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Where are the Syrian Kurds heading amidst the civil war in Syria?

Although the civil war in Syria is ongoing, the Kurds have achieved major strides towards their rights by controlling a region for the first time in Syrian modern history.

The emergence of the Syrian Kurds, for the first time in modern Syrian history after decades of repression, faces many difficulties and pitfalls in the current situation, which will ultimately reform the political structure in Syria and thus determine the future of Syria’s Kurds.

As the largest ethnic minority in Syria, composing 10-15 per cent of the population (approximately 3 million), the Syrian Kurds have become prominent players in the civil war in Syria. The militias control the area in the north-east known as Western Kurdistan, which is enclaved by Turkey and Iraq; with the informal capital being Qamishli. There are also significant numbers of Kurds in non-Kurdish areas such as Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and other towns.

Qamishli witnessed a previous uprising in March 2004 by the Kurds against Assad’s regime, which was brutally suppressed and resulted in 65 deaths and 165 injured. Under the Baath regime, discrimination against the Kurds was a state approach: their existence was not recognized and an estimated 300,000 Kurds were stripped of their citizenship. During the popular revolution, however, Assad granted thousands of Kurds Syrian citizenship in an attempt to gain popularity.

The domino effect of the Arab uprising instigated the Syrian people’s revolt against the regime in March 2011. Whereas the Arab Sunnis in Syria furiously launched into their rebellion against Assad’s government, the Kurdish Youth Movement announced a peaceful protest against the regime. This was partly due to Assad’s tactical approach of giving citizenship to some of the neglected Kurds and, in the early stages of the revolution, gradually withdrawing the Syrian army from Kurdish towns. Other factors were: the main opposition espousing Arab nationalist and Islamist ideologies; the role of Turkey in the opposition; skepticism by the Kurds regarding the opposition’s stance to their rights in a post-Assad regime; and the fear of brutal reprisals by Assad’s forces against the Kurdish people. As a result of these factors, the Kurdish movement and parties were reluctant either to join the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) or to support the regime. However, that does not mean that the Kurds were for the uprising; in reality, their apparent detachment stemmed from their dilemma, torn between the Assad regime and an opposition that they could not  trust.

The Kurds, in the wake of the revolution, seized the opportunity to strengthen their status politically and militarily. They created a renaissance of Kurdish culture by reviving the Kurdish language in schools and opening music and dance centres. Politically, their parties created independent police, set up security forces ‘Asaish’, issued independent vehicle license plates labelled ‘Rojava Kurdistan’ and established municipalities and courts. Furthermore, some of the oil fields in Hassakeh came under the control of the Kurdish forces and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This new evolution in north-eastern Syria cannot be disregarded. 

Kurdish political forces in Syria

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) in western Kurdistan, is the most powerful political force and has had a remarkable impact on the situation in Syria. Founded in 2003 and led by Salih Muslim, PYD is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed by Turkey and the US as a terrorist group. The two parties share secular, socialist and pan-Kurdish nationalistic ideologies as well as military ties. The PYD is part of the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK) that was formed by the PKK.  

Connected to the PYD is the People’s Defense Corps (Yekineyen Parastine Gel, YPG) who were trained by the PKK in Iraq. The YPG is an organized military force that officially represents the Kurdish Supreme Committee but it has been accused of acting as the armed wing of the PYD.  

After the retreat of Assad’s troops from Kurdish towns in July 2012, the YPG filled the vacuum of power and the PYD raised its flag on the municipal buildings of more than five towns in north and north-east Syria. The retreat by the Assad regime was a sign of the Kurds’ deep-seated resentment of the Baathists; and it was also, strategically, an attempt to reduce the battlefronts.  

Despite the allegations by the FSA and Turkey that the PYD is a tool for the regime, the PYD denies these allegations and has clashed with the Assad regime on several occasions and in several towns. Furthermore, the PYD has secured its power in several strategic Kurdish-inhabited areas including some oil fields. However, there have been clashes between the PYD, some factions in the FSA and the radical Islamist Jabhat Al-Nusra, which have raised fears of ethnic-wars between the Arabs and the Kurds. The PYD’s success in seizing sizeable areas with considerable domestic support has aroused Turkey’s anxiety about PKK’s agenda. All these actions indicate that the PYD is assertive and determined to play a significant role in the current conflict and the future of Syria.

