The latest developments in Syria have taken on an increasingly complicated shape, threatening a tragic repeat of its recent past.
Oppositional forces remain Sunni-majority and multi-brigaded. Sustained attempts by these oppositional forces to exclude Kurds from the political struggle in Syria, despite Kurds’ organizational capacity and the self-interested (rather than stability-oriented) calculations of international forces, make it clear that peace remains a distant horizon for Syria.
The current situation in Syria needs to be approached as a historical product of the past fifty to sixty years. In retrospect, a historical snapshot of Syria reveals the inner dynamics and historical underpinnings of what is happening in Syria now.
From 1925 to 1946, Syria was a mandate state under French rule. The French crafted a political infrastructure resting on a classically colonial logic: the country was ruled over from three centers with three different governmental infrastructures. In the west, the Alawites were in control, in the south the Druze were in control, while Damascus and Aleppo, where Sunnis constituted a majority, were governed through a different set of governmental and political infrastructures. That is how the French managed the situation in Syria. Across the board in all of these governmental infrastructures, however, Kurds remained categorically and practically unrecognized as a community, let alone as a people. Under their mandate rule over the course of twenty-one years in Syria, the French did not recognize the rights of the Kurdish people. Due to their interest-based relationship with Turkey, the French in fact subjected the Kurds to various forms of oppression.
When French colonialism came to an end and Syria emerged as an independent and sovereign state in 1946, the situation for the Kurds did not change, given that Syria’s first sovereign administration also refused to recognize the Kurds. Many intellectuals calling for linguistic and cultural rights were arrested and imprisoned. Many more were forced to flee the country. The union of Egypt and Syria around the axis of Arab nationalism between 1958 and 1962 only meant more oppression for Kurds. Kurds who demanded their rights in Iraq were tortured in Syria. In short, Arab governments, which came into conflict over many other issues, could establish an easy alliance when the question came to the recognition and rights of Kurds.
In 1962, the Syrian state stripped seventy thousand Kurds of their Syrian citizenship and subsequently declared them as “foreigners living in the country.” Their rights to education, to travel abroad, or to own property were confiscated. Today, this population is estimated to have increased to three to four hundred thousand.
The year 1963 is another important date in Syrian history: the year that the Ba’th party came to power through a coup d’état. The Party not only declared Syria to be an “Arab country,” but also defined Kurds as “refugees displaced from Turkey.” Based on this latter definition, Kurds have been denied all of their rights: Kurdish identity was banned, and the names of villages and towns were changed. In other words, what Turkey had done in the 1920s, Syria did fifty years later. Even writing in Kurdish was deemed as a serious crime, with hefty periods and violent methods of incarceration.
Between 1972 and 1974, thousands of Arabs were moved programmatically by the Ba’th regime into Kurdish villages in the region of Al-Jazeera, with the proclaimed project of peopling an “Arab belt” in the region. This project was actively pursued well into the 2000s after Hafiz Assad died and Bashar Al-Assad came to power.
The first and foremost thing that needs to be noted about the Bashar era is the massacre committed in Qamishlo on 12 March 2004. Kurds, inspired by Saddam’s fall, revolted against the Assad regime. With the support of Turkey, dozens of Kurds were massacred. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has referred to the massacre as “incidents,” congratulated Bashar Al-Assad personally for “having restored order and control.” The revolt of March 2004, combined with the ripples of the recent uprisings in the region, were claimed anew on 15 March 2011. Anyone who supports the idea of getting rid of the current regime in Syria, all those who want to build a democratic Syria in its place, and all others who have problems with the regime, have to admit that they have been following the process seven years behind the Kurds.
The biggest problem for the Kurds is the fact of having been divided into three separate regions in Syria.
1) Cizîrê (Al-Jazeera) Region
This region consists of the following cities, listed here with their Kurdish names: Dêrika, Hemko, Tirbespiyê, Girkê Legê, Amudê, Dirbêsiyê, Serêkaniyê, and Hesekê. Approximately three-fourths of the region is under Kurdish control. On all town administrative levels, civil and military organizations alike have become completely operational (both during the one-year-old political process and in line with the previous preparations). The region is home to almost two million people. Al-Jazeera is known as the richest region of Syria. Although Kurds constitute the biggest part of the population, it is a cosmopolitan region. Yet between each given set of two Kurdish villages, an “Arab” village has been installed, and for that purpose Kurdish land and property rights have been confiscated. The current Kurdish administration in the region has invited all those living there to claim their say in the governance of the region and has created collective local parliaments.
