July 29, 2013
By Michael Pizzi and Nuha Shabaan
AMMAN: Having secured the upper hand in several key skirmishes against the al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, Syria’s three million Kurds may at long last be inching towards autonomy over a wide region that stretches along the Turkish border that includes Arabs, Turkmens and other minorities.
As war rages across Syria, the Kurds have been quietly consolidating their hold over the northeast by edging out hardline al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rivals vying for control of the Turkish border.
The Kurdish bid for autonomy scored a political victory over the weekend as the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party leader Saleh Muslim held talks with intelligence and diplomatic officials in the Turkish government and proposed provisional autonomy over a region largely abandoned by Assad forces.
“We have planted the idea of a provisional administration to ensure delivery of public services, which have been hampered because of the war,” said Muslim on Saturday following two days of meetings in Istanbul.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed to the Andalou state news agency on the same day that Muslim had participated in discussions with officials in Istanbul.
The PYD is the most influential Syrian-Kurdish party and the only one with an armed wing, explores the contours of a resolution with Turkey, which would border much of autonomous Kurdistan, it boasts a support base among its constituency in the north of Syria, garnering political and military legitimacy, if not adoration, among Kurds.
“I don’t want you to think that I support the PYD – I don’t,” says Ismail, a 24 year-old Syrian Kurd who fled his home in Damascus and now teaches Arabic in Istanbul. He asked that his last name not be used. “But they are the only party capable of keeping Kurdistan secure.”
Following four decades of Assad rule, Syria’s Kurds gradually began consolidating control over much of Syrian Kurdistan in July 2012, when the regime’s armed forces pulled out of predominantly Kurdish territories for reasons that remain unclear.
The Assad regime may have gambled on the Turkish government to keep Syrian Kurds in check. Ankara remains deadlocked in peace negotiations with its own Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party in Turkey (PKK), the sister party of Syria’s PYD.
Now, the Kurdish People’s Defense Units, the armed wing of the PYD, is engaged in a struggle with jihadist rebel groups vying to claim the region.
“[The PYD] is taking advantage of the chaos in Syria to implement self-rule,” says Kamal al-Labouani, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, which the PYD refuses to join, who lives in Stockholm.
Steps towards Kurdish autonomy come in the wake of a violent streak of clashes between the party’s armed wing, known by its acronym the YPG, and jihadist fighters in A-Raqqa province, some of which have spilled over into Turkey.
Turkey’s official Dogan News Agency reported over the weekend that a Turkish man was killed and his two children wounded by an errant mortar fired during clashes between the PYD and Jabhat a-Nusra in Syria, just over the Turkish border.
A high-profile prisoner exchange took place in A-Raqqa, in north-central Syria last week when Kurdish forces captured and then released an emir from the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in exchange for hundreds of Kurdish prisoners who had been taken hostage by ISIS jihadists.
“The PYD are the only ones who can provide safety for the people,” says Ismail from Istanbul, who is not a PYD supporter but acknowedges their successes on the ground. “Thanks to them, Kurdistan is the safest area in Syria.”
The infiltration of foreign jihadists, such as those belonging to Jabhat a-Nusra and ISIS have distanced Kurds from the revolution some of them helped spark. Many are fearful that a post-Assad state under the influence of extremist groups might resemble the tiny Islamist emirates already declared by ISIS in some northern towns.
“The Kurds do not accept any kind of political Islam, let alone extremist Islam,” says Jawan Yousef, a Kurdish journalist and former representative in the Syrian National Council, the predecessor to the Syrian National Coalition. “They don’t want to replace one authoritarian regime with another.”
Secession or not?
During the Istanbul talks last week, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan reprimanded the PYD for taking what he called “wrong and dangerous” steps in seizing control of land along the Turkish border. An anonymous source in the Turkish foreign ministry told the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday that the government had warned Syrian Kurdish leaders against “secessionist ambitions.”
The PYD has said that an autonomous Kurdish region would remain part of Syria, echoing the reassurances of Kurdish political leaders who say that a breakaway Kurdish state is not in the cards.
“There is no agenda for any Kurdish party to separate from Syria,” says Jawan Yousef, the former SNC member, blaming the Assad regime for spreading rumors in order to splinter the opposition.
In an interview published on Sunday, PYD leader Saleh Muslim told online news site Zaman Alwasl that “the call for a provisional civil administration does not mean separation.”
“The goal is political and economic life and security in the liberated areas,” he said.
Syrian Kurds deny intentions to secede from Syria, citing among other reasons the ethnic diversity of the area.
“Kurdish independence from Syria is impossible because Kurdish lands are not just inhabited by Kurds,” says Kamal al-Labouani, the SNC member in Sweden. For this reason, the path towards political independence in Kurdistan “would be bloody,” he adds.
“Kurdish areas are not strong enough to defend themselves,” adds Ismail. “They’re surrounded by Turkey, Iraq, and of course Syria, which is in a civil war.”
Instead, Ismail says, many Syrian Kurds want “an Iraqi Kurdistan, involved in everything [domestically] but with their own military and constitution.”
Despite its success in driving back al-Qaeda fighters, some Syrian Kurds such as Jawan Yousef see both the PYD and hardline Islamists as harming Kurdish interests to varying degrees.
“If we want to compare, there is the bad, the PYD, and there is worse, Jabhat a-Nusra and their Islamist allies,” says Yousef.