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Syria’s conflict gives its Kurdish population an opening to rectify historic wrongs and push for more autonomy, but facing internal divisions, poor ties with the non-Kurdish opposition and regional rivalries, its challenge is to articulate clear, unified and achievable demands.
Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle, the latest International Crisis Group report, examines the growing influence of Kurdish factions in Syria while warning against entanglement in the broader regional battle over Kurdish independence.
“For the foreseeable future, the fate of Syria’s Kurds lies in Syria and rests on their ability to manage relations with the surrounding society and an emerging, pluralistic political scene”, says Peter Harling, Crisis Group’s Syria, Egypt and Lebanon Project Director. “They express specific fears and general demands, but need to engage broader society and define a platform to serve as a basis for negotiations”.
Syria’s conflict has given its Kurds an opportunity to escape from a long period of systemic discrimination. Hoping to avoid a new battlefront and banking on Arab-Kurdish divisions to further muddy the picture, the regime largely left Kurds alone. In turn, Syrian Kurdish factions, many with ties to Kurdish groups based in Turkey or northern Iraq, took advantage of the regime’s preoccupation. This is the case in particular of the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD), the Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s PKK insurgency, whose military wing has ousted government officials and security forces from many majority-Kurd areas.
Yet, several factors should give Kurdish leaders pause. Kurdish factions are deeply divided over goals and tactics, as well as more petty rivalries. Some accuse the PYD, the largest and most influential group, of being overly dependent on the PKK. Other Kurdish groups are a motley collection of smaller parties that, unlike the PYD, lack an effective military presence within Syria.
Kurdish factions compete not only with each other but also with the non-Kurdish opposition, whose predominantly Arab nationalist and Islamist narratives alienate many Kurds. In turn, Kurds have raised suspicions about their ultimate goals and notably their willingness to remain part of Syria. The more the conflict drags on, the more ethnic tensions build. Already, there are turf battles between PYD fighters and opposition armed groups. Worse clashes may come.
Finally, the Syrian conflict has exacerbated the undeclared fight for the heart and soul of the Kurdish national movement in the four countries (Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran) across which it is divided. Syrian Kurdish parties, like their regional patrons, have different views on tactics: whether to extract concessions by force or engagement and compromise.
“By and large, Syria’s Kurds already have made strides in their quest for greater rights by being masters of their own areas for the first time in the history of modern Syria”, says Maria Fantappie, Crisis Group’s Middle East Analyst. “They plan to parlay new freedoms into constitutional guarantees in the new order that eventually will emerge. But that will only be possible if their parties and youth groups coordinate, reach out to broader Syrian society and make their struggle for Kurdish national rights part of the larger struggle for citizenship in Syria”.
As Syria’s conflict has expanded, the population in majority-Kurd areas has remained relatively insulated. Keeping a lower profile, it has been spared the brunt of regime attacks; over time, security forces withdrew to concentrate elsewhere. Kurdish groups stepped in to replace them: to stake out zones of influence, protect their respective areas, provide essential services and ensure an improved status for the community in a post-Assad Syria. Big gains could be reaped, yet cannot be taken for granted. Kurdish aspirations remain at the mercy of internal feuds, hostility with Arabs (evidenced by recent clashes) and regional rivalries over the Kurdish question. For Syria’s Kurds, long-suppressed and denied basic rights, prudence dictates overcoming internal divisions, clarifying their demands and – even at the cost of hard compromises – agreement with any successor Syrian power structure to define and enshrine their rights. And it is time for their non-Kurdish counterparts to devise a credible strategy to reassure all Syrians that the new-order vision of the state, minority rights, justice and accountability is both tolerant and inclusive.
Ethnically and linguistically a distinct group, Syria’s Kurds inhabit lands close to the Turkish and Iraqi borders, though several cities in other parts of the country, in particular Damascus and Aleppo, also have large Kurdish constituencies. Strictly speaking, theirs is not a region, whether politically – unlike their Iraqi counterparts, they have not gained autonomy under the Baathist regime – or geographically: even majority-Kurdish areas in the north east are interspersed with mixed areas also comprising Sunni Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkomans and Yazidis. As things stand, one cannot speak of a contiguous territory. Moreover, and unlike their brethren in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, they do not have the benefit of mountains in which to safely organise an armed insurgency against central rule.
