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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
The Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idlib: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Jolani
The Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idlib: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Jolani
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 Syrian man stands at a makeshift camp for displaced people who fled pro-regime forces attacks in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces, on 18 February 2020. AFP/Bakr Alkasem

The Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idlib: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Jolani

As a humanitarian disaster unfolds in Idlib, the last bastion of Syria’s Islamist rebels, the question is whether accommodation is possible between the militants and their foes. External actors should answer by gauging the insurgents’ ability to maintain calm and their sincerity about aiding civilians.

Backed by Russian airpower, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad is bearing down on Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold. Previous offensives elsewhere in the war-torn country have tripled Idlib’s population, which now stands at roughly three million. Today, in the face of a nine-month-old offensive targeting the province, internal displacement is rising to levels unprecedented in this already extraordinarily brutal conflict. Over a million Syrians have fled, mostly toward makeshift shelters along the border with Turkey, to escape regime shelling and Russian aerial bombardment. Ankara has said it will take in no more refugees, having already accommodated over three million Syrians so far. Halting the offensive will depend on Ankara reaching a deal with Moscow (and, through Moscow, Damascus) a prospect that is increasingly uncertain. In the absence of a deal, Turkey could come to blows with both the Assad regime and Russia. In that case, Idlib’s dire humanitarian situation would almost certainly become an even bigger calamity.

Idlib’s fate appears to depend on how Moscow and Ankara calculate the value of their relationship. The two sides had designed previous Idlib ceasefires purportedly to afford Ankara time to “solve” the problem presented by the jihadist rebel group controlling the area, Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (the Levant Liberation Organisation, or HTS), which Russia (but also the U.S.) considers a terrorist organisation. The idea was that Turkey would contain the group as an alternative to an outright Russian/regime effort to destroy HTS militarily. Verbally, however, Moscow made clear to Ankara that it was expecting more – that Turkey physically separate HTS from “moderates” as a precursor to military action against the former. Over time, once it became clear that Turkey was unable – and perhaps also unwilling – to deliver on this goal, Russia and the regime used Ankara’s inaction to justify pushing at the edges of rebel-held areas. They employed a “salami-slicing” approach in wresting the province incrementally from HTS control and targeting Syrians irrespective of whether they belong to HTS or not, as part of an effort to help the regime retake control of the entirety of the country. In pursuit of this objective, Russia and the regime have repeatedly targeted population centres, including markets, schools and hospitals, with the effect of emptying these areas to ease the way for their recapture by regime ground forces.

Today, that strategy appears to be reaching a climax. The regime has retaken swathes of rebel-held territory in the past nine months. In response to regime bombardment of densely populated towns earlier in February, in which Turkish military observers deployed in Idlib were killed, Turkey sent in reinforcements and has threatened to confront the Syrian army directly if it fails to pull back to its previous positions. Moscow’s relationship with Ankara (and that of President Vladimir Putin with his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in particular) now hangs in the balance. If the two leaders want to preserve that relationship, they will have to find an accommodation over Idlib.

In such a scenario, Ankara and Moscow would have to find a solution to the HTS question. The group boasts substantial military strength – it is thought to have tens of thousands of battle-hardened fighters – and it has all but monopolised security control over Idlib’s population. It might not be able to withstand a concerted Russian/regime assault. Yet given how deeply entrenched HTS is in Idlib and the difficulty of the terrain, such an onslaught would almost certainly come at heavy military cost to the regime and trigger a massive humanitarian crisis, with even larger numbers of Syrians fleeing toward the Turkish border – a prospect that Ankara dreads. Anything less than a full assault and takeover of Idlib, however, would appear to extend HTS’s existence in the area, even if its territory shrinks. The question is therefore whether any accommodation with HTS in Idlib is possible, which in turn raises the question of what, precisely, that organisation is today.

