[The Syrian Kurds are playing an increasingly prominent role in that country’s conflict, and in recent years Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces have seized effective control of most territories in northern Syria with substantial Kurdish populations. In March 2016, shortly after the PYD was excluded from participation in diplomatic talks hosted by the United Nations in Geneva, the Syrian Kurdish party proclaimed that the self-administered territories it had previously established would henceforth constitute a federal region within Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey, which sees the PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with which it has been in conflict since the 1980s, has pledged to prevent a further expansion of PYD power in northern Syria. To get a better understanding of Syrian Kurdish politics and their relationship to the broader conflict in Syria, and as part of a series of Quick Thoughts with International Crisis Group Middle East Analysts, Jadaliyya Co-Editor and Quick Thoughts series editor Mouin Rabbani interviewed Maria Fantappie, Senior Analyst with the organization, who has led its research on the Kurdish issue since the beginning of the conflict and recently paid an extended visit to Syria’s Kurdish enclaves. The Quick Thoughts series provides background, context, and detail to issues that are, or should be, currently in the news.]
Jadaliyya (J): Syria`s Kurds, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in particular, are perhaps the only party to emerge strengthened from the Syria conflict. How do you explain this?
Maria Fantappie (MF): The territorial expansion of the PYD/YPG is more an accidental result of the conflict than the result of a premeditated initiative. But there is no doubt the organization sought to capitalize on opportunities as they arose and has managed to do so effectively.
When regime forces pulled back from parts of north and northeastern Syria in 2012 in order to concentrate on defending core territories, the PYD was able to rapidly dispatch a reserve of experienced fighters. Most had received training from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that operates in Turkey and possessed the technical know-how and financial resources to set up an administration in Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas. For the regime and its backers, letting in fighters trained by the PKK was a tactical move, serving as leverage against Turkey and Syrian opposition factions. Subsequently, the US’s desire for trusted partners on the ground to fight Islamic State (IS) meant that the YPG received additional support, allowing it to advance beyond Kurdish-populated areas. And with the Syrian rebels weakened by Russian airstrikes and IS weakened by US ones, the YPG was able to expand across contiguous swathes of the Syrian-Turkish border zone.
The PYD’s strength is however fragile, because it remains dependent on regional rivalries and international interests. The regime will tolerate the PYD’s self-administration only to the extent that it blocks the further expansion of the opposition in northern Syria. Similarly, the Russians and Iranians support it because it hems in Turkey, and the US backs it insofar as it can seize territory from IS. This is why the challenge for the PYD is to consolidate its current military momentum into a lasting political reality, transforming short-term territorial gains achieved with the support of opportunistic partners into strong and stable alliances. In other words, it needs to put in place conditions that will allow it to thrive during a political transition rather than amidst conflict.
(J): What are the PYD/YPG’s objectives in Syria?
(MF): The PYD has formulated its political project rather vaguely, which has allowed the party to change its objectives over time. But it has also dangerously validated – among opposition factions in particular – the perception in Syria of a Kurdish ambition to secede from and break apart Syria. Yet, the PYD/YPG’s underlying aim relates more to the party’s factional interests than to Kurdish aspirations of self-determination. It seeks to anchor its political and military presence in the country, and thereby create leverage for the PKK across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The PYD/YPG professes a project of “democratic autonomy” that identifies decentralization, gender equality and ecology as cardinal principles of governance, but remains vague over key details of this decentralization. For instance, back in 2013, the PYD declared a local administration, comprising three non-contiguous Kurdish-populated enclaves in Syria or “Rojava” (“west” in Kurdish), and staunchly opposed the establishment of a Kurdish federal region similar to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. As YPG forces have expanded control across the north, the PYD this year has declared the “Democratic Dederal Region of Rojava”, and called for a federal system. It is unclear whether the movement seeks decentralization or federalism for the entirety of Syria, or alternatively self-rule for the three Kurdish-populated enclaves in the country.
What is clear, however, is that the PYD project has mutated along with its attempts to translate territorial control into political legitimacy. While the PYD/YPG has successfully gained and held territory, it has yet to obtain a seat at the table of political negotiations on Syria, largely due to Turkey’s unfolding conflict with the PYD’s mother party, the PKK. The PYD was pointedly not invited to participate in the gathering of Syrian opposition forces convened in Riyadh in December 2015, nor in the peace talks hosted by the United Nations in Geneva, mostly due to Turkish objections. This imbalance between the PYD/YPG’s military success and political marginalization has encouraged the movement to invest all its resources in the goal of military expansion as a way to force itself into the diplomatic arena.
(J): Is the PYD being driven primarily by local developments or a more regional Kurdish agenda being formulated by Turkey`s PKK?
(MF): The PYD’s connection to the PKK is integral to its current success in Syria. The PKK’s headquarters in the Qandil mountains of Iraq has provided the PYD with the regional partnership, the funding as well as the military personnel that allowed it to establish self-rule in Syria.
Regardless of how strong the organizational ties between the PKK and the Syrian branches might be, there is no doubt that senior members of the PYD military branch, the YPG, have the same formative experiences as the PKK. Although many of these YPG cadres hail from Syria, they have been socialized in the Qandil mountains where they spent their teenage years receiving military training and ideological instruction on the thought of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. They are part of a chain of command that is based in Qandil and that has transnational goals spanning beyond Syria, across Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
The flow of military personnel from Qandil to Syria matters because the Qandil-trained cadres are the real decision-makers within the self-rule institutions. Despite being formally headed by civilians, these institutions still need security protection in order to operate. Since their inception, military cadres have had the last word over the personnel appointment to local political and judiciary institutions, in matters of law enforcement, and the distribution of resources. The fact that the Kurdish administration was established amidst an unfolding conflict has made it much more difficult for civilians to wrest power from the military. And the more the PYD/YPG prioritizes territorial expansion, the less it invests in handing over institutional power to civilians.
