As events in Syria continue to dominate news headlines across the world, the ascendency of Syria’s geopolitically significant Kurdish minority has brought a new twist to the increasingly bloody conflict. The Kurds gained control of majority Kurdish towns along the Syria-Turkey border, including Afrin and Ayn al Arab (Kobanê) in North Syria, and Ras al Ayn (Serêkaniyê) in North-East Syria, in July 2012. The majority Kurdish areas do not constitute a continuous enclave, and areas populated by Arabs and other ethnic groups divide their population centers. Much like the other rebel-held areas in Syria, the Kurds manage their own affairs in the areas they control, including providing education in the Kurdish language. The People’s Protection Units (YPG in the Kurdish acronym) have been trusted with the defence of the communities of the Kurdish controlled areas. The Kurds’ ascendancy in the past year highlights their rising importance for the Syrian opposition. However, a big question remains: what does the future hold for Syria’s Kurds?
The past year witnessed political disagreements among Kurds in Syria resurface, but their disagreements did not lead to a conflict. The agreement brokered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in July 2012 led to the creation of the Kurdish Supreme Committee—an umbrella organization bringing together the main Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD in the Kurdish acronym) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), comprised of other smaller political parties—and the establishment of a form of power- sharing in the administration of Kurdish controlled areas, including the coordination of the activities of the YPG.
Constituting roughly ten percent of Syria’s population, the Kurds may not have the political and military power to determine the outcome of the conflict, and the future trajectory of the Kurds’ position in Syria depends heavily on their relations with other sections of the Syrian opposition, as well as the actions of the regional powers. While the Kurdish political parties in Syria do not advocate the creation of their own independent Kurdish state, extensive autonomy for Kurds, pluralist democracy, and recognition of the rights of all the ethnic and religious minorities in Syria is their goal. Moreover, the PYD has consistently maintained that they do not support further militarization of the conflict and interference by external powers. This has created friction between the PYD and the other sections of the Syrian opposition, who advocate a more intense military challenge, including external intervention against the Assad regime. Since October 2011 and in alliance with other left-leaning parties in Syria, the PYD has been taking part in building a coalition of opposition forces, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change.
The growing influence of the jihadist groups in the rebel-controlled areas in the past year has coincided with a significant increase in attacks against the Kurdish-controlled areas. This has become the case especially since the middle of July 2013, when fighting broke out between the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the YPG in Ras al Ayn. Currently, the fighting continues in a number of areas, and while the YPG have managed to defend their positions, it has not been able to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra murdering, beheading, and kidnapping Kurdish civilians. These attacks clearly show the danger that the Kurds can easily be drawn more into the increasingly bloody and brutal civil war and that the conflict can evolve along ethnic lines.
The recent influx of Kurdish refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan only demonstrates the high levels of anxiety and insecurity felt by the Kurds in Syria. The competition over resources and holding strategically important towns has been cited as the main motive behind the attacks by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, the underlying ideological reasons and antagonisms based on ethnic difference also need to be highlighted. The jihadists’ aim of establishing an Islamist state is in stark contrast with the Kurds’ vision of a democratic, plural Syria. The former’s rhetoric increasingly targets the secularism of the PYD and its views on gender equality.
In addition to the Kurdish population in the majority Kurdish regions, a significant number of Kurds reside in mixed areas, such as Aleppo and the surrounding region. There, since the beginning of 2012, the Kurds also organized themselves militarily under the Jabhat al-Akrad (The Kurdish Front), operating as independent units as part of the Free Syria Army (FSA). However, due to jihadist attacks on the Kurdish-controlled areas and against Kurdish civilians in the Aleppo region, the relations between the FSA and the Jabhat al-Akrad have been severely strained from July 2013 onwards.
The relations between the Kurds and the other sections of the Syrian opposition remain less antagonistic, but so far the Syrian National Council (SNC)—the representative body for the opposition—has failed to integrate the Kurds into its structures: some Kurdish representatives have been part of the SNC, but neither the PYD nor the KNC are currently represented. Recently, the SNC has intensified its efforts to incorporate the Kurdish representative organizations into its structures, with meetings between the Kurdish political parties and SNC representatives taking place. However, it is not clear whether the SNC will be able to fully accommodate Kurdish demands for autonomy and, more importantly, address the increasing threat to the Kurds created by the attacks from the Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.