The group’s leadership asserts that it is adjusting to the new realities on the ground. It says it has forsworn transnational jihadist ambitions and is readying itself to focus on governing territory under its control. At least, this is what a recent conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, HTS’s leader, suggests.

Crisis Group (along with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva) spoke with Jolani in Idlib for four hours in late January, touching upon the group’s ideology and evolution, its relations with other jihadist groups, and its objectives in the struggle against the regime in Damascus.

Following a series of rebranding efforts and internal transformations, Jolani told us, HTS presents itself today as a local group, independent of al-Qaeda’s chain of command, with a strictly Syrian, not a transnational, Islamist agenda. “I was influenced by a Salafi-jihadist milieu that emerged from a desire to resist the U.S. occupation of Iraq”, he said, “but today the reality on the ground is our reference”.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Jolani travelled there from Syria. He joined a Salafi-jihadist group that later morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). By 2011, when the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq and a popular uprising erupted in Syria, he had decided that it was time to “join the struggle” at home. Yet he soon fell out with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISI’s successor organisation ISIS, and declared his and his group’s allegiance to al-Qaeda instead. Jolani explained:

When we broke off from ISIS, we didn’t have any good options. I had to take a quick decision, so I gathered my inner circle and told them I was considering pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. They advised against it – some even described it as suicidal – but no one was able to provide me with an alternative. However, I conditioned my pledge on the notion that we would not use Syria as a launching pad for external operations. Nor would we allow others to use it for such a purpose. I made clear that we would focus exclusively on our struggle against the Syrian regime and its allies in Syria.

With the purported ideological shift came battles with both followers and rivals.

This decision led Jolani to rebrand his Jabhat al-Nusra as Jabhat Fath al-Sham and eventually to pursue a merger with a number of other local groups to create HTS. Idlib became their centre of operations. Whether and when Jolani’s various groups in fact forswore transnational operations is a matter of intense debate, but, according to him, HTS’s single goal is to fight the regime in Damascus – “a regime that has lost all legitimacy”. HTS’s ideology today, he said, is based on “Islamic jurisprudence, just like any other local Sunni group in Syria”.

With the purported ideological shift came battles with both followers and rivals. In the course of his leadership, and over time, Jolani sidelined or expelled most hardline and non-Syrian voices in HTS who opposed its apparent ideological transformation, thus rendering it more Syrian and less transnational jihadist in orientation. Still, HTS’s relationship with hardline groups remains ambiguous. HTS has tried to eliminate ISIS cells active in Idlib. But it has shied away from confronting al-Qaeda offshoots such as Hurras al-Din, which is now the official Al-Qaeda branch in Idlib; to some extent, it even has coordinated with that group in resisting the Russian/regime offensive. Other foreign groups, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party, a mainly Uighur militant faction from China, also work in close cooperation with HTS. In Jolani’s words,

We have been going systematically after ISIS cells in Idlib and this is why we haven’t seen a single ISIS attack in Idlib in the past six months. We have also contained Hurras al-Din, with whom we have a convoluted relationship. We had them sign a commitment not to use Syria as a launching pad for external jihad and to recognise the Salvation Government [the local government set up in Idlib by HTS; see below] and its courts [in other words, not to create its own Sharia courts]. So far, they have observed these commitments. With regard to what you describe as hardline voices within HTS, we have shown time and again that whenever we reach a decision about something, everyone follows the chain of command. As for those who don’t, they can easily part ways with us.

As for the Turkistan Islamic Party, things are a little different. These guys have been in Syria for seven years and have never constituted a threat to the outside world. They are committed solely to defending Idlib against regime aggression. As Uighurs, they face persecution in China – which we strongly condemn – and they have nowhere else to go. Of course, I sympathise with them. But their struggle in China is not ours, so we tell them that they are welcome here as long as they abide by our rules – which they do.