The Al-Jazeera region is taken to end in Serêkeniye, bordering the Tel Abyad region. The area between Serêkeniye and Tel Abyad had been cleared of Kurds under Ba’ath rule and resettled with Arab inhabitants. The region is currently under al-Qaeda control. The region that stretches from Tel Abyad to Kobanê, on the other hand, is comprised of Kurdish villages and has been under the control and administration of the YPG forces. Its population density and rich resources considered, it would not be an exaggeration to call Al-Jazeera the most crucial region and the heart of Rojava.
Al-Jazeera, in other words, is almost synonymous with Rojava. All cities, according to the Ba’th government’s redistricting, constitute the vilaya or state of Hesekê. The amount of oil in Al-Jazeera’s Rimelan province is estimated to be larger than that in the whole of Syria, and is thought to have the same potential for extraction as that found in Kirkuk of Iraq. Furthermore, the Al-Jazeera region produces the bulk of Syria’s agriculture.
2) Kobanê Region
This region is equivalent to the Suruç plain in Northern Kurdistan. The Suruç town center across the border is only ten to fifteen kilometers from Kobanê. Villages on each side face one another across the border. The most important places in the region include Tal Abyad, ‘Ayn Isaa, Manbaj, and Al-Jarablus. There are more than half a million Kurds living in the region; most of the towns and a significant number of the villages are under Kurdish control.
3) Efrîn (Afrin) Region
The local population here is also around half a million. However, due to the recent emigration out of other Syrian cities into the region,n the number of those living here has doubled. The most populated cities here are Êzaz, Cebel Seman, and İdlip, and the whole region is under Kurdish control.
Kurds’ Political and Military Situation
PKK Leader Abdullah Öcalan crossed from Suruç to Kobanê in July 1979, and stayed there for a while en route to Damascus and Beirut, where he would spend the next twenty years of his life. During this period, Öcalan also visited Aleppo regularly and established intense relations with Rojava Kurds. According to the official statement of the PKK, between 1980 and 2012, approximately five thousand women and men from Rojava lost their lives on the PKK fronts. This points to the close connection between Rojava Kurds and the PKK. With Öcalan leaving the region in 1999 and after the so-called Adana Treaty, which initiated state-level collaboration regarding “the Kurdish issue” between Turkey and Syria, the space for maneuver for the PKK was practically abolished in Syria. Many PKK militants were captured and returned to Turkey by Syrian authorities.
The PYD was founded in 2003, embracing Öcalan’s political and philosophical paradigm as its basis. The PYD’s current co-leader, Salih Muslim, was detained for three years, and many more PYD members have been massacred. It must be remembered at this juncture that until 2012, any visible act in the name of Kurdishness and Rojava meant being a central target for the regime in Damascus.
When the Syrian Revolution began, Kurds in Syria had a huge advantage over others. They were organized, and they knew very well how to get organized. It was a fact that the PKK in Rojava or in Syria was nowhere to be seen. That said, there was lived experience on the ground that was inherited from and accumulated through this very organization. Kurds met the dawn of the Syrian Revolution, starting on 15 March 2011, prepared. Instead of pursuing a populist political strategy, the Kurds in Syria have opted for one that takes social participation as its point of departure. They adopted sustainable and long-term tactics—as opposed to pragmatic ones that change daily. That is why, since 19 July 2012 and from Kobanê to Derik, in nine cities and dozens of districts, towns, and villages, they have succeeded in initiating and building people’s revolutions.
This is not a direct operation of the PKK, as some claim. But this is not to say that the PKK is oblivious or external to these developments. The PKK might not be there organically or organizationally, but its spirit lives on in the political, military, and social practices of the people. Öcalan’s ideas form their basis.
In Rojava, both before and after 2011, the most important social formation has been the TEV-DEM—the Rojava Democratic Society Movement in Kurdish. The PYD, the Women’s movement Yekitıya Star, youth and student organizations, cultural foundations, artisans’ collectives, and similar political formations are represented under the auspices of the TEV-DEM. Some Kurdish parties who have politically embraced Hewler as their center (since their leaders live there) have chosen to be active on the Syrian Kurdish National Council. In 2012, to ensure that the two major umbrella organizations could work with a shared agenda, the High Kurdish Council was formed, itself comprised of ten members, with each umbrella organization sending five delegates. Both TEV-DEM and PYD co-leaders are members of the Council.
In each of Rojava’s three districts, committees tied to the High Kurdish Council are active. The governance style is organized under the headings of economic, political, cultural, and social divisions. Organized as a bottom-up model that encourages citizens to participate directly in governance, the political landscape in contemporary Rojava provides a concrete “model” to the rest of the Middle East as a region.
The YGB, which is organized in the field of security, with its more than fifteen thousand fighters, is the biggest military force in the region. At their last conference, they decided to formalize their organization as a professional army. A sizeable portion of these fighters are women. Six battalions in total, or approximately 1,500 women fighters, have created their own autonomous unit. The YPG is under the jurisdiction of the defense committee of the High Kurdish Council.
