, I have mentioned that they number around 12,000 people, distributed over more than one detention area. There is talk about the possibility of establishing a court to try them here or return them to their countries to be tried there. But in their countries they may be let out after one court session because they have no charges against them there except that they left their countries. For that reason, they must be tried on the soil where they fought and carried out their crimes. The trial must take place on Syrian soil.
In fact, there are negotiations with some countries, and also meetings with some European organizations, to find a suitable formula for such courts. In any case, the evidence and witnesses are on Syrian soil, as well as the locations of the crimes themselves. So the most appropriate place for these trials is on Syrian soil. Some countries, such as Sweden, have accepted that such trials take place in Syria.
On the other hand, there is an attempt to transfer IS members to Iraq and try them there, but the problem is that it has a high cost–expected to be two billion dollars–and there have been sentences of death according to Iraqi laws, while the Self-Administration prohibits the death sentence for any person no matter the crime, in accordance with the European stance.
How do you envision the future of the relationship of the Syrian Democratic Council and the Self-Administration with Turkey?
As for the future of the relationship with Turkey, we did not threaten Turkey, nor did we fire a shot towards the Turkish border. Meanwhile it threatens [us] and contributed to training those who became mercenaries under its command. And then there were the attacks that Turkey carried out in Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, and the killing of Hevrin Khalaf, the Secretary General of the Future Syria Party, indicating that these groups and attacks represent war crimes.
Turkey issues threats and pushes the fighters to occupy the area and carry out demographic change. This is not acceptable. If Turkey wants a fair solution, we have also presented our view for negotiating and consultation in accordance with international guarantees to arrive at better relations.