The Syrian uprising has presented Syrian Kurds with an opportunity to assert self-determination in a variety of ways, despite divisions within the community. Some Kurdish political parties have been able to exploit the evolving nature of the crisis and reap considerable gains. Despite many obstacles and much suffering, they have been able to achieve de facto autonomy in much of the territories where they comprise a majority of the population. Historically hostile to the Ba‘thist regime, yet lukewarm about the current Syrian opposition, attempts to decipher “which side” the Kurds are on in Syria are not productive, for the political realities do not lend themselves to blanket claims.
What exactly is happening in the Kurdish-majority areas of Syria—or what the Kurds refer to as “Rojava,” short for “Western Kurdistan”—and what role are Syria’s Kurds playing in the current civil war? In this essay I will begin to provide some provisional answers.
Syrian Kurds are mostly concentrated in the province of al-Hasake, where the cities of Qamishli and al-Hasake constitute the major urban centers. They also form a majority of the population in other cities and villages in al-Raqqa province (the village of Tal Abyad) and Aleppo province (notably the district of Ayn al-Arab, or Kobanê in Kurdish, and the district of Afrin). Although these territories are not contiguous, together they make up what is referred to as “Rojava.”
Kurds have long suffered as an oppressed minority in Syria. In the 1960s, thousands of Kurds were stripped of Syrian citizenship due to the fact that they were beginning to form a majority in northeastern Syria. As the Ba‘th Party came to power espousing a hardline Arab nationalist ideology, they feared that a Kurdish majority in a Syrian province would compromise Syria’s Arab identity and territorial integrity. The party thus took many steps to prevent this from occurring, including moving “Arabs” into the area and reinforcing the Kurds’ statelessness. The Ba‘th regime also repressed Kurdish culture by banning Kurdish schools, language, names, and traditions.
Years of repression culminated in an anti-government uprising in the city of Qamishli in 2004. Kurdish protesters took to the streets after expressions of Arab chauvinism. In doing so, they visibly defiled symbols of the Syrian regime. Regime security forces responded brutally and put down the protests by force, leading to many casualties. Visible expressions of solidarity with Syrian Kurds from other sectors of Syrian society were dearth.
Syrian Kurds and the Uprising
Syrian Kurds participated in protests at the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, especially in the urban centers of Rojava. Chants of “azadi”—Kurdish for “freedom”—were rife in the initial Syrian protests in early 2011. Opposition groups even named the Friday protests of 20 May 2011 the “Friday of Azadi.” The regime attempted to appease the Kurds early on by granting stateless Syrian Kurds citizenship in April 2011.
In July 2012, the Syrian Army withdrew from most of their positions in Rojava, only maintaining a presence in the cities of al-Hasake and Qamishli. This was an attempt by the army to limit the number of fronts it would be fighting on in order to not stretch itself too thin. The regime was well-aware that Syrian Kurdish cities and villages were extremely volatile and very prone to becoming hotbeds of organized anti-regime activity due to their historic tensions with the regime. Thus, a withdrawal to focus on other fronts would serve two purposes. First, it would allow the regime to concentrate its forces elsewhere. Second, it would placate the Kurdish population. The calculation proved correct: although Kurdish partisans repel Syrian army encroachments in some areas, Syrian Kurdish brigades have not joined any major military campaign with Syrian opposition brigades, with the exception of campaigns to defend Kurdish neighborhoods in Aleppo city against regime forces.
Syrian-Kurdish Parties and Their Politics
The Syrian Kurdish political landscape consists of many individual political parties, but can be divided into two broad camps: the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC). While both camps advocate for some form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria, the PYD adopts a more militant national-liberationist approach to advancing Kurdish interests, and stresses the use of armed struggle. Alternatively, the KNC, which is a coalition of a group of smaller Kurdish parties, stress Kurdish identity within the larger Syrian landscape. Both parties also belong to rival camps within the Syrian opposition: the PYD is affiliated with the more moderate opposition body, the National Coordination Body (NCB) led by Haitham Manna‘, whereas the KNC joined the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in August of 2013.
