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Fawza Yusuf: ‘Syria will not return to how it was pre-2011’

Senior Syrian Kurdish politician Fawza Yusuf speaks with the Kurdish Peace Institute about regional and global strategic competition in the Middle East, the impacts of Turkish-Syrian normalization, and Kurdish red lines in negotiations with Damascus.

Negotiations and dialogue between Turkey and Syria, and between Syria and other Arab countries, will be essential for conflict resolution in a changing Middle East. However, it is critical to ensure that normalization does not become a mere tactic for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral aspirations or Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s unconditional survival. Instead, diplomatic efforts should demand that the Assad regime address the concerns of the Syrian people. Adopting such a strategy will facilitate genuine normalization endeavors and establish sustainable peace and development in the region.

Considering Turkey’s steadfast policy towards the Kurds, it is unlikely that the normalization of relations between Syria and Turkey will lead to the Syrian regime conceding to Turkish demands or succumbing to pressure, as witnessed during the Adana Agreement in 1998. It is crucial to examine the historical context of Turkish regional and foreign policies, which have been significantly shaped by the Kurdish domestic issue since the 1980s. This policy was further exposed with the emergence of ISIS and the establishment of an autonomous region by the Kurds in North and East Syria/Rojava. While Turkey intends to dismantle the Kurdish gains through normalization with the Assad regime, the Assad regime wants to gain regional recognition and regain legitimacy in the region.

Should Turkey withdraw, the status quo may not experience substantial change. The Kurds and the Syrian regime could potentially reach a more favorable agreement if Turkish intervention in Syrian affairs is halted—although it seems that the Assad regime is more interested in recognition of his status by regional powers than in addressing the Syrians’ plight. While Turkey expects Assad to follow a similar trajectory as he did 1999, the geopolitical context has since evolved. Assad is eager to pressure the US into withdrawal—a goal shared by Turkey, Iran, and Russia. This common objective inadvertently bolsters the Kurdish position by increasing the potential of stronger U.S. diplomatic support. Nevertheless, Kurds remain at the mercy of a superpower, many regional powers, and the Syrian state itself.

Since 2011, the Syrian landscape has undergone a dramatic transformation, giving rise to two distinct realities: pre-2011 and post-2011. The Kurds are resolute in preserving the autonomy they have gained, refusing to return to a centralized Syria. They remain receptive to negotiation and compromise.

To understand their position, the Kurdish Peace Institute recently had a long conversation with Fawza Yusuf, a top player in the politics of Northeast Syria and a member of the Co-Presidency of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Yusuf underscored the Kurds’ non-negotiable demands: respect for their will, rejection of a pre-2011 Syria characterized by uniformity, and the maintenance of  the asayish (security forces) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) until a long-term peaceful resolution is instituted. Furthermore, linguistic and cultural autonomy constitutes a critical red line for the Kurds, who will never accept any form of cultural or linguistic genocide.

The interview centered on the regional and international power dynamics affecting Syria, the potential normalization of relations between Syria and Turkey, and the future of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kurdish Peace Institute: How do you see the reconciliation between Syria and Turkey? What is the position of North and East Syria/Rojava on Syrian-Turkish reconciliation on one side and the Syrian-Arab League Normalization on the other?

Fawza Yusuf: The Syrian crisis has become a regional and international issue; therefore, there are several regional and international interests in Syria that have an impact on the future of Syria and its domestic politics. Russia is a significant actor, as well as Iran. On the other hand, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is also a significant actor. These regional and international players play a key role in defining the future of Syria.

In the Syrian normalization process with its neighbors and adversaries, Russia plays a key role. Russia is the generator of the normalization because Russia wants to cut Turkey off from NATO following the rapprochement between the two countries after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia wants to keep Turkey on its side in the current changing international situation. Turkey seems to protect Russian interests at the expense of the interests of the peoples of Syria. This is a very dangerous situation, in which regional and international powers make deals at the expense of the Syrian people. Russia is developing its relations with Turkey and investing in Syrian-Turkish relations to achieve its objectives.