The Kurdish demand for autonomy has also been viewed with suspicion from Turkey, on the grounds that it would lead to the break up of Syria. Turkey’s main worry also stems from the fact that the PYD, which has close ideological affiliations to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), will play a prominent role in the government of such an entity. Turkey fears that such a situation will increase the power of the PKK as a regional actor and put more pressure on Turkey to grant more political rights to its Kurdish minority, a step Turkey has found very difficult to take over the past thirty years of the conflict. Recently, the increasing importance and rising international legitimacy of the PYD seem to have convinced Turkey to pursue dialogue and a less antagonistic policy, reflected in the visits by the PYD’s co-chairperson Salih Muslim to Turkey in July and August. These visits represent significant progress, especially given that previously, Turkey threatened to invade Syria if Kurdish autonomy was established under PYD rule.
However, it is too early to claim that Turkey’s policy will change. This is because Turkey’s policy on Syria’s Kurds is conceptualized within its overall policy on the management of its Kurdish conflict. In the past decade, despite the existence of significant opportunities to resolve the conflict, Turkey has failed to develop a new policy framework to transform and eventually end it. So far, Turkey has been following a piecemeal approach to granting group rights to its Kurdish minority. The establishment of a Kurdish-language TV station, TRT6, as part of the state broadcasting network in January 2009, and the establishment of departments in some state universities in which Kurdish language is taught and researched, are often cited as the main steps taken by the government. However, so far the government remains opposed to key Kurdish demands for decentralization and autonomy, and a full recognition of Kurds’ linguistic rights, such as the provision of education in Kurdish language. The recognition of Kurdish identity and associated rights require major changes in Turkey’s identity as a state, and these can only come about if there is a willingness and consensus to re-negotiate the dominant conception of citizenship, universal rights, and group specific or minority rights in Turkey. The public debate so far reveals the ideological rigidity of Turkish nationalism and its hesitation in accepting the legitimacy of Kurdish political demands and rights.
Despite the Kurdish de facto autonomy in Syria coming under increasing pressure, the Kurds seem to have managed to strike a delicate balance in an uncertain situation. For many in the Kurdish community, the possibility of Kurdish autonomy brought hope that the long period of oppression was over and they had their destiny in their own hands. Also, the likelihood of Kurdish autonomy in Syria has given further impetus to the wider discussion on the position and the status of the Kurds in the Middle East in general. What is undisputed is the rising influence of the Kurds in the region in the past decade. The consolidation of Kurdish self-rule in Iraq, and the possibility that it creates for an independent Kurdish state, has the potential to disrupt the international borders in the region. Moreover, the existence of an autonomous Kurdish entity, such as the KRG, strengthens the Kurdish attempt to develop a new regional framework in the Middle East for the accommodation of Kurdish demands.
The ongoing “peace process” in Turkey, if successfully concluded, is also significant. Not only would it bring about a major transformation in regional politics, but it would also create the impetus for the peaceful resolution of Kurdish conflicts elsewhere, through the accommodation of Kurdish rights and demands within existing state borders. Hence, the developments in Kurdish regions elsewhere will have a positive impact on the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question in Syria. However, the effectiveness of the Kurds as a significant regional actor depends on forging a common Kurdish position, which requires a higher degree of political unity amongst the various Kurdish movements. During the 1990s, intra-Kurdish rivalry resulted in conflict, but more recently, the need for cooperation on common goals has been gaining support in Kurdish political circles. It remains to be seen whether this will be realized. The recent decision to convene the Kurdish National Congress in November 2013 in Erbil (Hewler) could be a historic step towards that direction. So far, the representatives of main Kurdish political parties and Kurdish NGOs from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria have been taking part in the preliminary meetings for the Congress, and finding a pan-Kurdish approach to managing the threats the Kurds in Syria face is expected to be high on its agenda.