Erbil/Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Following military gains in northeastern Syria, the war-torn country’s Kurds have taken steps towards bolstering their geopolitical presence this week. On November 12, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) released a statement announcing that a transitional civil administration would be established in northeastern Syria.
The announcement appears to have irritated the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella organization for groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. On November 12, the Coalition welcomed into its ranks the Kurdish National Council, a collection of Kurdish political parties that has a troubled history with the PYD despite being its sometime ally in the Kurdish Supreme Committee. The following day, the Coalition issued a statement condemning the PYD’s decision to establish an autonomous administrative region, declaring that “their actions represent collusion with the Assad regime, regardless of their slogans.”
Every group in Syria has a different opinion about how the next stage of the conflict will and should unfold, but the PYD’s recent decision—and the criticism that followed it—is a clear sign that Syria’s Kurds do not have a unified vision of their place in Syria, either during the civil war or after. Some Syrian Kurds agree with the Syrian National Coalition’s opinion that any move towards independence from Syria only bolsters Assad’s position, but other Kurds deny this just as fervently. As the civil war rages on, the situation in the Syrian Kurdish regions—which the Kurds consider to be the western part of Greater Kurdistan—could lead to startling developments that will have repercussions on the wider revolution in the near future. Indeed, the conflict has already brought about changes in the political map.
Kurds and the Syrian crisis
The most prominent Kurdish player in the Syrian crisis thus far has been the PYD, which is considered the Syrian wing of the powerful Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based in Turkey, which has fought for Kurdish rights and an independent state in Kurdish parts of Turkey since the 1970s. But despite the civil war in Syria and the uncertain political situation in Kurdish-dominated areas of the war-torn state, this party’s impact at the grassroots level has unexpectedly surpassed that of most other long-established political powers in this part of Syria.
The party has already announced the formation of a temporary government, and is moving quickly to make that a reality. According to some observers, the transitional authority could eventually evolve into the first fully independent Kurdish state. At the very least, it could create conditions favorable to the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state along the lines of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.
Such autonomy for a Kurdish region would inevitably affect all of Syria, but in such uncertain times very few are focusing on the future. For now, the attention is on the military position of the group, and especially the dual war the Kurds have been fighting—one against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and another against Islamist groups including the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Speaking with Asharq Al-Awsat, Nawaf Khalil, a member of the PYD’s media committee, pointed out that the Kurds in Syria are at the forefront of the opposition to the regime, saying, “We are in communication with the militarized opposition, led by the Free Syrian Army, and we stand with every group that accepts our existence and our rights. . . . We are waging fierce battles against some of the Islamist groups, especially Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.”
He added: “We succeeded in expelling the regime’s forces, and today we work to do the same to the Islamists. We know that we are defending ourselves, and not attacking anyone.”
Bezor Berik, a Kurdish activist from Qamishli, also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Kurds were fighting a two-front war, adding there “is a clear division of northern Syria between the PYD and the Islamist opposition forces.”
Field reports suggest that the PYD’s forces control more than two-thirds of Kurdish lands in Syria, most of which are in the governorate of Al-Hasakah in the north of the country, where Kurds make up 70 percent of the population.
Observers have also reported that the PYD’s forces are trying to establish a presence in some northern towns in which Kurds are a minority and Arabs a majority, including the strategic border towns of Jarablus and Azaz, which opposition fighters have used as routes to transport supplies from Turkey. A step like this would likely provoke a violent response from certain opposition groups.
Redor Khalil, the spokesperson for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia tied to the PYD, denied this in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat. “I’m not saying that we will do that…let us wait to see if the opposition groups in these areas will guarantee the Kurds safe movement in that area first.”
Kurdish military gains in Syria mean that there is growing confidence that attempts to set up a transitional governmental authority in Kurdish-dominated areas will succeed. This could threaten not only the unity of Syria, but also potentially destabilize neighboring countries, which suffer from similar ethnic and sectarian divisions. With approximately one fifth of its population claiming Kurdish ethnicity and a long history of armed conflict with its Kurdish minority that it is only now beginning to resolve, Turkey in particular has been increasingly concerned by the growing independence of Syria’s Kurds.