Meanwhile, Iran wants normalization because Iran wants to weaken the U.S. presence in the region. Iran’s key objective is to keep Turkey away from the U.S. Each actor pursues its own interests; however, the common objective that unites the interests of all is that all these actors want to return Syria to its pre-2011 state; a centralized unitary state. In this  way, they want to return the status quo without changing much of the Syrian regime’s system. Despite adversarial relations in other fields, returning Syrian to the  pre-2011 era is their common objective.

Since these players are status-quo-worshipers—that’s to say, they do not want the status quo of their countries to change—they have become a threat to the sacrifices the Syrian peoples have made for freedom and democracy. Syria is in need of a new system that includes all the peoples of Syria, a decentralized system with a democratic constitution. There should be radical changes in the system so that we can have long-term positive peace in Syria.

They look toward reactivating the Adana Agreement, or maybe amending it with minor changes. They want to renew this agreement, which was not serving the interests of Syrians—it was mainly against the Kurds. That agreement massively affected Syrian regional and international affairs. The space between the Kurds and the Syrian regime became bigger following the Adana Agreement, which weakened the foundations of the Syrian state. Syria accepted regional intervention. The acceptance of the agreement made Syria a state that will compromise under pressure. The result of the agreement was a war on the Kurdish movement back then. Renewing it now will turn into a war with the Kurds. The conditions back then were different. There was no AANES back then, no SDF existed then. The Turkish occupation was not there. Since the Adana Agreement, Syrian politics, economics, and regional and international relations have changed. If the Adana Agreement is renewed in a way, and if we do not accept it, it opens the door for war.

Has Russia or Iran talked to you?

No, but Russia says the Adana Agreement should be renewed. They have not hidden this, they say it publicly.

What about the AANES, have you started any negotiations with the Syrian regime on this?

No, the Syrian regime has not accepted normalization, yet. The Syrian regime says that the normalization process can be done when Turkey withdraws its forces from Syria. The Turkish policy of expansion in Syria has failed. In fact, the entire Turkish Middle East policy failed. This is why they want some sort of normalization. Turkey has carried out genocides, it has extended a helping hand to ISIS and Al Nusra Front. At the moment, Turkey wants to push for a new policy to eradicate the Kurds and Kurdish achievements—normalization with Syria at the expense of Kurds. We have told the Russians and the Syrian regime that the conditions that facilitated the Adana Agreement do not exist anymore, and we also do not allow such an agreement to be reimplemented on us. Things have changed. There is a difference. Even if they force on us, we resist.

What do Russia and Syria say?

They say that they consider our interests.

So, if there will be an agreement between Turkey and Syria, then there will be no place for the Kurds in it?

This is true. Reactivating the Adana Agreement means dismantling any Kurdish rights and achievements. They pressure us for compromises. They say that we are obliged to compromise.

Do you think the Syrian regime uses normalization as a tactic to pressure the AANES for compromises? 

Yes, this is also true. They want to force us to make compromises. However, it is not only that. As I said, everyone wants to take advantage of the new developments.

We are in a new era in which there are different regional and international actors, and the Kurds have gained a status. Kurds have made a sort of agreement with the Arabs, Assyrians, and so on. Kurds are also partners with the U.S. and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. How do people in the AANES think of the new developments? How does the U.S. see this normalization era?

The US is relaxed. Tehran made it clear that its key strategy is that the US and Coalition forces should leave Syria. One of the common interests of these parties is against Iran, and the U.S. is saying this—the normalization is against both of us. They agree with us that the attempts for normalization should serve the stability of Turkey, not the other way around. They tell us in the meetings that they would be against normalizations if the aim is to create instability in Syria. The U.S. will not accept normalization that creates instability It should not be at the expense of Syrians and Syria. The U.S. is unanimous that any normalization without a resolution for the Syrian crisis will not serve stability in Syria. They have shown their position.

As for the peoples of Syria, they are against Turkish occupation. They also see normalization as a threat to themselves. The peoples in regions under AANES control have seen the big difference between the AANES and other areas in Syria— the Turkish-occupied areas or the regime-controlled areas—in terms of economics, security, governance, and politics. These peoples are well represented in the AANES politically, culturally, and linguistically. Their situations are much better than other areas. They do not want this stability and peaceful life to be exchanged with instability and a lack of economic opportunities and delivery of services, as we see in other places.

