AMMAN — On January 16, after years of disagreement between Kurdish representatives of the National Kurdish Council (KNC) and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA), residents of the city of Qamishli in the northeastern province of Hasakah, organized a demonstration, calling for unity among the Kurdish political parties.

“The Kurds finally awoke from their sleep and discovered that they were divided,” Kurdish activists wrote on social media, referring to the demonstration. These protests aimed to mobilize “The National Initiative,” announced by the commander of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi, on October 28, 2019. 

According to the initiative, the SDF seeks to play a national role in “reconciling the views of the Kurdish parties in Rojava [the Kurdish name for Kurdish areas in Syria] and in discussing the principles of national unity in order to reach a unified position that helps to overcome this crucial phase in the life of our nation."

The initiative came in the wake of the Turkish military offensive, “Operation Peace Spring,” which was launched with the help of the Syrian National Army (SNA) on October 9, 2019, against the SDF in eastern Euphrates.

“Operation Peace Spring” created an opportunity for the Kurdish leadership to convene, especially after the National Kurdish Council (KNC) resolutely opposed the Turkish operation. According to a statement issued by the KNC, the council denounced the operation and condemned the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) for supporting it, stating that the operation is “inconsistent with the mutual agreement regarding the privacy of the Kurdish areas” and ignores the agreement with the council. Additionally, the KNC stopped participating in the SNC. 

On November 10, 2019, Mazloum Abdi met with a delegation from the KNC where they discussed “the AA’s policy and the fate of the Rojava [KNC-affiliated] Peshmerga forces, as well as politicians and activists detained by the AA,” according to one KNC member, who spoke to Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. He pointed out that the AA stipulated the withdrawal of the KNC from the SNC in exchange for the KNC’s engagement with the AA.  

The importance of Abdi’s initiative stems from the current “political volatility,” Abdul Karim Sarukhan, the co-chair of the General Council in the Democratic Union Party (PYD), told Syria Direct. This constitutes “an opportunity to unify the Kurdish ranks and develop a united position on the changes that are taking place on the ground,” he said.

In December 2019, as a gesture of goodwill and a sign of mutual trust between the KNC and the AA, the former handed over to Abdi a list of ten missing activists and politicians. The KNC suspected that the PYD was responsible for their disappearance. The SDF claimed that the whereabouts of eight individuals on the list were unknown. However, this claim was roundly rejected by the KNC.

From consensus to conflict

Syrian Kurdish parties are divided into two camps, distinguished by opposing ideologies and approaches.

The “Barzani approach,” originating with the late Kurdish leader, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, proposes transitioning from the rule of the clan to the rule of a state underscored by liberal nationalist principles. 

In contrast, the approach of Abdullah Ocalan — a founder of the (Turkish) Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who has been in prison in Turkey since 1999 —  is based on Marxist principles and proposes the establishment of decentralized cantons to manage cities within a wider state. Such differences have greatly affected the position of Kurdish parties toward the Syrian revolution.

At the beginning of 2011, there was a  consensus among Kurdish parties toward the revolution, crystallized in the “Initiative of the National Movement,” launched by Syrian Kurdish parties in May 2011. The initiative called for a "just solution" to the Kurdish issue and constitutional recognition of Kurdish nationality as the second largest nationality in the country.

Additionally, the initiative demanded the return of Syrian citizenship to more than 120,000 Kurds that were stripped of their citizenship, following the infamous census of August 1962. It also insisted that all laws and policies that discriminate against the Kurdish people be repealed. 

However, Bashar al-Assad's invitation to twelve Kurdish parties on June 6, 2011, sparked a rift among Kurdish parties; some intended to accept the invitation while others rejected it. 

Although the meeting with Assad did not take place, the rift between the parties deepened, especially following the assassination of the leader of the Kurdish Future Movement, Mashaal Tammo, on October 7, 2011, in the city of Qamishli. The PYD was accused of being responsible for carrying out the assassination.

The division between supporters of Barzani and Ocalan became more visible after the establishment of the KNC on October 26, 2015. The KNC was formed by 11 parties, along with the support of the then-President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani. 

Ocalan-inspired Kurdish parties and figures refused to join in the KNC, creating an alternative, competing entity called the People's Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK) on December 16, 2011. The conflict between the two sides soon evolved into an open competition over the representation and control of Kurds and Kurdish regions in Syria. 

While the KNC joined the Syrian National Council, and then the SNC, the PYD the main component of MGRK distanced itself from opposition to Assad, except joining the National Coordinating Committee (NCC), the internal opposition's main umbrella group, between July 2011 and January 2016. However, the PYD withdrew from the NCC after the latter participated in the Riyadh conference in December 2015 despite the PYD not being invited.

More importantly, the PYD was accused of acting in coordination with the government in Damascus. 

The accusations leveled against the PYD reinforced the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria in 2012. Not only were Syrian government forces replaced by the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the latter also arrested Kurdish activists and responded violently to demonstrations that were supported by the revolution. 

Sarukhan, however, denied this, saying, "that period was chaotic, [because of] the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra [now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)] and government security forces."