The PYD calls for constitutional recognition of the Kurds and a democratic, pluralist political system in Syria, including Kurdish autonomy in the form of a self-governing region within a new decentralized Syria. The latter objective has set the party at odds with the main opposition (the FSA). 

The PYD entered an agreement with the rival Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan National Council (KNC), in Erbil under the auspices of the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), and on 12 July 2012 the two parties formed the Kurdish Supreme Committee. However, in June 2013 the two main components of this Committee failed to reconcile their differences, leaving the PYD and KNC each with 50 per cent of the committee.

Recently in the north-east and north Syria, where there was an escalation of fighting between the PYD and Jabhat Al Nusra, this resulted in JaN and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant being expelled from strategic Kurdish townsPYD announced that within 6 months it would hold elections to form a local Kurdish government (national people’s assembly). In the meantime, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is preparing to announce Islamic emirates in the seized areas, as declared in Northern Aleppo.

The KNC is a Kurdish organization bringing together more then ten Kurdish political parties. It is supported by the KRG and enjoys, to some extent, international legitimacy. Consequently, Turkey recognizes KNC as the voice of Syria’s Kurds. Founded in October 2011 under the patronage of Massoud Barzani in Erbil, it is in strong opposition to the Assad regime and skeptical of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, which has ties with both the PYD and the regime. The KNC’s aims are self-determination and a democratic, pluralistic, secular, federal state with a decentralized political system for maintaining a unified country.

As President of the KRG, Massoud Barzani has offered the KNC military and financial assistance to enhance the Council’s capabilities and to restrain the PYD’s significant power in the region, which is derived from the PKK. 

The KNC is a fragmented body with no cohesive programme or unified vision. This reflects the divisions within the KRG, where the PDK’s close tie is with Abdullhakim Bashar, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic party in Syria (KDPS), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) (the Iraqi Kurdish political party headed by the President of Iraq Jalal Talabani) is close to AbdulHamid Darwish, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party in Syria. The two Kurdish Syrian leaders and parties represent the most influential elements in the KNC, but their conflicting strategies mirror PUK-PDK different perceptions with regards to the Kurdish cause. 

On December 15, four KNC parties, closest to Massoud Barzani formed a new political coalition to strengthen their position; known as the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (SKDU). However, there are claims that this will widen the gap between the KNC factions.  

Following the recent intensified clashes in several areas between the YPG and the Al Qaida-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, the KNC condemned the attacks and urged the FSA to pressure the radicals to stop attacking Kurds. However, relations between the Kurds and radical Islamic militias remain hostile. 

Regional involvement   

To understand the current developments in Syria’s Kurdish region, it is essential to comprehend the relationship between the KRG and PKK, the two core Kurdish powers in the region. Each of them has distinct strategies and alliances, which consequently could lead to further clashes. Despite the Erbil settlement between the KNC and the PYD, and establishing a body that represents both of them, their differences are rooted in their regional engagements and their different perspectives on the Kurdish solution.  

Although the civil war in Syria is ongoing, the Kurds have achieved major strides towards their rights by controlling a region for the first time in Syrian modern history. The Kurds do have greater goals, such as an autonomous region within a democratic, pluralistic state. Although there are strong voices opposing (Syrian National Council) Kurdish demands, at some point a solution will have to be reached. We can learn from the civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, where eventually the Kurdish political forces harmonized and built up a political system for a safe and flourishing region, despite lingering criticisms and loopholes.

About the author

Zana Khasraw Gul is a Middle East political and security analyst, doing his doctorate in Iraq’s foreign policy at the University of Sheffield. He has an MA in Global Affairs and Diplomacy at the University of Buckingham and a BA in political science at the University of Sulaimani in the Iraq-Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He visits Iraq and the Middle East regularly.Twitter @ZanaGul1