Forces tasked with ensuring safety in cities and acting as traffic police, on the other hand, are organized outside of the YPG. Academies have been established to train people to join these forces, and they work in close collaboration with the People’s Councils.
In line with the recent developments in political and social conditions, a new model of governance is being constructed in Rojava. According to the plans devised to continue this construction, an election is being called in six months. The local parliament that will be formed as a result of the elections will constitute the “Rojava Transitional Government.” Parties and other political organizations will participate in this government based on the votes they receive in the elections. Kurds in Rojava will continue with their autonomous governance until a new Syria emerges. In that new Syria, Kurds want to be recognized and accepted as the second largest people in the country. In turn, they will recognize the authority of the central government. They also propose a model of democratic autonomy. Until the new Syria emerges, the transitional government will be responsible for providing for the people. That said, if in this new Syria a regime happens to emerge that denies Kurds their dignity and rights in Syria, such as Al-Nusra or the current regime, Kurds will enter a new period of struggle. This new struggle would confront a regime that would only have undergone a name change, which would hardly begin to solve any of Syria’s problems.
What Are the Dangers Awaiting Kurds in the Long Run?
There are two major dangers that we need to highlight here. The first danger is an internal one, namely one among the Kurds themselves; the second is the danger of a conflict between Kurds and external forces. As explained above, the Kurdish movement’s diverse factions came together under the auspices of the High Kurdish Council. However, shortly thereafter, some organizations decided not to endorse or recognize the Council. Even though they have declared the reason for this to be the failure of the Council to fulfill their expectations, there is evidence to suggest that they have also been influenced by other actors.
Remember that the Council itself is comprised of various parties, organizations, and collectives, including but not limited to the Syrian National Kurdish Front and the Rojava Democratic People’s Parliament. The Syria National Kurdish Front (Eniye Neteweyî ya Kurdên Sûrî-ENKS) is a coalition strongly associated with the YNK and the KDP. Among them, political formations such as El Parti and Azadi are in direct contact with Turkey. Because they lack an organic base in Rojava, they aim to exercise power through external support. Hence, they are in direct opposition to the PYD. Within the Council, although the PYD has the same representation as the rest, it enjoys the most social support from the local populations. For obvious reasons, Turkey is uncomfortable with this fact and aims to check the popularity of the PYD and to contain the latter’s influence in the region. The most recent meetings of Turkey with the PYD confirm that Turkey’s position has become increasingly difficult to sustain, revealing the underpinning of Turkish policy as “pacification through negotiation.” In fact, there are some small groups organized inside Rojava that aim at fostering unrest. It is important to remember that it was only after the meeting with Salih Muslim and Turkish authorities that numerous Al-Qaida members organized simultaneous and synchronized attacks in each of the three regions of Rojava. In other words, Turkey uses and abuses its authority and connections in multiple ways, including pressuring some Kurdish organizations not to cooperate with PYD, encouraging attacks on the Kurdish regions, and meanwhile also partly recognizing PYD. All these ways aim at furthering its interests in the region, especially now, as Turkey goes through its own “solution” process with the PKK and the Kurds.
The second (and possibly the biggest) danger has to do with the politics of external forces. How will the cake in Syria be shared? Will the Kurds’ status be recognized? For instance, if Turkey recognizes the Kurds’ status in Syria, will it also be compelled or forced to accept its own Kurdish citizens? How will Turkey be able to rely on the Lausanne Treaty with both legs of the treaty broken?
For all these reasons, Syria is the final stage for the Kurds. If the Kurds win in Syria, they will win in the broader region. This will most likely have a positive effect on the conditions of most Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Both the Kurdish Movement as well as the anti-Kurdish forces are aware of this. Either the status of Kurds in a new Syria will be recognized and Kurds will be transformed into the most active social force in the Middle East, or they will be rejected, further deepening the confusion and chaos reigning over the region.
We will find answers to the questions posed above in the near future. Kurds want to organize themselves politically in order to demonstrate that they are a force that cannot be excluded. The most sensitive actor implicated in these developments remains Turkey—the government of which is currently undertaking negotiations with Öcalan on Imrali Island. The task is to build a new synergy in the region along with the Kurds and to forge a new order of justice, the frame of which remains undrawn. The process remains inevitably open to many possibilities. But quite a few things will end in Syria; they will be erased. At the same time, quite a few things will end in Syria, and may blossom again.
[This article was first published, in Turkish, on Jadaliyya on 27 August; that version can be found here. It was translated from Turkish by Emrah Yildiz.]