Partly co-opted by the regime, which developed its own Kurdish clients by tolerating some political and paramilitary activism (as long as it was directed against Turkey) and criminal activity (mostly smuggling), Syria’s Kurds also have seethed under systemic discrimination and repression. Among the more egregious forms of inequity, some 300,000 of them – roughly 15 per cent of the estimated two million total – remain stateless, living in a legal vacuum and deprived of fundamental rights. Although revolts occasionally erupted, these quickly were crushed. The result has been a largely quiescent population.
This is changing. As occurred in Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003, the current acute crisis presents Kurds with an opportunity to rectify – or at least start rectifying – what they consider an historic wrong: the decision by the French and British Mandatory powers to divide the Near East in a way that left them as the largest non-state nation in the region. They appear determined to seize it, though hobbled by competing visions about how best to do so.
If, when Syrians rose up in 2011, many young Kurds joined in, echoing calls for the downfall of the regime, traditional Kurdish political parties took a somewhat different view. They feared fierce reprisal against their people if they decisively joined the opposition; nursed resentment at Arab indifference during their own protests – and subsequent regime crackdown – in 2004; saw more to gain by remaining on the sidelines; and worried that newly empowered activists would challenge their role. Meanwhile, hoping to avoid a new battlefront and banking on Arab-Kurdish divisions to further muddy the picture, the regime for the most part left Kurds alone. As a result, most Kurdish parties opted to remain in the shadows of Syria’s broader conflict, neither fighting nor supporting the regime, while assuming a sceptical approach toward the (non-Kurdish) opposition, viewed as overly Arab nationalist and Islamist.
What is currently (and largely as a result of the ongoing conflict) the most influential of these parties, the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party, PYD), also has been the most reluctant to confront the regime, prompting charges of collusion. Well-organised, trained and armed, it is a Syrian Kurdish offshoot of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the main Kurdish rebel group in Turkey. Shortly after the uprising broke out, the PYD, which had been encamped with the PKK in northern Iraq’s mountains, returned to Syria, bringing along a contingent of fighters. In July 2012, it took advantage of the regime security forces’ partial withdrawal from Kurdish areas to firmly establish its political and security presence, ousting government officials from municipal buildings in at least five of its strongholds and replacing Syrian flags with its own. In so doing, it openly asserted itself as the authority in charge of state institutions in most predominantly Kurdish towns.
The PYD’s main competitors are a motley group of small Kurdish parties, several of which have close ties with Iraqi Kurdish groups. Under the patronage of Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), over a dozen of these parties coalesced in the Kurdistan National Council (KNC) in October 2011. This alliance has been the only effective Kurdish political rival to the PYD, even as internal divisions and the absence of a fighting force inside Syria have reduced its potential as an effective counterweight. Still, by creating a security and political vacuum in Kurdish areas, Syria’s conflict has prompted intensifying competition between these two main trends.
Kurdish factions compete not only with each other but also with non-Kurdish opposition groups, all of which vie for space as they struggle to accrue resources and expand their areas of influence. Many Kurds, especially but not only PYD supporters, are alienated by the predominantly Arab nationalist and Islamist narratives put forth by the non-Kurdish opposition, as well as by its perceived dependence on Turkey and Gulf-based conservative sponsors. As the conflict endures and threatens to turn into an all-out civil war, sectarian as well as ethnic tensions are building up; already, the country has witnessed clashes between PYD fighters and opposition armed groups (often referred to under the loose and rather deceptive denomination of the Free Syrian Army, FSA). So far these essentially have been turf battles, but they could escalate into a broader conflict over the Kurds’ future status.
Finally, the Syrian conflict has exacerbated the undeclared fight for the heart and soul of the Kurdish national movement in the four countries (Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran) across which it is divided. The PYD’s and KNC’s respective regional patrons, the PKK and Barzani’s KDP, represent the two predominant models of Kurdish nationalism today as well as two competing paradigms for dealing with Turkey, whose territory encompasses much of what Kurds see as their historic homeland. The PKK has used an episodic armed struggle to try to force Ankara to extend greater cultural and political rights to Kurds in Turkey; in contrast, the KDP, using its dominance of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has laboured hard in recent years to develop economic interdependence and political ties to coax Turkey into a more constructive posture and simultaneously reduce the KRG’s dependence on Baghdad.