The tension between the PYD and the KNC also reflects a broader regional rivalry within the Kurdish nationalist movement, one between the hardline militant separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party in Turkey (PKK) and the rulers of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PKK is a historical enemy of the Turkish government, although recently relations between the two have been characterized by a détente. The leader of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, on the other hand, enjoys a friendly relationship with Ankara.
Despite Barzani brokering an agreement between the two Syrian Kurdish factions in 2012 that stipulated that the KNC and the PYD would come together to form a supreme committee to govern Rojava, this agreement has fallen apart for two reasons. First, the PYD has flagrantly attempted to monopolize political power in Rojava. Local reports indicate that the PYD has attempted to repress demonstrations and has committed acts of aggression against other Syrian Kurdish parties. Second, due to the recent attempts by opposition brigades to take over towns controlled by Syrian Kurdish parties, the PYD has become the defenders of these towns and their autonomy by default. In fact, their unofficial armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is by far the best armed Syrian Kurdish faction.
Recent Developments: The Jihadist Offensive
The latest bout of fighting between opposition brigades, most of them of the jihadist variety, and Syrian Kurdish parties began in July 2013. Although there was sporadic fighting between them before then, they were ended by brokered truces.
The clashes began in late July in Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, pitting militants from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) against Kurdish militias—mainly the YPG and a smaller group of Kurdish fighters called Jabhat al-Akrad (the Kurdish Front), which have links to the Free Syrian Army as well as the YPG. In Ras al-Ayn, clashes first broke out between the opposition-controlled section and the Kurdish-controlled section. In Tel Abyad, Kurdish militants captured one of the "Emirs" of ISIS, and ISIS militants went on a rampage randomly kidnapping Kurdish civilians in response. Since then, battles have culminated in major military campaigns announced by both sides, with the YPG and some smaller Kurdish factions on one side, and Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, and some FSA brigades on the other, at times working in tandem, and at times working by their own volition.
The official reasoning put forward for fighting to gain control of autonomous Kurdish territory varies between targeting the PYD due to its alleged collaboration with the Asad regime, to targeting the PYD for being affiliated with the PKK. The jihadists view the PKK as a blasphemous party due to its non-Islamist and explicitly socialistic tenets (which is reminiscent of the discourse of the mujahideen in Afghanistan regarding Afghan communists and the Soviet Union). Many Kurds accuse the opposition brigades of targeting the Kurdish areas due to an Arab anti-Kurdish chauvinism, but the jihadists have tried to counter this perception by parading their Kurdish members on the frontlines. Indeed, many Kurdish volunteers are fighting with jihadist brigades from all over Kurdistan—so much so that Kurdish religious authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have tried to rein them in by issuing a fatwa forbidding travel to Syria for jihad.
Jihadist brigades have an interest in targeting Kurdish-controlled areas and investing a considerable amount of resources and manpower into such efforts due to the territories’ geostrategic locations and resource-rich lands. The areas are largely empty of Syrian regime forces, thus giving them considerable room to operate. Furthermore, most of these villages that have seen major battles between jihadists and the PYD are very close to, if not right on, the porous Turkish border. For example, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ayn, and Ayn al-Arab—all Kurdish-inhabited areas that opposition factions have battled for control over with Kurdish factions—are each either intersected by or adjacent to the Turkish border. Thus, capturing one of these territories entails having easy access to Turkey for bringing supplies and fighters into Syria. The region in general is also oil-rich: there have been brutal battles for the village of Tel Hamees, for example, which has oil supply lines running right underneath it. Therefore, beyond justifications of ideology or regime-collaboration, the opposition brigades have a material interest in capturing territory controlled by Kurdish brigades.
The Opposition and the PYD
Although jihadist brigades as well as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) insist that the PYD openly collaborates with the Syrian regime militarily, this seems to be an exaggeration. Once regime forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas, the PYD played pragmatic politics: rather than hold a grudge and continue to openly engage the Asad regime in battle, they decided to exploit the gains of the power vacuum in Rojava. This sometimes entailed repression of Kurdish civil society activists and protesters, as well as moves against the Kurdish National Council (KNC) to monopolize political power. But it did not entail a military alliance between Asad and the PYD.
In the realm of ideology and rhetoric, the PYD and YPG both use anti-regime rhetoric. The YPG even openly boasts about killing regime soldiers. And whereas there seems to be a tense detente between the YPG and regime forces in Qamishli, in the Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo the YPG openly engages with regime forces in battle.
