4 min read  | Politics, Reports

Doubts about PYD agenda as it confronts ISIS alone in northeast


December 15, 2013

December 15, 2013

By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Kristen Gillespie

This is the second installment in a two-part series exploring the simultaneous influence and isolation of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most popular among Syria’s three million Kurds. One month after the PYD put forth a self-rule agenda, most Syrian rebel groups are distancing themselves from the party, as its militias increasingly clash with extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham, not President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Balancing on a political and military tightrope, the PYD insists it still supports the thirty-two-month long uprising while it focuses much of its military might on combatting Islamist groups.

AMMAN: The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which one month ago announced the formation of autonomous region across northeastern Syria, describes itself as against the “tyrannical” regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but in a sign of further strains within the opposition, the Syrian National Coalition is publicly denouncing the PYD and its move as inimical to the revolution.

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On November, the PYD announced it intended to administer a wide-swath or northern Syria, most of which is controlled by other Syrian rebel groups. Photo courtesy of the PYD.

“We consider the PYD as an enemy of the Syrian revolution,” Khaled Saleh, an SNC spokesperson, told Syria Direct. “They have unfortunately aligned themselves for the past many, many months with the Assad regime,” Saleh said, echoing accusations prevalent in some opposition circles that the PYD is fighting for the regime in exchange for territory and autonomy.

In a statement, the SNC labeled the PYD a “separatist movement” and since its withdrawal from the opposition-in-exile, the SNC has brought in the Kurdish National Council, a weaker Kurdish group with ties to Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.

PYD leader Muslim Saleh has shrugged off the SNC’s charges by demanding the PYD represent itself at Geneva II, even as he reiterates his party’s commitment to combatting Assad.

Ibrahim Ibrahim, a spokesperson for the PYD, says his party’s decision stems from fears of rebel mismanagement and deteriorating conditions.

“We are a part of this revolution,” Ibrahim said, “but we felt the situation in Syria is heading toward a cliff, and that war was coming to our areas.” Rather than a grand political calculation or some sort of deal with the regime, Ibrahim said, “we are trying to isolate our people from this devastating war,” he added.

The argument has not proven persuasive among regime opponents who say the declaration of an autonomous region will encourage other groups to do the same, undermining the goal of a united Syria post-Assad.

“These opportunistic ideas hurt and delay the development of the Syria we have dreamed about,” said Waleed al-Bunni, a former member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC). “You cannot use the Syrian revolution to combat the regime and establish the PYD.”

The PYD ranks as the most popular party among Syria’s three million Kurds. On November 12th, the group said in its announcement of self-administration that it would also combat the increasingly powerful “extremist salafist groups [that] have attempted to exploit the power vacuum” left when government troops largely withdrew from northeastern Syria late last year.

Turf wars

On the ground, the power struggle between the PYD and ISIS leaves citizens with few options.

“ISIS is trying to create an Islamic emirate in,” said Mustafa Bali, a PYD member in Ein al-Arab, on Syria’s border with Turkey in al-Hasakeh province, “Every Kurdish area is a target for them.”

For citizens caught in the crossfire, the SNC’s political statements carry little weight, as does the PYD’s supposed autonomous region, which looks more like a collection of Kurdish-dominated towns and cities surrounded by ISIS-controlled Arab areas in the desert that make up much of the tribal, impoverished Al-Hasakeh province. The PYD controls about 75 percent of the area it says it administers, activists say.

Caught between a political back-and-forth and escalating violence, one Syrian Kurd living outside Qamishli, the largest majority-Kurdish city in Syria and the largest city in al-Hasakeh province, says that when ISIS briefly seized control of his city, “it started to implement its rules, steal from people and kill people.”

ISIS then started suicide bombing in the cities, Houkar says, the result being that “all of the young men, whether in the PYD or not in the PYD, started to defend their land against ISIS.”

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 On December 6th, an ISIS suicide bomber detonated a car-bomb near a remaining government base in the largely PYD-controlled city of Qamishli.

While Kurds such as Houkar are opposed to the PYD, the calculation to support it is a simple one when faced with the bigger enemy as an alternative.

“I am against the PYD and its agendas, but sometimes you have to choose between two options; you cannot be a shade of gray,” he said.

Mohammed Rabie contributed reporting.

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