[More than two years into the uprising in Syria, important questions remain about a number of a dynamics concerning the present situation and future prospects in Syria. Below, Muhammad Dibu interviews Baderkhan Ali on the trajectory of the Syrian uprising, the aspirations of Syria`s Kurdish community, and the prospects for the post-uprising period in Syria. The interview was first published on correspondents.org on 27 March 2013.]
Muhammad Dibu (MD): There is a lot of talk about demands made by Syria’s Kurds and what it is they really want. What do you think these might be?
Baderkhann Ali (BA): Before the Syrian revolution, the demands of the Syrian Kurdish political movement were generally to give Kurdish their legitimate rights within Syria. And besides talking about injustices the Kurds had suffered at the hands of the Syrian regime – such as the fact that they were not allowed Syrian nationality - they usually stressed that they didn’t want to secede from the country.
However after the revolution began, a coalition of Kurdish groups began to demand the right to self determination within Syria; that led to a call for federalism and their right to become a federal state.
I think there’s a perception currently that this is a good time for Syria’s Kurds to make as many demands as possible, especially after the al-Assad regime is gone. But I think that’s too easy. I think there are plenty of challenges that haven’t been considered – such as, for instance, what part Syria’s Kurds will play in the Syrian government after the revolution, what part they’ll play in selecting new leaders – that sort of thing.
MD: In your opinion, what sort of obstacles are there before Syria’s Kurds can achieve their ambitions?
BA: Despite all the meetings and discussions, despite all of the Syrian opposition’s desire to have the Kurds join them, no Syrian political entity has actually even accepted the Kurdish demands. There’s been no legitimate recognition of the rights of Syria’s Kurds.
That’s partially due to the Kurds, who have been changing up their requirements during the revolution. It’s also due to some opposition parties who believe that the Kurds’ demands are not a big problem and that these demands can be catered for with some generic, non-specific speeches.
I doubt very much whether Syria will become a de-centralized state that allows for semi-autonomous regions like a Syrian Kurdistan. Yes, the current unstable situation might allow some armed groups and authorities to exercise some kind of control over their own areas. But I don’t think this will be possible in the long run, in a more stable situation.
MD: There’s also a lot of talk about the Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked with the Turkish Kurdish party, the PKK; up until recently the latter was in an ongoing armed conflict with Turkish authorities as Kurdish in that country fought for independence. And for some time now, parts of Syria have been run by the PYD; they’ve even managed to get al-Assad’s military to leave without much violence. Now some are saying that the PYD is exploiting the situation in Syria for its own ends, and entering into secret dialogues with either the Turkish or the Syrian regime, depending on who you’re listening to. Your thoughts?
BA: I do not believe that the PYD is a tool of the Syrian regime. However there are certainly mutual benefits. The Syrian regime is provoking Turkey by playing the Kurdish card, by allowing the PYD and its people to act in a way that’s completely independent from the revolutionary movement in the rest of the country. In fact, that revolutionary movement has been subdued in the Kurdish-dominated areas.
The biggest mistake that the PYD has made in Syria is to try and impose itself on the Kurdish scene with violence. I don’t believe that these practices will stop when the Syrian regime falls.
MD: The jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, recently declared a ceasefire with the Turkish authorities. Do you think that the current dialogue between the PKK and the Turkish government will have an effect on the Syrian situation?
BA: Certainly. Because the PYD`s policy mimics the PKK`s. However negotiations in Turkey are only just starting and are mostly secret. We don’t know where they’re going. Up until now I don’t think the concerns of Syria’s Kurds have been a big issue for the PKK.
MD: After violent clashes between the rebel forces, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and Kurdish forces in Ras al-Ayn, the two sides came to an agreement and formed the Committee for the Protection of the Civil Peace and Revolution. Can something like this Committee succeed?
BA: The understanding in Ras al-Ayn was between the people’s protection units of the PYD and a militia associated with the FSA. The agreement came in for criticism immediately. Some of the criticisms were not surprising. For example, complaints from Nawaf al-Bashir’s Liberation of the Furat Brigades. Bashir is the head of the Baggara tribe and his – and his tribe’s - antipathy towards the Kurds goes back to the 1950s at least. What was surprising was when Brigadier General Salim Idris, the FSA’s Chief of Staff, was also critical about the agreement. He said it was void.
