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Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle
Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Syria: How to prevent Israel-Iran shadow war spinning out of control
Syria: How to prevent Israel-Iran shadow war spinning out of control
Report 136 / Middle East & North Africa

Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle

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.

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Executive Summary

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.

Erbil/Damascus/Brussels, 22 January 2013


Syria: How to prevent Israel-Iran shadow war spinning out of control

Originally published in Middle East Eye

As Israeli strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria continue, there is always a risk that occasional spikes of violence could escalate into a broader confrontation.

The explosion of a Syrian anti-aircraft missile in southern Israel on 22 April, followed by Israeli attacks around the northern city of Latakia on 5 May, were only the latest episodes of the shadow war that Israel and Iran have been fighting in war-ravaged Syria for several years. They will not be the last.

Neither side wants these occasional flareups to grow into a fully fledged confrontation. But the risk of escalation is real due to potential miscalculations or technical errors in both sides’ attempts to achieve tactical gains.

The involvement of Hezbollah, Tehran’s most important non-state ally, in the Syrian theatre carries a further risk that comparatively low-level altercations in Syria may spill over into Lebanon and trigger a destructive conflict between the heavily armed Shia group and Israel.

The current diplomatic re-engagement between the US and Iran is welcome, but it is unlikely to put an end to this shadow war, even if it leads to the successful revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. Both Tel Aviv and Tehran seek to secure their strategic positions in the post-Trump era, while a settlement for the Syrian conflict remains elusive.

Israel has conducted an initially covert, but increasingly open, campaign against what it sees as deepening Iranian entrenchment in Syria over the past decade. In what has become known in Israeli circles as the “campaign between wars”, the Israeli army has bombed Iranian-linked militias, weapons shipments to Hezbollah and Iranian military installations - in particular to the southwest of Damascus, but sometimes as far east as al-Bukamal on the Iraqi border and Masyaf in the north.

More recently, the Israeli army reportedly also targeted Iranian fuel shipments to Syria on the high seas, claiming that Iran uses these to smuggle weapons

Sporadic retaliation

Iran and its allies, including the Syrian regime, have for the most part absorbed these strikes. They have only sporadically attempted to retaliate, namely when the attacks have caused major casualties. In May 2018, some 20 missiles launched from Syrian territory, which the Israeli army said were fired by the Iranian Quds Force, targeted Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights. The volley was likely a response to an Israeli attack on the Tiyas airbase near Homs a month earlier that killed at least seven Iranians.

The likelihood of Iranian casualties significantly decreased when Russia, which controls Syria’s airspace west of the Euphrates, obliged Israel to give prior notice of operations there, after one such operation led to the accidental downing of a Russian military aircraft by Syrian air defence, killing 15 Russian servicemen. It is generally assumed that the Russian military is passing on such information, giving the Iranians enough time to move their personnel out of harm’s way.

A more likely escalation scenario would be the killing of Hezbollah operatives embedded with Iran-backed militias in Syria, an event that could spill over into Lebanon.

The threat, which effectively aimed to expand the existing deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah to the Syrian theatre, came in the aftermath of an Israeli attack in Syria that killed two Hezbollah members, followed almost immediately by a drone attack in the southern suburbs of Beirut that allegedly targeted a key component of Hezbollah’s missile infrastructure. The response came exactly a week later, on 1 September 2019, when Hezbollah struck at and narrowly missed a military vehicle inside Israel.

Precarious balance of deterrence

This last chain of events in particular illustrates the danger that low-level altercations in Syria may upset the precarious balance of deterrence that has prevailed between Hezbollah and Israel since their 2006 war. Simply put, both players are aware that a new direct confrontation would incur intolerable damage to their own side, and are hence keen to avoid it.

At the same time, both also believe that credible deterrence is the safest way to avoid such a scenario, and that this requires signalling to the enemy their readiness to risk a confrontation if certain red lines are crossed. According to Israeli media, the Israeli army had stood ready to retaliate to Hezbollah’s 1 September response with a devastating blow. This would likely have prompted Hezbollah to respond yet again in kind. Israel called off the retaliatory strike once it became clear that none of its soldiers had been harmed.

Calm has mostly prevailed on the Lebanese-Israeli border, but this should not be taken for granted.

Since then, calm has mostly prevailed on the Lebanese-Israeli border, but this should not be taken for granted. On the surface, Hezbollah showed reluctance to deliver on Nasrallah’s commitment the last time one of its operatives, Ali Kamel Mohsin, was killed near Damascus last July.

Immediately after that incident, the group claimed that Israel sent a message through the UN containing what amounted to an “apology” for the “unintentional” killing of Mohsin, which supporters cited as proof that Israel was “in a state of continued confusion and fear”.