Perhaps the biggest fear is that a repeat of the Kurdish experiment in Iraq might tempt the remaining two parts of Kurdistan—in Turkey and Iran—to move towards a similar goal, in the greater hope of establishing an independent and unified Kurdish state.
Last month, the Turkish government broke ground in a project to construct a wall along its borders with Syria, saying it was needed to ensure border security. The project, however, sparked protests. The Kurds claim that it aims to prevent closer relations between the Kurdish regions across the border in the two countries, and most Syrian Kurdish leaders believe that Turkey is seeking to isolate its Kurdish population from the Syrian population by erecting the wall.
Moreover, many Syrian Kurds consider the developments taking place on the ground in Syria, especially bloody war waged against the Kurdish citizens of Syria by the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS, as being driven by Turkey. Kurdish leaders support these claims by arguing that these forces are using armored vehicles and heavy artillery in their battles, implying that these are provided—or at least tolerated—by Turkey. The Syrian Kurdish leadership also accuses Turkey of opening its border crossings to allow Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Arab countries to use Gaziantep and Antakya as a starting point in their journey to Syrian Kurdistan.
The fierce ongoing war between Islamic militants and popular defense forces associated with the PYD suggest that the success of the Kurdish forces in rolling back the gains achieved by the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS is due in large part to the loss of popular support for the Islamists, in favor of the Kurdish forces.
Fighting, inside and out
The situation on the ground in Syria and the growing uncertainty over the Turkish position on its Kurdish minority have created difficulties for the region’s many Kurdish political parties. Growing disputes over the goals of the Kurdish movement present yet another obstacle to the Kurdish side, and none more noticeably so than the clash between the PYD and parties loyal to Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani.
There are efforts to achieve reconciliation between the two parties to allow them to present a united front at the long-delayed Geneva II peace conference. However, the national Kurdish conference that was scheduled for November 24—and which was expected to assume responsibility for the reconciliation efforts—was postponed due to a dispute arising from Iraqi Kurdistan’s decision to refuse entry to PYD leader Salih Muslim in late October.
Only a few months ago, relations between Barzani’s followers and the PYD were markedly more positive. During a fierce confrontation between the PYD and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria, the Iraqi Kurdistan president gave his strong support to the Kurdish militias. In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, the spokesperson for Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, Jaafar Iminki, said that the support Iraqi Kurdistan would give to Kurds in Syria would be “comprehensive, including logistical support for the fighters of the PYD and all revolutionaries who are defending the land of Syrian Kurdistan.”
While tensions between the two sides are certainly not new, they have transformed into something that today resembles open hostility. The PYD and Barzani’s Syrian followers, represented by the Kurdish National Council, have taken opposing approaches to the Syrian crisis, and tensions have become so disruptive the two sides began the mediation process to allow them to sit side-by-side at Geneva.
Forging a new administration, despite divisions
The infighting between different Kurdish groups has not prevented the PYD’s leadership from proceeding with its plan to establish a local government in the areas under its control. Sherzad Al-Yezidi, the spokesperson of the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan, which is aligned with the PYD, views the project as “an imperative matter, as the citizens of the Kurdish areas are in dire need of a local government to organize their affairs and to help prepare the new phase of their political lives.”
Dr. Jafar Akash, a representative of the PYD, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Kurds are determined to form a new administration despite the split between his party and the Kurdish National Council: “We are going to the peace conference [Geneva II], but prior to that, we will announce the formation of an administration responsible for our regions,” adding, “This new administration will be a regional government responsible for the management of affairs in the regions liberated from the Damascus-based regime. Representatives of every political and religious power, including the parties associated with the [Kurdish] National Council and the Kurdish Supreme Committee, have joined Assyrian, Syriac and Arab representatives. This administration will select members of the Syrian delegation who will participate in the Geneva II conference.”