So I don’t believe that particular trouble is over. It may well begin again in another form, or in another place.
MD: There are two big players on the Kurdish scene. There’s the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella organization of about 16 Kurdish parties close to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. And then there’s the PKK and its PYD party. The former, the KNC, enjoys international legitimacy but has little control on the ground. Whereas the PYD is not recognized internationally – in fact, many say the PKK is a terrorist organization – but it has a lot of control on the ground. These two players recently came together to establish the Supreme Kurdish Authority, a body made up of various Kurdish interests. What are your thoughts on that Authority: a genuine love affair or a fragile, marriage of convenience?
BA: That agreement aims to avoid any possibility of a Kurd-versus-Kurd war. The agreement recognises the PYD as a genuine force in the Kurdish world – the PYD was ready and willing to fight for that. So the potential for that fight has been diminished. And from that perspective, the SKA is very welcome in Kurdish circles. Political compromise was required by all parties.
MD: Another contentious issue is that of the Kurdish soldiers who defected from the Syrian army and who are now in Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s well known that they’re being trained there and rumour has it that they’re being used to establish a force that might eventually be pitted against the PYD forces.
BA: As far as I know, it’s just a few Syrian soldiers and draftees of relatively low rank, who deserted. There were no Kurds with high ranks in the Syrian army. But the way people are talking about it, one might think it was some huge army.
And there have been no official confirmations about that force; officially, they’re not working for the KNC nor have any offers been made to send them back into Syria.
But of course, no sooner was the news about the possible return of those soldiers out, that the PYD’s leaders announced their opposition to anything like that. They even threatened to fight them if they did return. And they’re probably being truthful there because the PYD won’t accept any threats to its supremacy on the ground, even if it means they have to fight their fellow Kurdish.
In fact, because of the absence of a central Kurdish decision making force, there is a danger of having two different Kurdish militias in the same area.
MD: So let’s go back to Syria as a whole. In the past you’ve been very critical of the “radical Syrian opposition” as you call it. Where do you think the Syrian revolution went wrong?
BA: This debate is almost meaningless now because this country is being destroyed. But I believe that the biggest mistake was made during the first few months of the uprising.
I think that both the new and the traditional opposition underestimated the Syrian regime’s strength and cohesion. I think they fell into a trap created by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings; they thought any Arab regime could be toppled within a matter of weeks. And I also think some well known Arab satellite media also became a platform for these revolutionary ideals, pushing the rebels even further into rebellion.
The opposition also failed to take advantage of the potential for the ordinary Syrian people to return to politics after decades of oppression. It would have been a great gain. But instead an increasingly radicalized opposition preferred to demand more and more; parties like the Muslim Brotherhood wanted revenge, various political prisoners who had suffered at the hands of the al-Assad regime and various enthusiastic youth with little political experience also had an agenda. I think that’s where the problems started.
Of course I know we’re not playing chess and that I am saying this with the benefit of hindsight. But some thoughtfulness and some informed decision making might have saved the Syrian people from this catastrophe. Or at least, it might have made it a little smaller.
Also, we cannot forget that it is the al-Assad regime’s brutality that is responsible for all this. And I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who called the regime the largest organized crime gang in the country.
But to be completely honest, I don’t think any ideal deserves sacrifices such as these, including “democracy”. What good are free elections when the country has been completely destroyed?
MD: So what do you see in Syria’s future now?
BA: Even the most optimistic scenarios are hardly promising. Syria is at a bloody impasse that neither increased military funding nor more militias can solve quickly. We can expect more battles and more victims.
Even as we get closer to the fall of the al-Assad regime – if it happens, I don’t know when - it doesn’t mean that the revolution’s goals will be realised. Syrians will have to rebuild the state itself and heal its destroyed society – neither of these will be easy tasks. After that they may be able to talk about the potential for democracy, freedom, justice and the rule of law. And that’s only the potential.
I don’t think that the moment of Bashar al-Assad`s fall will bring much ongoing joy to many Syrians, especially those who have sacrificed, lost loved ones or their homes. That joy will be fleeting. Then we will open our eyes and see the overwhelming destruction. Many will be wondering: is this what our children were killed for? Is this why we are homeless? Is this worth it?