The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) and the People’s Will Party signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on 31 August in the Russian capital Moscow. After the signing ceremony, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave a copy of the MoU to Geir Otto Pedersen, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria. The MoU affirmed Syria’s unity, people and land, and the diversity of the Syrian people. It also assured that the political solution is the only way out for the Syrian crisis.
The MoU underlined the importance of benefiting from the positive and negative aspects of autonomous rule, being one form of people’s authority. Finally, it emphasized the central role of the Syrian army and the importance of having the SDC as a partner in the Syrian political process.
Based on the aforementioned, there are a number of intertwining factors that cast their shadows on the complex Syrian stage.
1- Parties to the MoU
Despite the fact the MoU appeared to be sponsored by Russia, the agreement was concluded by the SDC and the People’s Will Party. At a later stage, Moscow announced it supports the MoU.
The SDC is the political representative of the Syrian Democratic Forces, under which are a number of Kurdish political parties; the most important of these is the Democratic Union Party. This new agreement is a breach to the political boycott that the party and its affiliated organizations currently suffer from, especially since the announcement of the autonomous rule of north and east Syria in 2014.
In the same context, the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council signed a MoU in light of the current Kurdish-Kurdish negotiations held with US-French sponsorship; and the Kurdish National Council established the Peace and Freedom Front in Eastern Euphrates with the help of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian political blocs.
This MoU might appear as an attempt by the Democratic Union Party to support its position in the negotiations with the Kurdish National Council during the coming stages, by increasing its supporters, nationally in Syria or internationally, and having it as an active participant in the Syrian constitutional and political dialogue.
The People’s Will Party falls under “the Moscow Platform” for the Syrian opposition. It was Qadri Jamil, head of the Moscow Platform and one of the top leaders of the People’s Will Party, that signed the MoU. Both the party and the platform are close to Russia. It is in this context that the platforms is occasionally accused of hindering the efforts of “the High Negotiations Committee”, as the platform refuses to discuss Al-Assad’s destiny, the matter that the High Negotiations Committee views as primary in any transitional stage. Later on, Muhannad Delikan was suspended from the Syrian Constitutional Committee and the High Negotiations Committee due to his request to hold the meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Damascus instead of Geneva.
2- Content of the MoU
The MoU did not clearly discuss the positions of the two parties regarding “the Syrian regime”; however, they preferred to clarify their visions concerning how to run the Syrian state. The two parties believe it is best for the Syrian state, during the coming period, to apply the decentralized system that guarantees the people’s direct authority in the regions and achieves self-sufficiency and the equitable distribution of wealth and development nationwide. However, the state currently applies the centralized system in its main affairs (Foreign Affairs, Defence, Economy).
The MoU praised the autonomous rule in north and east Syria, and referred that applying such model resulted from “a subjective necessity and a societal need”. It is also important to examine that experience in order to benefit from it, and modify it on the national level, in case Syrians reach consensus on how to implement it.
The two parties affirmed that the Syrian army is the public national establishment that can exclusively have weaponry and that does not meddle in politics. They also affirmed that the Syrian Democratic Forces must be integrated within that establishment on the bases of formulas and mechanisms to be agreed on.
The application of a decentralised system, as mentioned in the MoU, is a relative change in the position of the Syrian Democratic Forces, as Mazloum Abdi recently mentioned two conditions to reach an agreement with the Syrian regime: “the first is to constitutionally integrate the (current) Kurdish autonomous rule in the Syrian administration; and the second is that the Syrian Democratic Forces become an independent establishment or have a private status in the Syrian general protection system. This kind of integration should take place without the Syrian Democratic Forces losing its military organizational form and deployment.”
It appears Abdi has lowered the ceiling of his political conditions for dialogue. The MoU has linked the declaration of the autonomous rule to the “subjective need”. It also seems that benefiting or keeping the Autonomous administration depends on what the Syrians shall agree upon. This was followed by the MoU stressing that weapons should be exclusive to the Syrian army, and that the Syrian Democratic Forces must be integrated within the army without a particular formula, but rather according to what is agreed on.
On the other hand, the two parties recognized the necessity to terminate sanctions and foreign intervention in Syria. Syrian political forces, be they supporters or opponents of the regime, adopt this principle in their discourse. However, given the reality on the reality, each party draws its power from a foreign player, including the regime itself.
It is possible the inclusion of this clause is a Kurdish attempt to approach the Syrians and the Syrian regime that rejects the US presence in North Syria and that is negatively affected by the imposed US or European sanctions. On the other hand, this clause appears to be a subject of harmony between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime in their rivalry and rejection of Turkish military presence in northwest Syria.
3- Associated international interactions
The signing of the MoU took place within a context that is characterised by international interactions of powers on the Syrian territories. Days before the signing, a clash occurred between US and Russian patrols at Al-Malikiyah district, which led to the injury of a number of US soldiers. This is not the first clash between the US and Russia in northeast Syria; however, what was alarming was the soldiers’ injury and the retaliatory consequences as a show of might.
