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  • Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) outside a house in Raqqa, Syria, June 2017.

    Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) outside a house in Raqqa, Syria, June 2017. | Photo: Reuters

Published 28 July 2018

The Syrian Democratic Council sent a delegation to hold talks with Bashar Assad's government this week.

An alliance of Kurdish and Arab political forces from northern Syria has reached an agreement with Bashar Assad's government to "chart a roadmap to a democratic, decentralized Syria" in what could represent the first big step to end the conflict between the two forces.

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A delegation headed by Ilham Ahmed, executive head of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), and including members of its armed branch the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), was sent to Damascus to open communication channels with the central government in the hope they could reach a deal and retain part of the autonomy they gained during seven years of conflict.

The SDC, mainly led by its Kurdish faction, said Assad's government agreed to "form committees on various levels" to develop negotiations; end the armed conflict in Syria, and chart a roadmap to democracy and decentralization.

"It is still very early to talk of an agreement, but we are working on it," said Sihanouk Dibo, a key Kurdish politician, adding that negotiations could be "long and arduous."

They agreed to visit Damascus after Assad said he was open to negotiate with the Syrian Kurds who had "apparently become wary" of their main ally, the United States.

The SDF are a multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalition of armed forces including Kurdish, Arab, Armenian, Assyrian, Turkmen and Circassians. They emerged during the Syrian Civil war in defense of extremist Islamist groups and with the ultimate aim of creating a secular and democratic Syria.

Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), during the third meeting in Tabqa, Syria, July 16, 2018. Photo | Reuters

They managed to control about a fourth of the national territory in northern Syria, mostly east of the Euphrates, an area that includes farmland and oil and water resources, and have been backed by both the United States and Russia in their fight against the Islamic State and other militias.

But relations between the SDF and the United States had deteriorated over the past months, as they abandoned them in Afrin and let Turkish forces occupy their territory.

Their alliance with the SDF, the U.S. government said, was strategic and focused only on the fight against the Islamic State. As Afrin held no military interest for the United States, they decided to leave them alone there while still maintaining military ties elsewhere in northern Syria.

Relations between the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish-led administration in the northeast, the two sides that hold the most territory in Syria, have been pivotal in the course of the seven-year civil war.

However, while they have mostly avoided direct conflict, they have articulated sharply opposing visions for the future, with the Kurds seeking autonomy in a decentralized state, and Damascus wanting to restore full central control.

"It's hard to see how they will reach more substantive agreement in the coming months because you just have a huge gap between the two sides on what the future of this region should look like," Noah Bonsey, the International Crisis Group's Senior Analyst on Syria, told Reuters.

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The SDC has set up cantonal administrations in areas it controls which raise their own revenues and operate their own police and other services.

Saleh Muslim, former co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), one of the political organizations that conform the SDC, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the council would negotiation on possible future models such as decentralization, local administrations, decentralization and possibly a new constitution.

"Any agreement must have international guarantees because the regime wants to manipulate and maneuver and force a surrender similar to what happened in Daraa and other regions," said Muslim. "This will not take place with us because we are strong and rely on ourselves and experience."

It's still unclear how much Damascus is willing to give in to the SDC and plans for decentralization, as circumstances and alliances in a state of war change quickly and in unpredictable directions.

In May 2018, President Assad said there were two possibilities regarding the territory controlled by the SDF: "The first is opening the door to negotiations. If that does not happen, we will resort to the liberation of those areas by force... with or without the American presence."

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