All the peoples of Syria have realized that Turkey has played a negative role from the beginning of the Syrian crisis or revolution. They understand well that Turkey has not changed its policies. The regime also understands that Turkey has not changed its Syrian policies. I do not think it is impossible for normalization to happen as nothing is impossible in politics. However, considering the dynamics, the history, and the current situation in relations between the Syrian regime and Turkey, as well as the people’s perceptions of Turkey, it is not possible for normalization to succeed in these circumstances.

Let’s also not forget: Turkey has elections, and nothing will happen until after these elections. I think it is not wise for anything to happen until elections are held as Erdogan may invest in it for its election campaign. Nonetheless, after the elections, if Erdogan remains, the Syrian regime will still be committed to the principle that Turkey should leave Syria.

Some say that if Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins the elections, since he is an Alevi and is interested in peace at home and the region, he may renew Turkish-Kurdish-peace talks. That may help normalization with Syria even if Turkey does not withdraw at the first phase. What do you think of that?

It is not only Turkey that can help normalization with Syria. Yes, it is true that Turkey is a key factor, but there are several other strong powers. Turkey can facilitate and obstruct, but there are other players, too. The Global Coalition, Iran, and Russia are key players as well. On the Turkish side, there should be changes. And I do not think new changes will come soon. Even if the new Turkish government is formed, it will take time to see a new government’s new policy toward Syria. We also do not know what will be the nature of the new government–whether it will be a coalition government or the former government will continue  its premises.

What about the changes in the regional and international order following the Ukraine war and the Chinese presence in the Middle East? China seems to have a stronger presence in the Middle East following the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran may want to reintegrate Syria into the Arab League. The Syrian President visited the UAE. So in genera,l it is not normalization only on one side. How does the AANES sees these developments?

Of course, returning Syria into the Arab League will further legitimate the Syrian regime, as the regime has been isolated from the international community arena for a long time. However, I do not think such normalization will bring about any radical changes. Normalization between the Arabs and the Syrian regime is a change, but I do not think it is a defining aspect of the Syrian domestic resolution.

But will it have an impact in terms of the economy?

Probably, but as long as the Caesar Act is not being changed, it is difficult for the foreign investment to reach Syria. Furthermore,  one will invest in an unstable region. Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia will invest in Syria as long as the Syrian crisis remains unresolved. We can also read the developments in another way; the Arabs want to take out Syria from Iran’s front.

For my last question—what is the AANES vision for a resolution in Syria? What do the Kurds want in Syria? I do not mean the democratic nation the AANES dreams for, which will not be accepted by the regime. What about a realistic political approach? 

We think that Syria will not return to  how it was pre-2011 because all of the circumstances and dynamics have changed. Changes should happen, no matter whether all our demands and concerns are addressed or not. All sides should show their compromises for a long-term democratic resolution. However, there are certain principles that are our red lines and our key demands. First, nothing will be accepted if it is forced upon us; our will should be respected. Second, we do not accept a pre-2011 Syria—which was one color, one voice, one language. Third, the Asayish [security forces] and the SDF should keep their existence until a long-term peaceful resolution is implemented.

So the SDF can be dissolved within the Syrian Army once a resolution is agreed to by all sides? 

The SDF can become an integrated part of the Syrian Army. We will negotiate to reach a political solution for this. As for the AANES, we want it to be integrated into the new Syrian democratic constitution. Mother tongue is also our redline, we will never accept linguistic and cultural genocide. To reach this agreement, there are different methods and ways of agreements. One key method is negotiations. It is our strategy to resolve issues peacefully.  However, if any policies are forced upon us, we will take measures of self-defense.

Photo: Rebaz Majeed

About the Author

Kamal Chomani

Non-Resident Fellow

Kamal Chomani is a Ph.D. student at the University of Leipzig in Germany, focusing on political legitimacy in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Erfur…

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