Turkey itself must be added to the mix. How much autonomy the PYD enjoys vis-à-vis the PKK is a matter of some controversy, though for Ankara the question has long been settled. In its view, the Syrian Kurdish movement is little more than a branch or carbon copy of the PKK, whose attempts to establish a foothold in Syria risk fuelling separatist sentiment in Turkey. A PYD stronghold at its doorstep, potentially exploited by the PKK as a springboard in its fight in Turkey, is something Ankara will not tolerate.
Seeking simultaneously to contain internal rivalries, reassure Ankara and assert his own dominance, Barzani has tried to broker an agreement between the PYD and KNC. Both have something to gain: whereas the KNC enjoys international partners and legitimacy, it increasingly is divided internally and lacks a genuine presence on the ground; conversely, the PYD’s strong domestic support is not matched by its international standing. But this Barzani-brokered marriage, the Supreme Kurdish Committee (SKC), at best is one of convenience. Neither side trusts the other; the two maintain (strained) relations with conflicting Syrian opposition groups; skirmishes have occurred between them in sensitive areas; and both are biding their time until the situation in the country clarifies.
Likewise, although for the time being Turkey has opted not to intervene directly against the PYD – for fear of being sucked into a quagmire and for lack of a clear casus belli involving the PKK – and although it has given Barzani a leading role in containing the PYD, this approach may not last. Over time, Erbil’s and Ankara’s interests are likely to diverge. Whereas the former aims to consolidate a broad, Kurdish-dominated area straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, the latter almost certainly fears the implications of such an outcome on its own Kurdish population, and in particular its impact on the PKK’s overall posture.
Syria’s Kurds should do their best to avoid both over-entanglement in this broader regional battle and overreach in their quest for greater autonomy. Their fate at present rests in Syria, and thus it is with Syrians that they must negotiate their role in the coming order and ensure, at long last, respect for their basic rights.
To the PYD, KNC and representatives of independent youth groups:
01. Improve coordination of political and administrative activity, and work toward a joint strategy to provide security and basic services to Kurdish areas.
02. Reach out to broader Syrian society without necessarily entering into conflict with the regime, including by offering humanitarian aid, establishing field hospitals for wounded civilians regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation and expressing solidarity with the plight of civilians throughout Syria.
03. Refrain from actions stoking fears of Kurdish secessionism, such as replacing national symbols with Kurdish ones.
To the Supreme Kurdish Committee (SKC):
04. Formulate a clear, unified position on what it expects from any successor power structure regarding respect for Kurdish rights, and negotiate on that basis with its non-Kurdish Syrian counterparts.
To the PYD and its YPG armed forces:
05. Maintain a low military profile, limiting their role to internal policing duties in majority-Kurd areas, in coordination and cooperation with the KNC and independent youth groups.
06. Refrain from any acts of force or intimidation in areas under their control.
07. Refrain from provocative acts that could prompt Turkish military intervention, for example by using Syrian territory as a staging ground for PKK-backed Kurdish militancy in Turkey.
To KDP-trained Kurdish fighters operating under KNC control:
08. Enter Syria only based on an explicit agreement with the PYD that delineates zones of operation, stipulates how disputes between the two armed groups will be resolved and creates a transparent system for identifying fighters in each force, their leaderships and activities.
To the non-Kurdish Syrian opposition, including its armed elements:
09. Engage in or support negotiations with the Supreme Kurdish Committee over what the establishment of a democratic political system in which citizens enjoy equal rights would entail with respect to the Kurds.
10. Support publicly prompt repeal of all legislation removing citizenship from or denying it to certain groups of Kurds.
11. Seek coordination with the Supreme Kurdish Committee when operating in and around areas patrolled by Kurdish armed groups.
To the Turkish government:
12. Continue to refrain from direct intervention in Kurdish areas of Syria, while redoubling efforts to peacefully resolve the Kurdish question in Turkey.
13. Consider talks with the PYD, possibly under the auspices of the Supreme Kurdish Committee, aiming in particular at creating a mechanism for communication and coordination regarding border security.
14. Encourage the non-Kurdish Syrian opposition to bring in Kurdish opposition groups on the basis of a vision for a democratic political system in which all citizens enjoy equal rights.
To the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq:
15. Refrain from playing Kurdish factions one against another, and pursue instead a policy of consolidating unity and bolstering the representativeness and legitimacy of the Supreme Kurdish Committee.
16. Encourage in particular the KNC and PYD to work together more closely in bringing peace and stability to majority-Kurd areas of Syria, in coordination with independent youth groups. (ICG)
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