Syrian Kurds and opposition bring business to Washington
Two Syrian political movements that share a common enemy in President Bashar al-Assad but offer competing visions for the country’s future are making official visits to Washington this week.
The US-backed Kurds and the Turkish-backed opposition are here to ask the Biden administration for assurances that Syria will not be forgotten amid what many in the region perceive to be the gradual withdrawal of Middle East America.
During their visit at the highest level since the start of the pandemic, political representatives of the Syrian groups – the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolution and opposition forces (commonly referred to as the Syrian National Coalition) and the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC ) led by the Kurds – have a series of meetings planned, but not between them.
Neither side sees the other as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Mutual mistrust has been cemented by multiple Turkish military offensives in largely Kurdish areas of northern Syria that have been led by Syrian opposition factions loyal to Ankara.
Both groups, however, are pushing for a resolution to the decade-long conflict as the balance of power in Syria tilts heavily in Assad’s favor. His forces managed to reclaim most of the country except for a pocket of rebel resistance in northwestern Syria and a Kurdish stronghold in the semi-autonomous northeast. The brutal Syrian dictator has made it clear that he intends to take them both back.
Led by Chairman of the Syrian National Coalition Salem al-Meslet, the nine-person opposition delegation will hold meetings this week with members of the House of Representatives’ foreign affairs and Senate foreign relations committees as well as National Security Council officials, Al-Monitor learned. The itinerary also includes meetings with Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood and Ethan Goldrich, the State Department’s top official on Syria.
The aim is to draw attention to the entangled civil war in Syria, a country that is not ranked among President Joe Biden’s foreign policy priorities. The Biden administration has yet to conclude an internal review of its policy in Syria, and in another sign of the country’s declining importance, Biden has not appointed a special envoy to lead diplomatic efforts.
“Obviously, Syria is not a priority for the United States as much as other issues in the region,” said Qutaiba Idlbi, the Washington-based representative of the Syrian National Coalition.
But while other regional crises demand attention, the bloodshed in Syria continues. Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, is still reeling from a government-imposed siege and fighting that has displaced thousands of people this summer. In impoverished northwest Syria, the latent conflict in Idlib threatens to spill over and trigger a new wave of displacement.
“We want to engage with the US administration to convince them that at least if there is a clear attempt to move away from Syria, to use the levers the administration has to move the political transition forward. instead of just relinquishing the influence we have, ”Idlbi said.
Any political settlement must include recognition of the Kurdish-led autonomous administration of northeastern Syria, the delegation led by SDC executive committee chairman Ilham Ahmed told US officials this week. Alongside Ahmed at the meetings, which began last week, are local officials Nazira Gawriya, co-chair of the Syriac Union Party, and Ghasan al Yoysef, co-chair of the Deir ez-Zor Civil Council.
High on their agenda is to ensure that US troops stay in Syria until a political solution is found, said Sinam Mohamad, the SDC envoy to Washington. Currently, some 900 US troops are stationed in Syria to help the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fight the remnants of the Islamic State and contain Iranian influence in the region.
“The Biden administration has repeatedly stated that it will not withdraw from Syria. It is very important to us, ”Mohamad said.
Another pressing concern is the makeshift SDF-run prisons housing around 10,000 ISIS prisoners, many of whom Western governments have refused to take home and prosecute.
“They are so dangerous,” Mohamed said of the detainees. “It is a burden that the [autonomous] the administration must assume. Nobody else.”
The SDC’s top diplomat in Washington said her delegation is asking the United States and coalition partners for additional support to secure detention centers, as well as economic aid to stabilize the region.
As the Kurds and the Syrian opposition push for US engagement, neighboring countries are cautiously welcoming the regime’s return to the fold – and pressuring Washington to join them. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reopened their embassies in Damascus and Oman has reinstated its ambassador.
Normalization is expected to be a major issue in talks this week between Biden officials and the Syrian opposition. The delegation is particularly concerned that the administration may lift US sanctions as part of a regional plan for energy starved Lebanon to receive gas and electricity transported through Syria.
“The problem with the measures that are being taken, especially economically, like the Arab pipeline, is that we are essentially giving Assad a political price for no concessions in return,” Idlbi said.
He added: “From the history we have with the Assad government, we know that once they get something, there is no engagement in any political process.