Nonetheless, the two opposing camps tried to reconcile their differences on the eve of the Geneva peace talks on Syria, held under the auspices of the UN. They also met on January 11, 2012, at the invitation of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG), in Hawler (the Kurdish name for the city of Erbil), to integrate perspectives and form joint committees to draft public policy and lead the Kurdish movement. 

The Hawler conference resulted in the formation of the Kurdish Supreme Committee (DBK). However, the KNC later withdrew from the DBK the following year in response to the events in the city of Amuda in the Hasakah countryside on June 27, 2013, where at least six people were killed, 30 injured, and 70 detained, during clashes between the YPG and a group of protestors opposing the PYD’s policies in Amuda. 

On September 8, 2013, the KNC and the MGRK met once again to sign an agreement to form a committee to draft a temporary (local) constitution as the nucleus of the AA, which currently oversees northeastern Syria. However, on November 15, 2013, the MGRK’s decision to unilaterally establish the AA prevented the KNC from joining. 

Sarukhan told Syria Direct that “the KNC worked with the AA until the night before the announcement. The KNC’s pretext [for not joining] was that the PYD and the Movement for a Democratic Society were not honoring the mutual agreements on the ground,” but he considered “these allegations to be untrue.”

The role of regional actors 

Regional actors have also played a prominent role in defining the relationship between the PYD and the KNC.

The former President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani,  invited the two parties to the first and second Hawler (Erbil) Conferences on July 24, 2012, and December 17, 2013, respectively.  

“Hawler 2” was famously attended by the mayor of Diyarbakir, the largest Turkish city with a majority-Kurdish population, as well as Turkish-Kurdish politician Leyla Zana. The meeting resulted in an agreement to form a joint Kurdish delegation to participate in the “Geneva II” talks, end the media war between the two parties, and form a committee to release detainees held in PYD prisons. 

Once again, the efforts of “Hawler 2” stalled following the MGRK’s decision to unilaterally establish the AA on January 21, 2014. 

Nonetheless, the disagreements between the PYD and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and its sponsored Syrian Kurdish parties did not prevent Masoud Barzani from inviting the Kurdish parties to a meeting in the city of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. The meeting resulted in the "Dohuk Agreement," signed between the two parties on October 14, 2014, which included three provisions related to the participation of the KNC in the AA, the formation of a unified Kurdish political entity, and the creation of a specialized military body based on coordination with the YPG to defend Rojava.

Consequently, the agreement allowed the deployment of Peshmerga forces to the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab (Kobani) to fight the Islamic State (IS), who had recently taken control over most of the city. 

The agreement came to a halt on March 13, 2015, in response to the AA’s policy of forced conscription on November 20, 2014. The AA also unilaterally organized municipal elections in the province of Hasakah on March 1, 2015, but the Kurdish Region of Iraq considered this a violation of the agreement, as they were organized without the consent of the KNC. 

On the other hand, the KNC embraced the Rojava Peshmerga Forces on July 1, 2015, as its military wing. These forces consisted of Syrian Kurdish officers and conscripts who had defected from the Syrian army and were now being supervised by the government in Iraqi Kurdistan. They clashed with AA fighters, which refused to let these forces enter into Syria as an independent military entity. 

“Mazloum Abdi suggested the return of Peshmerga Rojava under the banner of the SDF,” a member of the KNC told Syria Direct. “We refused”. 

Further, the international coalition against IS began to support the YPG’s military operations against IS in Ain al-Arab (Kobani). The coalition subsequently supported the YPG dominated-SDF in fighting IS in northeastern Syria in general.

As for Turkey, it intervened early in the internal Kurdish dispute by trying to exert influence over the KNC. On August 4, 2012, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, met with members of the KNC in the Iraqi city of Erbil, sparking a dispute between members of the Kurdish Higher Commission formed by the KNC and the MGRK.

Moreover, after the KNC met with Abdi on November 10, 2019, "the Turkish government summoned the council’s leadership to Istanbul," a source from the council told Syria Direct

It is likely that "Turkey aims to prevent any rapprochement or unity with the Autonomous Administration," the source added.

Will the new rapprochement yield results? 

After a series of agreements between the PYD and the KNC failed, the two parties reached a dead end, eventually becoming openly hostile. For example, on August 13, 2016, the AA arrested Ibrahim Berro, the head of the KNC, and deported him to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The AA also closed the offices of the KNC parties on March 13, 2017, under the pretext of not having a license from the administration. The incident came in response to the KNC’s continual refusal to recognize the AA.

Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring,'' however, facilitated growing rapprochement between the PYD and the KNC, giving them the chance to reconcile their differences that had accumulated over the past nine years. This came to the fore in the KNC’s denouncement of the Turkish military operation, and the suspension of its membership in the SNC. In return, the AA reversed its previous decision, allowing the parties of the KNC to reopen their offices in northeast Syria.

Nonetheless, the KNC rejected the outcome of the SDF investigation regarding the fate of eight of the ten activists whose whereabouts remain unknown. 

“The Council’s [KNC’s] rejection of the results of the investigation does not mean that we will close our doors,” Sarukhan told Syria Direct.

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Megan Pierce, Nicholas Shafer, and Calvin Wilder.