Many questions remain about what this new transitional authority aims to do. It seems nobody can really agree on what an administrative body for Syrian Kurdish areas would do, whom it would work with, or how it would fit into post-conflict Syrian society and politics.
Shalal Gado, a leader of the Kurdish Democratic Left Party, which is part of the Kurdish National Council, spoke of the Kurds’ goals, saying, “The rumors spreading that the Kurds aim to secede from Syria and divide it are complete fabrications. . . There is not a single Kurdish political faction in Syria demanding secession. Rather, the Kurds are generally proud of belonging to this nation, even though others are trying to ensure that we remain second-class citizens in Syria after the war, which our people obviously completely reject.”
From the other side of the Kurdish divide, PYD representative Dr. Jafar Akash told Asharq Al-Awsat that through the transitional authority, the Kurds will work on “achieving democracy, establishing legitimate national rights for the Kurds, confirming the principle of political partnership and the right of the Kurds to practice their customs and traditions, ending the injustice inflicted on the Kurdish people throughout history, and confirming their participation in future governments based on popular representation and in accordance with the size of their population.”
In his conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat, Gado spoke of more everyday goals for the transitional authority: “At this crucial point, founding a joint transitional administration made up of the different groups in Syrian Kurdistan is most important. Most Kurdish cities are outside of the regime’s control, and this leaves a substantial administrative, financial, security and legal vacuum. We must work to fill this vacuum by forming a cooperative transitional administration, tasked with setting a draft constitution and preparing for transparent and fair parliamentary elections under international observation. The four million residents of this region need a local government to manage their affairs.”
Asharq Al-Awsat also spoke with Louay Al-Mokdad, a media and political coordinator for the Free Syrian Army and member of the Syrian National Coalition. He said: “The Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition look to the Kurds as an essential component of the Syrian community, and they have shared in the nation’s suffering under Assad’s regime, both father and son, for decades. We fully understand how the regime has abused them, and how it denied them their rights for many long years, and we fully respect their unique character.”
Al-Mokdad pointed to “the existence of many Kurdish military units, like the Mashaal Temmo Brigade, fighting alongside the FSA.” However, he also noted that “some of the armed Kurdish units have committed violations of the rights of citizen since they have made agreements with the regime. This is similar to what the PYD’s units did when they oppressed certain groups of Kurdish protesters who came out in their regions.”
Al-Mokdad said: “We stand firm against the abuse and murder of Kurdish people, just as we reject such crimes against Arabs. We absolutely reject the crimes that have been committed against our Kurdish brothers by Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, as well as some other undisciplined militias. At the same time, we implore our Kurdish brothers of all parties and groups to respond to the call of the nation, and to put the Syrian cause before narrow interests and short-sighted thinking.”
Al-Mokdad expressed hoped that the coming period, after the signing of an agreement between the FSA and the Kurdish Supreme Committee, “will be one of harmony among the different groups that make up the Syrian people, and that they will fight together against Assad’s regime.” He stressed that “the FSA sees Syria as single bloc, without distinguishing between the Kurdish, Alawi, or coastal regions, because we are all revolting against the same regime, from the various lands of Syria.”
He said he rejects “the secession of any group from Syria, whether Kurdish, Alawite, Druze, or Sunni,” explaining that “we will not accept cross-border organizations nor the division of Syria into several entities. However, at the same time we insist on equal rights for Arabs and Kurds, who ought to enjoy full respect for their unique national characters.”
Nawaf Khalil, PYD media committee member, expressed hope that the opposition forces re-examine their policy and draw up plans to unite all groups to reach a free and democratic Syria. He denied that Syria’s Kurds have any “separatist goals,” saying that “our project today is self-administration to meet the needs of our people, and not secession.”
After the downfall of the regime and elections, Kurds will accept only that they be like any other citizen of Syria, while holding on to our national identity and getting our rights.”
Layal Abu Rahal, Caroline Akoum and Nazeer Rida contributed reporting from Beirut.