The dominance of Qandil-trained military cadres has implications beyond Syria. It has created a dangerous interdependence between Turkey and Syria’s Kurdish space. Their quest for more territory ultimately ties this administration to the PKK, linking its political future to the outcome of the Turkey-PKK conflict, and at the same time fueling it. As long as the YPG continues to carve out more territory, capitalizing on rivalries between Turkey on the one hand and the Syrian regime and its allies on the other, this will in practice strengthen its connection to the PKK. Similarly, the rekindling of the Turkey-PKK conflict has made the PKK dependent on the Syrian Kurds as a space to construct international leverage and regional alliances, as well as a safe haven for its fighters.
(J): Where do Syria’s Kurds fit into diplomatic attempts to resolve the Syrian conflict?
(MF): Kurdish parties have introduced the Turkey-PKK conflict into Syria’s already complicated conflict, and added their own internal rivalries to the already formidable obstacles to a diplomatic deal.
Intra-Kurdish tensions and the struggle between regime supporters and opponents overlap and mutually reinforce each other. Syria’s conflict has revived animosity between the PKK’s leadership in Qandil and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani over leadership of Kurdish politics. The PKK and KDP have respectively sided with powers that support (Iran) and oppose (Turkey) the Syrian regime, to gain leverage against each other. Both Iran and Turkey also rely on Kurdish parties as proxies for their competing agendas in Syria.
This has led to a situation in which the PYD/YPG maintains exclusive control inside Syria while KDP-affiliated Syrian Kurdish parties maintain exclusive representation of Kurds in the political negotiations. The PYD’s monopoly of power in the Kurdish areas of Syria has helped reignite Turkey’s conflict with the PKK. Turkish rejection of PYD participation in the Geneva talks will further complicate any peace negotiations. Solving this intra-Kurdish division would not only remove the Kurdish issue from wider regional polarization, but also facilitate a diplomatic solution of the conflict.
(J): Who then represents Syria’s Kurdish population?
(MF): It is important to distinguish between the interests of the Kurdish parties and the interests of the Kurdish population.
Although the PYD/YPG controls substantial territory it does not necessarily represent the Kurds (and non-Kurds) living in these areas. The PYD/YPG has certainly provided Kurds with unprecedented opportunities to express their national identity in Syria, but it is an identity defined by the PYD’s party agenda and ideology, and one that is not necessarily in sync with the interests and aspirations of Syrian Kurds themselves. The core of Syrian Kurdish youth that participated in the protest movement in 2011 acted independently of any Syrian Kurdish party and has since largely left the country for either Europe or neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. The educated middle class (e.g. judges, engineers, teachers and doctors) is wary of participation in the new PYD-self-administered institutions, viewing them as reflections of a factional agenda and controlled by military cadres at the expense of the Syrian Kurdish population. This is apparent for example in the education system; when the PYD established primary education in the Kurdish language, the Syrian government responded by shutting down state education in most Kurdish populated areas. This eventually deprived Syrian Kurdish children of the possibility of receiving primary school diplomas recognized by the Syrian state.
Such shortcomings in reaching out to the popular base is not unique to the PYD, and also afflicts traditional Kurdish parties like the KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq (and their Syrian affiliates). Parties have accumulated enough military strength and economic resources to temporarily mobilize support, but their structure, ideology and organization no longer seem relevant or capable of leading their people.
(J): The PYD is today aligned with both the US and Russia, and at times appears to be operating in a tacit alliance with Damascus. How does its agenda overlap with that of others, and is it perhaps at risk of biting off more than it can chew?
(MF): The PYD today has many temporary partners but lacks real allies. It functions as a proxy for regional and international powers to challenge rivals without directly confronting them, and as an ally of international powers who do not want to partner with each either. Neither the US nor Russia have provided the PYD with guarantees that they will consider it a legitimate political actor in a future Syria. The prospects of the US advancing in this direction are obstructed by Turkey’s conflict with the PKK, while Russia is restrained by the Syrian regime’s refusal to recognize any Kurdish administration outside or parallel to that of the Syrian state.
The PYD cannot rely solely on territorial expansion. It would be more prudent for it to cultivate long-term alliances, focus on empowering civilians leadership of institutions, and share power with other Kurdish and non-Kurdish parties in order to further entrench itself within local society. Rather than abruptly declare federalism, it would be more prudent to get the regime and the opposition to commit to the recognition of Kurdish rights in Syria and negotiate with both sides the details of decentralization in those provinces populated by Kurds. Five years of conflict in Syria have shown that success is less about how much territory you control than how calculated your strategy is.
Territorial control can easily change from an asset to a liability. In fact, the more the YPG expands territorially, and the more it attempts to translate its territorial achievements into de facto political realities, the more it creates a hostile environment both within Syria and in the region. The YPG expansion and declaration of federalism in northern Syria has already sparked the sensitivity, if not anger, of Arab opposition factions. Its deployment in Aleppo through indirect Russian support in March 2016, puts at risks an American willingness to engage Turkey on PYD participation in the Geneva talks. And if the Syrian regime is today tolerating PYD-led self-rule, it in future might share Turkey’s hostility to the PYD.