Turkish sponsorship and support of the Syrian opposition is what led to early Kurdish skepticism with the Syrian opposition. But the latest attacks against Kurdish areas have only exacerbated that skepticism. The SNC has yet to condemn an attack against a Kurdish village by jihadist brigades, even as it condemns attacks against opposition fighters by ISIS elsewhere. For this reason, as well as their opposition to political autonomy in Rojava, the PYD regards them and the Syrian opposition generally as equally hostile to Kurdish interests as the Syrian regime. Many non-PYD Syrian Kurds have been led to similar conclusions due to SNC silence in the face of attacks against PYD-controlled Kurdish villages. Non-PYD Syrian Kurdish activists have been reluctantly thrown into the arms of the PYD due to the threat jihadists pose to Kurdish-majority areas.
The opposition even ostracized Kurds who attempted to work alongside them in armed struggle against the regime. Jabhet al-Akrad (Kurdish Front) is an armed group that was founded to fight the regime alongside the opposition. They sport the Syria independence flag as well as the Kurdish flag of Rojava. The group was one of the first to confront ISIS. Thus, this group fought to safeguard Kurdish interests, but also openly sided with the opposition militarily. Despite this, the opposition Military Council of Aleppo expelled Jabhet al-Akrad from the council due to alleged links to the PKK. A regime shell that fell on Aleppo’s al-Achrafieh neighborhood killed the head of Jabhet al-Akrad in mid-February of this year.
Realpolitik of the PYD
Since the beginning of the uprising, the PYD has relied on a strategy of realpolitik by putting the interests of the Kurds and Kurdish autonomy before anything. That is why, despite years of hostility with the regime, the PYD did not throw their lot behind the opposition at the beginning of the uprising. When the Syrian army left most of Rojava, the PYD worked on consolidating their own power in the area rather than challenging the army in other areas of Syria with the opposition; they also tolerated the regime presence in Qamishli and al-Hasake, opting that it was a better option than open confrontation.
The realpolitik even extends to their Kurdish nationalist principles. Despite hostility towards the KNC and other Syrian Kurdish groups who oppose them, the PYD has shown willingness to work with other political groups in an autonomous Rojava, particularly other non-Arab ethnic minorities. They have teamed up with Syriac militias against the jihadists. Their plans for autonomy have the support of the Armenian deputy mayor of Qamishli. They have even reached out to the Syrian Turkmen community in the region, which is particularly audacious considering the latter’s links to the Turkish government. They have also exhibited a willingness to work with Rojava’s Arabs—loyalist or opposition—if it suits their interests.
While the Syrian regime and opposition talk of theoretical transitional governments at Geneva II, the PYD is establishing facts on the ground. In November 2013, the PYD announced its intention to formalize the political autonomy of Rojava by dividing it into three self-governing cantons: Afrin, Kobanê (Ayn al-Arab), and al-Hasake. The PYD will overcome all the obstacles to their newfound autonomy in the short-run. They have succeeded thus far in repelling the jihadist offensive against their towns. The regime is too busy fighting the opposition elsewhere in the country to pose a threat at the moment. The PKK is enjoying warmer relations with Ankara, which will stave off the Turkish threat for the time being (Ocalan, the head of the PKK, even publicly backed Erdogan in the latest power struggle with the Gulenists). Although the international community is unanimous in its condemnation of this plan—including Barzani who heads his own autonomous parcel of Kurdistan—the PYD have gone ahead with it and seem to be succeeding in the short-run due to a combination of military success and political cunning.
The United States and the Syrian National Coalition attempted to sideline the PYD from the diplomatic talks as much as they could by sowing divisions between them and the KNC, who had earlier agreed to appear at the talks as a united front. There was no PYD presence at Geneva II, with the Syrian National Coalition insisting that the KNC is the only legitimate representative of Syrian Kurds. Excluding the PYD, however, will only strengthen their resolve to consolidate their power in Rojava in order to ensure that any diplomatic deals struck regarding post-conflict Syria will not impose anything on them. Indeed, while representatives sit in Geneva, discussing and debating what the future of Syria will look like, the PYD and their allies are trying to create the future of Rojava today.