The following month, Hezbollah vehemently denied Israeli claims of a botched border incursion, and quoted the heightened state of alert on Israel’s northern border as material proof that Hezbollah’s deterrence remained effective.

Ultimately, however, such rhetorical manoeuvring will not be enough. From the perspective of Hezbollah, standing down for too long would be read as a sign of weakness and encourage Israel to step up the pressure. By this logic, maintaining the balance of deterrence that has kept the border mostly quiet for the past 15 years would require real military action should Israel continue to carry out attacks against the group, whether in Lebanon or Syria.

Bracing for trouble

The Israeli military, for its part, is bracing for rough months ahead. According to its annual intelligence assessment published this past February, Hezbollah is moving towards a more aggressive posture, and is increasingly ready to risk limited confrontations along the border.

Hezbollah is moving towards a more aggressive posture, and is increasingly ready to risk limited confrontations along the border.

On 27 January, Israeli Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi devoted some 10 minutes [27:30 to 38:30] of a 50-minute public presentation to explaining that in the event of such a conflict, it would be legitimate and necessary for the Israeli army to attack suspected weapons-storage and launching facilities embedded within densely populated residential areas in Lebanon - though he added that Israel would do so only after giving enough warning for civilians to evacuate.

Israel’s most influential think tank, the same one that hosted Kochavi’s speech, has argued for a more forward-leaning posture in Syria, and Israeli sources have fed alarming information to international media about an alleged build-up of Iranian capacity to store and produce advanced weapons in Syria, suggesting that Israel is preparing to step up its campaign there. 

While these reports partly reflect what is known about the current Iranian strategy for the proliferation of weapons to its allies, namely an increasing reliance on technology transfer that enables local manufacturing, it is not clear to what extent this represents a substantial increase or a qualitative shift in the threats that Israel has faced in recent years. For one, these reports stand in some contrast to previously reported assessments that Israeli attacks have gone a long way towards undermining Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.

Hezbollah, for its part, insists it aims for deterrence, and so far there are no indications to the contrary. Rather than a significant shift in the strategic balance, the most plausible reason for Israel’s increasingly bellicose posture appears to be the shift in the new US administration’s Iran policy - namely, the move away from the Trump-era “maximum pressure” on Iran to renewed diplomatic re-engagement and a return to the nuclear deal.

Doomsday scenarios

Israel has made no secret of its misgivings about Washington’s new policy line, going as far as warning that it may send the region “spiralling into war”. Whether the current political and military leadership in Tel Aviv actually believes it will need to bring about such doomsday scenarios is unclear.

One objective behind emphasising the Iranian threat is certainly to urge the US to condition a return to the nuclear deal on addressing what Israel sees as Tehran’s problematic behaviour across the region - namely, its ballistic-missile programme, support for non-state actors, and, in the Israeli government’s eyes, undermining of regional security. 

While the Biden administration has sought to reassure its Israeli ally that it will eventually follow up on these issues, they are not on the agenda in the current Vienna talks. Nor is Tehran likely to reduce its footprint across the region and draw down its presence in theatres such as Syria of its own accord, once a deal is secured.

From the Iranian perspective, reinstating restrictions on its nuclear programme may appear as a significant concession that makes it necessary to reinforce other points of strength in its strategic posture.

From the Iranian perspective, reinstating restrictions on its nuclear programme may appear as a significant concession that makes it necessary to reinforce other points of strength in its strategic posture. During the Trump era, Iran’s strategy of asymmetric deterrence and defence through a conglomerate of state- and non-state actors proved effective against an impressive array of external adversaries endowed with far more resources and diplomatic clout.

The Iranian leadership may well opt to double down on this approach, not least to hedge against a possible return of the US to a more confrontational approach after the next US presidential election in 2024.

Mediating role

Israel may want to curtail the increasing margin of manoeuvre that the end of “maximum pressure” may award Iran by increasing pressure of its own in places such as Syria. If Iran were to respond violently, this could also serve to vindicate warnings against its nefarious intentions and convince Israel’s allies, in particular the US, to partner with Tel Aviv in containing Tehran.

Yet, with Russia ultimately calling the shots in Syria, and with Israel’s newfound Arab partners moving towards a more accommodating stance as well, there are clear limits to such an approach.

The likeliest scenario is that the jostling between Israel and Iran, and by extension Hezbollah, for position in the Syrian theatre will continue for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the challenge will be to prevent occasional spikes of violence from spinning out of control.

Russia, which maintains good contacts with all sides, appears best positioned for a mediating role, which it already performed in the run-up to the regime’s offensive to take back rebel-held areas along Syria’s border with Israel in June 2018.

Preventing conflict in the triangle between Tel Aviv, Beirut and Tehran would be a smart move for Moscow to protect its political and military investment in Syria.