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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
Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
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

 

A United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy delivering aid packages in the rebel-held town of Nashabiyah in Eastern Ghouta for the first time in five years, on 30 July 2017. AFP/Amer Almohibany

Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria

Russia’s proposal for humanitarian corridors for Eastern Ghouta and Rukban camp have little chance of mitigating suffering there. Instead, Moscow should push for a negotiated resolution of Eastern Ghouta through UN Security Council Resolution 2401 and secure normal aid agency access to Rukban, thereby enhancing its credibility as a mediator.

Syria’s civilians have suffered tremendously through the country’s seven years of conflict. Now, as the Syrian government and its allies prepare to retake Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburbs, hundreds of thousands will be caught in the crossfire once more. The humanitarian corridors announced by Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for Eastern Ghouta, and proposed for the Rukban camp on the border with Jordan further east, are unlikely to substantially mitigate that suffering.

To be sure, any means for civilians to safely and voluntarily escape the violence in besieged Eastern Ghouta is positive and welcome. But the corridor announced unilaterally by Russia and the Syrian government through the Wafideen camp lacks the sort of guarantees that would allow Ghouta’s nearly 400,000 residents to use it or other concerned parties, including UN Security Council members, to endorse it.

First of all, residents would have to be able to reach the corridor without fear of being targeted en route. Daily ceasefires of five hours, still punctured by intermittent shelling, are too narrow a window. Prior experience with Syrian ceasefires has generated a deep sense of distrust. It would take quite some time without any violations for people to trust that this one is different. These five-hour windows also fall short of the cessation of hostilities and durable humanitarian pause demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which Russia supported.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation.

People in Eastern Ghouta also harbour a deep-seated fear of what would happen to them once they reach government-controlled territory. Compulsory military service for male family members is a concern regardless of political orientation. Retaliation by the security state is a threat for anyone who has – or whose loved ones have – a record of opposition to the regime. In Eastern Ghouta, that may include nearly everyone.

Thus, for most, an unconditional return to areas of government control is not a safe or realistic option, as evidenced by the miniscule numbers who left thus far. State media have claimed that the armed groups prevent people from leaving, holding them as human shields for all practical purposes. Such accounts are impossible to verify, but without credible guarantees, little if any coercion would be required to prevent departures.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation. As time elapses, the argument will gain ground that those still inside are either in cahoots with, or held back by, insurgents – with the implication that neither government forces nor their Russian allies are to blame for casualties from shelling and bombing the densely populated area indiscriminately.

Eastern Ghouta requires a negotiated resolution, not a military victory that would be disastrous – for Ghouta’s residents first and foremost, but also for Syria’s future. Hundreds of thousands of people cannot be crushed militarily and then successfully reintegrated into Syria’s state and society. A non-violent alternative is possible: Russia has negotiated with Eastern Ghouta’s non-jihadist rebel factions in the past. For Moscow, these are known interlocutors, with whom it is possible to reach an agreement.

Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community ... rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Rukban’s situation is different. With no fighting ongoing in the area, residents there can leave the U.S.-policed zone around the Tanaf military base and return to their homes, no corridor needed. It is just that these homes are not safe. Last year, hundreds of Rukban residents returned to the town of Qaryatein near Homs, only to have the Islamic State (ISIS) overrun the town and massacre its civilians. Most of Rukban’s current residents are from Syria’s central Badiya desert and the country’s east, areas where ISIS has been defeated but which are not yet sufficiently secured. They would also need clarifications regarding their legal status when they return to areas of state control.

In the meantime, more should be done to deliver humanitarian assistance. Delivering aid across military lines from Damascus presents special challenges, including coordination with the U.S.-led coalition through de-confliction channels and with U.S.-backed militias inside the Tanaf zone. Still, Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community – a community the U.S. and Jordan have mostly failed to aid via the Jordanian border – rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Humanitarian corridors as proposed by Russia do not offer solutions for either Eastern Ghouta or Rukban. Yet both areas present opportunities for Russia to work toward something genuinely stabilising and life-saving, if Russia is willing to sway its ally in Damascus. Pushing for a full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which could provide an opening for a negotiated resolution in Eastern Ghouta, and securing humanitarian access to Rukban would greatly enhance Russia’s credibility as a mediator in Syria and, critically, spare more bloodshed.

This article was also published by the Valdai Discussion Club.