In early August, a US newspaper revealed an agreement between the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria and the Delta Crescent Energy LLC to develop the Rumailan oil fields in far northeast Syria for 25 years. The agreement is subject to renewal. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the agreement as violating the sovereignty and independence of Syria.
Developments in Idlib governorate reveal Russia and Turkey restored their previous accord. This is proven through the current commitment of the two parties to keep peace in Idlib, and conducting a number of joint military exercises, which is a remarkable development in this collaborative aspect. During the period following the Russian-Turkish agreement on a ceasefire in Idlib in March, the two parties didn’t coordinate joint patrols. Recently in mid-August, Russia abruptly announced the suspension of the participation of its forces in the patrols with the Turkish army on the Aleppo-Latakia International highway (M-4), two days after they had resumed their duties. Russia claimed militants’ attacks increased against the positions of the regime forces, and their provocations continued near the M-4 route.
On the sidelines of the MoU
Despite the decreased relative importance of the MoU in the path of the Syrian political solution or in the integration of the SDC into the Syrian Constitutional Committee, the MoU is of significance for the involved parties, especially Russia and the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Russia seeks to affirm its position as the dominant and most powerful actor in the Syrian crisis, both with regard to the national Syrian parties or in the face of the international parties involved.
In addition, Russia shows its openness to dialogue with all parties, whether the opposition, through its reception of the Moscow Platform, or the Kurds, through announcing in advance its readiness to mediate a Kurdish-Kurdish dialogue and holding occasional consultative meetings with them. The last of these was two weeks before the MoU was signed.
According to the Kurdish PassNews website, Kurdish public figures participated in the recent meeting to grant the Kurdish Syrians cultural, social and political rights, and guarantee their participation in the Syrian government in Damascus, in exchange for their support of and alliance with the Russian project.
In spite of what was recently circulated concerning disagreement between Russia and the Syrian regime, the last visit of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Damascus confirms the Russian side shall continue deepening its relations with the Syrian regime, especially concerning the economic aspect that was extensively discussed during the visit that saw agreement on reconstruction projects, the restoration of 40 energy installations in Syria, and helping Syria break the economic blockade as a result of the new US sanctions, that were imposed within the framework of “the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act”.
In contrast to the current momentum in the field of economic cooperation, there was no such momentum when moving to discuss the political aspect. Before the visit, there were speculations concerning the existence of a complete Russian vision that was to be discussed during the visit to push the political process in the country and to launch the implementation mechanisms of Resolution 2254, and all its details related to the constitutional amendment and the transitional political process and preparing for elections; however, that vision was not clear during the press conference that was held on the sidelines of the visit.
The Syrian regime, through its speaker at the press conference, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, expressed the openness of the government to all viewpoints that aim at resolving the crisis, and agreeing to the recommendations of the political powers involved in the Syrian Constitutional Committee, even if they agreed on changing the constitution. However, the regime expressed its concerns over the agreement between the SDC and the People’s Will Party, when Muallem stated: “We do not support any deal that contradicts the Syrian constitution,” which was in contrast to what the Russian Foreign Minister said concerning the agreement.
Regarding the importance of the MoU for the Syrian Democratic Forces, it can be noted there are several indications that have a serious effect on its political future in Syria:
1- There is a set of analyses as to why the Syrian Democratic Forces signed the MoU. The first analysis focuses on the desire of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ leaders to consolidate their relationship with the Russia to avoid any change in the US position, especially in light of the approaching US presidential elections and the desire of the US president to strengthen his electoral position.
The second analysis says there is a US-Russian agreement on the signing of the MoU. The Syrian Democratic Forces won’t be able to conclude this agreement without consulting with its US alley. However, what weakens the argument is the clause rejecting all forms of sanctions and foreign interference, basically the “Caesar Act”.
2- The Syrian Democratic Forces hopes to join the Syrian Constitutional Committee by signing the MoU and to participate in ongoing political discussions. According to the co-president of the SDC Riad Dirar, the Russian Foreign Minister promised the council’s serious participation in the political process taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, to find a final solution to the Syrian crisis.
However, Dirar stressed that “the current changes on the ground, and the current competition between Moscow and Washington, in addition to the regional interference in the Syrian crisis by Ankara and Tehran might be an obstacle before any real development regarding the participation in the Geneva process.”
Finally, Turkey did not denounce the content of the MoU. It only objected to Moscow’s hosting of SDC. This may hint at the existence of a Russian-Turkish understanding to sign the MoU or that Turkey is waiting for a clearer US response.
Multiple possible scenarios are present on the ground, whether the Syrian Democratic Forces will be involved in constitutional negotiations, and whether a US-Russian agreement behind the MoU might become clearer. However, more likely to take place is further openness on the part of the Syrian regime to a political solution to the crisis.