During our conversation, we told Jolani that people criticise HTS for its record of using violence against opposition groups, silencing dissent, and detaining non-violent activists and opposition-affiliated civil servants in local government. Its domineering attitude toward U.S.- and Turkey-backed opposition formations has alienated both these groups and their regional and international sponsors. Jolani partially acknowledged such conduct but claimed that HTS has embarked on a new path:

We have used force in the past against factions that we deemed problematic. The U.S. mistakenly attempted to create and back groups that had no presence or support in Syria. We need to talk to the opposition. We are under no illusion that we can govern Idlib on our own. Yes, like most movements in time of war, we’ve made mistakes, but we are trying to fix them now.

Jolani claimed that HTS is also changing its policy toward international aid organisations in light of the growing humanitarian emergency, saying:

Our policy toward NGOs has changed. We are willing to facilitate the work of any organisation that would like to return to work in Idlib, and we pledge non-interference. We will reconcile with any organisation we’ve had problems with in the past if they are prepared to help the people here. We are stretched thin trying to cope with the flow of displaced people.

[HTS] has long called for the regime’s overthrow and the departure of Iranian and Russian forces, even as such objectives have become increasingly unrealistic.

HTS’s position on a final settlement for the Syrian conflict remains unclear. In its rhetoric, the group has long called for the regime’s overthrow and the departure of Iranian and Russian forces, even as such objectives have become increasingly unrealistic. Jolani offered a counter-argument:

If you ask me to be realistic and to accept that there is no international will to effect regime change, the world should also be realistic and accept that over half of Syria’s population, some twelve million people, chose not to live under regime control. They voted with their feet. The least these people deserve is to live in safety. When you walk around here in Idlib, pick any civilian and ask them what it means to them to live under regime control. They will tell you that they prefer living in makeshift camps where their kids are dying in harsh weather conditions over returning to regime areas where they know they will be tortured and killed.

In 2017, HTS endorsed the establishment of the Salvation Government in Idlib to administer the province’s day-to-day affairs. Jolani described his group’s relationship with that local government as a division of roles: “You can’t say we control it, and I can’t say we have nothing to do with it. Yes, we have final say on security and military matters, because we are at war, but we don’t have final say over civil administration”. He disavowed an interest in one-party rule, and encouraged others to join the Salvation Government.

HTS is a project built from circumstance and won’t last forever. We don’t have a predetermined long-term plan. No one knows what will happen in the next three months, which areas will be under our control, how many displaced we will have to take care of, what Turkey will do or whether the Americans will even still be in Syria. But as I told you, our basic principles are clear, and our mid-term plan is to stabilise the area under our control and administer it through an alliance of local Syrian revolutionary forces that are committed to protecting Idlib. We could develop a political manifesto that would clarify our identity.

While Jolani’s rhetoric attempts to create the impression that the group has had a genuine change of heart about its objectives and behaviour, HTS would need to take far more concrete steps to demonstrate the sincerity of this reorientation, particularly to external actors. The apparent deadlock between Moscow and Ankara over Idlib and the area’s humanitarian emergency both necessitate a renewed ceasefire that would provide more time to find a diplomatic solution. Once that is achieved, Russia can test whether HTS is true to its word – whether it really is reforming itself – by assessing how willing it is to abide by a ceasefire, halt attacks on Russia’s Hmeimim air base and regime-controlled areas outside Idlib, and prevent attacks by smaller, harder-line jihadist factions, for which HTS has so far enjoyed convenient deniability. Russia, but also Western states, should determine whether HTS is demonstrating good-faith efforts to contain foreign and transnationally oriented jihadists beyond just ISIS; yielding more control of sectors of civilian governance inside Idlib and allowing for a degree of political pluralism, among other clear governance and political concessions; and refraining from interfering in the work of humanitarian organisations ready to help close to a million desperate people hunkered down in miserable conditions next to the Turkish border. A campaign to uproot and defeat HTS in its final redoubt will almost certainly lead to a humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Any avenue, however narrow, for preventing such an outcome should be explored.