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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 U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern 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

 

The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria

Originally published in Middle East Eye

Directly arming one mainly Kurdish faction in Syria makes U.S. partly responsible for the fate of Syria’s Kurds. Given Ankara’s bitter opposition to the group, Washington should push its Kurdish partner to focus on regional autonomy in Syria, not its insurgency in Turkey.

With its 9 May announcement that it has decided to directly arm the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Washington has inserted itself even further into one of the region’s oldest and bloodiest conflicts: the 33-year-long fight between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is the mother organisation of the YPG and a group deemed a terrorist group by not only Turkey but by the US itself.

In fighting the Islamic State (IS), Washington has been supporting the YPG indirectly for several years and meeting with its commanders. But the decision to provide arms directly further elevates the PKK’s Syrian branch’s status. By doing so the US risks a deep, immediate rift with Turkey, its sometimes difficult but critical NATO partner of 60 years.

Playing sponsor to the YPG also means that the US is at least partly responsible for what may happen to Syria’s Kurds if and when the tide of the Syrian war turns against them.

Playing sponsor to the YPG also means that the US is at least partly responsible for what may happen to Syria’s Kurds if and when the tide of the Syrian war turns against them. It would therefore do well to use its enhanced leverage to push its Kurdish partner to make the right choices.

For the US, any assessment should begin with a sober assessment of who the YPG is. US officials privately concede that the difference between the YPG and its civilian arm (the Party of Democratic Unity, or PYD) on the one hand and the PKK on the other amounts to little more than a useful fiction.

While the rank and file is mostly Syrian, the YPG’s upper command levels are heavily dominated by cadres trained in the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq and steeped in the party’s ideology.

Likewise, the idea that it would be possible to support the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their advance against IS without simultaneously strengthening the YPG, who form the alliance’s core fighting force and top command, as previously claimed, has little bearing on reality.

Fateful choice

US support has enabled the SDF - and thus the YPG - to push way beyond the Kurdish-majority areas in Syria’s north-east. Working ever closer with the US-led international coalition against IS, the SDF is now closing in on Raqqa, the jihadist group’s unofficial capital.

Yet as it controls an ever-larger area, the YPG-PYD is rapidly approaching a fateful choice which Washington should seek to influence: whether to continue to back the PKK’s decades-old struggle with Turkey, or to devote its territorial gains and accumulated diplomatic credit to consolidating and protecting the status of de-facto self-rule it has achieved as a project in its own right.

Since 2012, the PKK and its Syrian affiliates have pursued a dual objective: improving their strategic position vis-a-vis Turkey by establishing a continuous militarised land belt along the Syria-Turkey border, and establishing what they refer to as “democratic self-administration” over the Kurdish and non-Kurdish communities that fell under their control.

Initially, those two objectives were mutually reinforcing: while the YPG-PYD worked to build “Rojava” (Kurdish for “West-Kurdistan”), the PKK exploited its affiliate’s gains to apply pressure on Turkey.

Yet this previously successful strategy of imposing facts on the ground and seizing territory under the cover of the anti-IS campaign has shown diminishing returns, and is now approaching a point where US military support today could leave the Kurdish militia dangerously exposed tomorrow.

Breaking point

Relentless territorial expansion means the YPG-PYD are now ruling over an ever-growing number of non-Kurdish communities, while the preoccupation with military matters has crippled their capacity to govern. Taking Raqqa, an overwhelmingly Arab city of 200,000, will likely stretch the governance model to breaking point.

Taking Raqqa, an overwhelmingly Arab city of 200,000, will likely stretch [the YPG-PYD's] governance model to breaking point.

More critically still, Turkish hostility has increased along with the SDF/YPG’s military gains. While officially aimed at ISIS, Ankara’s incursion north of Aleppo in August 2016 was for the most part geared to stem the PKK’s westward advance toward Kurd-populated Afrin. In April 2017, Turkey went further and bombed the group’s positions in northern Syria and northern Iraq, not withstanding US objections.

For the moment, the YPG-PYD feels itself protected by the alliance with the US Indeed, Turkey’s persistent opposition to Washington’s cooperation with the YPG has yielded little of substance. That the US is “aware” of Turkish security concerns and would control the use of the weapons it hands out apparently has made make little impression in Ankara: “Every weapon provided to the YPG is a threat to Turkey", said Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Yet once the YPG’s utility in fighting IS expires in the latter’s defeat, it is unclear whether the US will continue to devote resources to northern Syria, including post-IS stabilisation.

As a result, the YPG-PYD’s prospects could take a nosedive: trapped between a hostile Turkey to the north no longer hamstrung by the US and an opportunistic regime in Damascus waiting for the Kurdish areas to fall back in its lap, it will need new friends.

These are in short supply. Russia will almost certainly privilege its relationship with Damascus, and has shown itself unable to override a Turkish veto on the PYD’s participation in the Astana or Geneva talks.

YPG-controlled territories in Syria as an alternative supply route to its ally Hizbollah on the Mediterranean, but ultimately it remains committed to Syria’s territorial integrity and is therefore unlikely to support the YPG-PYD’s aspirations of regional autonomy.

This absence of a viable, long-term regional or international backer, and the pressure from hostile neighbours, makes the future of the PKK’s Syrian self-rule project uncertain. Between 2013-15, Ankara showed it might be willing to live with the PYD as a neighbour if the PKK were to suspend its fight and withdraw its militants, a position it would do well to restate.

Although the environment has changed a lot since then, it is conceivable that if Turkey’s main strategic concern – a PKK affiliate geared for military confrontation along its southern border – is addressed, Ankara might be willing to give regional autonomy in north-east Syria space to exist.

Risk of chaos

For this to happen, the PKK needs to allow the YPG-PYD to think beyond its parent organisation’s decades-long fight against Turkey, and instead invest in sustainable governance and regional autonomy that achieves Kurdish rights in Syria.

This will require giving up any ambition to forcibly link Kurdish territories in Syria, and to give its self-administration real power - rather than keeping it under the thumb of PKK-trained military cadres, as is the situation today. 

Unless it changes strategy, the group’s current accomplishments in northern Syria represent the maximum it can realistically hope to achieve, and pushing any further will likely put the project in existential danger. This risks plunging yet another, relatively stable, region of Syria into chaos.

The US has leverage to influence the YPG-PYD’s behaviour, and should use it.