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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
Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria
Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories 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

 

Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria

Originally published in esglobal

Four years into its full-fledged military intervention in Syria, Hizbollah looks as mighty as ever. Together with its allies, it has saved the Syrian regime, imposed Bashar Assad as a presence, if not a partner, in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State; put paid to what it feared might have been hostile Sunni reign in Syria; secured its vital weapons supply route while gaining greater military capabilities and expertise; created a buffer zone in the Syrian Qalamoun mountains largely sealing Lebanon’s eastern border against jihadist attacks; and rallied the majority of the Shiite community behind it.

Yet, Hizbollah’s stunning successes come at considerable cost. Mirroring foes and allies alike, the party has sharpened the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Its approach has helped the Syrian regime confine the rebellion to a Sunni Islamist milieu increasingly dominated by jihadis – which also has made Hizbollah into an ever more integral element of Iran’s regional agenda. Unlike Iran, however, Hizbollah and the Shiite community of Lebanon are within easy reach of jihadis. While the party’s professed objective in entering the war was to keep radical militants away from Lebanon, in reality its intervention in Syria has amplified the danger, as a spate of attacks in 2013-2015 revealed.  

By pursuing a maximalist stance that leaves Syrian rebels with no options except to fight on and die or surrender on Assad’s terms, Hizbollah and its allies prevent the emergence of a rebel leadership capable of implementing a negotiated settlement if and when one is achieved – as even Russia appears to recognise. This creates a vicious circle, since the lack of a deal will perpetuate the Assad regime’s need for Hizbollah and other (predominantly Shiite) foreign fighters to prop up its crumbling rule.

Already, Hizbollah’s capacities are overstretched. The intervention in Syria has strained the party’s (and Iran’s) treasury, exacerbating economic problems at home. More important still is the drain on its personnel. The movement has lost more than 1,500 fighters, among them experienced, difficult-to-replace commanders, and likely will have to continue compensating for its Syrian ally’s dwindling manpower. More victories on the battlefield are unlikely to change this equation. A string of deadly attacks against regime figures and civilians in Homs and Damascus in 2017 gives a taste of things to come if the Syrian civil war turns into an open-ended, asymmetrical conflict reminiscent of post-2003 Iraq.

Hizbollah’s Syria intervention has earned it credit in Damascus and Tehran but has inflicted unprecedented damage to the acceptance and cross-sectarian appeal it once enjoyed at home and in the wider region because of its confrontations with Israel. This is perhaps the war’s greatest cost to the party: the threat of jihadist violence certainly has helped galvanise the support of Lebanon’s Shiites, yet the hostility of the region’s overwhelmingly Sunni environment likely will come back to haunt it. Hizbollah and the community that sustains it seemingly will remain trapped in a militarised, sectarian ghetto, reliant on the party’s hard power to maintain political and socio-economic gains. And paradoxically, while the Syria intervention has provided it with additional combat experience and materiel, Hizbollah is more isolated and hence more vulnerable on the frontline with Israel. Unlike in 2006, the majority of Lebanon’s Sunni community and anti-regime Syrians will likely see any future war between Hizbollah and Israel not as a national cause to rally behind but as an opportunity for revenge.

Hizbollah needs a viable exit strategy to convert its formidable battlefield success into political assets. While there is no easy way to de-escalate, let alone solve the Syrian conflict, the party, in tandem with Iran, could take significant steps in that direction. Hizbollah should reconsider and tone down its use of sectarian rhetoric, and cease to lump all armed opposition groups together as “violent extremists”. With Tehran, it should actively work to help stabilise what remains of the ceasefire, and open lines of communication with non-jihadist groups to agree on mutually acceptable forms of decentralisation, and to ease the tit-for-tat restrictions and attacks on the besieged (Sunni) villages of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, and the (Shiite) communities of Fouaa and Kefraya in the rebel-controlled province of Idlib.

Hizbollah and Iran should also press their ally President Bashar Assad to negotiate a political settlement and refrain from new offensives against opposition-held areas such as Idlib, which are only liable to deepen the sectarian divide. Conversely, if it continues down the road of hard power and military solutions, Hizbollah’s leadership may soon find itself stuck in the same dilemma which, some 2000 years ago, prompted the famous quip attributed to King Pyrrhus of Epirus: “If we are victorious in one more battle…we shall be utterly ruined".