Last month, as the Free Syrian Army took over areas of the Syrian-Turkish border, a power vacuum emerged in northeastern Syria. It was not the Free Syrian Army that filled the vacuum, but instead the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most heavily armed Kurdish faction in Syria. In early August, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Kurdish political parties and paramilitary groups have almost completely usurped the Syrian state apparatus,” taking over municipal buildings and vital infrastructure, providing security, and controlling the distribution of resources.
Although the prospects for an independent state in Syrian Kurdistan remain dim, unprecedented Kurdish autonomy will likely result from the conflict. The implications extend beyond Syria’s borders as various governments and non-state actors have strong, and often conflicting, interests in the political fate of Syria’s Kurds and the territorial integrity of the Syrian state.
Turkey, Iraq, and Iran are alarmed by the prospects for greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria, primarily due to unresolved tensions with their own Kurdish communities. On the other hand, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, the state of Israel, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey welcome a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in Syria.
The Shadow of Saddam
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, succinctly summarized the Syrian Kurds’ predicament of the last 18 months. “The Kurds in Syria have their own problems … They are against the Assad regime. They have been for years. They have no rights. But they are not sure about which people will come after.”
Syria’s Kurds remain divided over the “Syrian Revolution.” Supporting the regime risks a confrontation with vengeful rebels in a post-Assad era. But joining the ranks of the armed opposition risks brutal repression at the hands of the regime if Assad retains power—the fate of Iraqi Kurds who fought against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war is recalled by all in historic Kurdistan. Rather than choosing sides, many Syrian Kurds have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan with the intention of returning to their homeland when the conditions are safer.
Since the 1960s, Syria’s Kurds have been marginalized and subjected to a discriminatory legal code. In 1962, a census was conducted that deprived approximately 120,000 Syrian Kurds of their citizenship. After Hafez al-Assad became president, Bedouin tribes were brought into the Kurdish region to resettle as part of a state-sponsored campaign of Arabization. Within the last decade, the state security forces opened fire on peaceful Kurdish demonstrators protesting Arab-Kurdish inequality in Syria. Syria’s Kurds, according to Amnesty International, have “continued to face identity-based discrimination, including restrictions on use of their language and culture,” and thousands have been “denied equitable access to social and economic rights.”
But although Bashar al-Assad is not well loved among Syria’s Kurds, the opposition has failed to garner the Kurds’ unified support. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which holds a plurality of seats within the Syrian National Council (SNC), is not popular among Kurdish nationalists, who are overwhelmingly secular. By opposing Kurdish autonomy and insisting that Syria’s official title remain the “Syrian Arab Republic,” the secular Arab nationalists within the SNC have also earned little trust from the Kurds.
Most importantly, however, is Turkey’s relationship with the Istanbul-based SNC. Put simply, many Kurds of Syria view the SNC as a Turkish puppet.
Assad’s forces have made no effort to reassert control in the northeast. According to Patrick Seale, a leading British expert on the Middle East, three potential reasons explain the regime’s inaction. First, the Syrian military was bogged down in Damascus and Aleppo and could not control the Kurdish areas. Second, in retaliation for Turkey’s support for Syria’s armed opposition, Assad wanted to antagonize Turkey by granting his own country’s Kurds autonomy. Third, Assad wanted to win the hearts and minds of the Kurds to prevent them from joining the opposition. Most likely, each of these factors contributed to Assad’s subsequent decision to grant citizenship to 200,000 stateless Kurds and permit the PYD to rule Syrian Kurdistan.
Some have accused the PYD of being allied with the Assad regime. Although the PYD claims to oppose Assad’s rule, it favors a dialogue with the regime and supports demilitarizing the opposition. The faction has opposed all foreign intervention in Syria and has met with Russian, Iranian, and Chinese diplomats, whose governments have provided weapons to the Syrian regime throughout the conflict.
The Struggle for Syrian Kurdistan
The idea of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria alarms Turkey for two main reasons. First, Ankara fears that the PKK will gain a safe haven in Syrian Kurdistan from which it can launch attacks against Turkey. Additionally, the Turkish government is concerned that greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria would press Turkey’s own 14 million Kurds to demand greater autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority areas. According to Turkish nationalists, the implications of this sensitive issue threaten to undermine the Turkish Republic’s territorial integrity, leading to the formation of an independent Kurdish state within southeastern Turkey.
“Turkey is capable of exercising its right to pursue [the PKK] inside Syria, if necessary,” threatened Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. Seale reports speculation in the Turkish media that Ankara is considering a military campaign in northern Syria to create a “buffer zone” whereby the Turkish military could defeat the Kurdish militants and establish a safe zone for the FSA to continue waging war against Assad’s regime.
Unlike Turkey, Iraq’s government supports the Assad regime. Iraq was one of three Arab League members not to vote in favor of suspending Syria from the organization. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fears that a Sunni takeover of Syria, especially if led by radical Islamists, could reignite Iraq’s militant Sunni movements (including al-Qaeda affiliates) and rekindle their determination to destroy the Shia order that has emerged in the post-Saddam era, especially following the withdrawal of U.S. troops last year.
However, Baghdad shares Ankara’s interest in preventing the Syrian Kurds from gaining a semi-autonomous state along the border with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. As tensions heat up between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan — mainly related to disputes over ownership of Kirkuk’s oil, Washington’s sale of F-16s to Baghdad, and border standoffs — many analysts fear a looming military confrontation between central Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Iraq’s position vis-à-vis Iraqi Kurdistan would weaken if Barzani’s government, the KRG, had a new ally in Syrian Kurdistan. On July 23, Barzani confirmed that his government has been training Syrian Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq.
However, the triangular relationship among the KRG, central Iraq, and Turkey will limit Barzani’s capacity to support Syria’s Kurds in their quest for an autonomous region. While Ankara and Baghdad’s ties worsen, primarily related to opposing stakes in Syria and the deepening political and economic relations between Turkey and Barzani’s government, a Sunni alliance between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds may be increasingly valuable to Barzani as he assesses the threat from Baghdad. Trade between Turkey and the KRG reached $4.5 billion during the first half of 2012.
Therefore, antagonizing Turkey could entail grave economic costs for Barzani. On August 1, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Barzani in Erbil to discuss the situation in Syrian Kurdistan. Both leaders concurred that “any attempt to exploit the power vacuum by any violent group or organization will be considered as a common threat, which should be jointly addressed.” Moreover, if the PKK gains power in Syrian Kurdistan, Barzani will face a difficult dilemma, as support for a pro-PKK semi-autonomous government in Syrian Kurdistan will unquestionably jeopardize his relationship with Turkey. While opposing greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria, Maliki would likely love to see Barzani placed in such a tight spot.
Israel must be ecstatic over the thought of a divided Syria, especially if an area rich in oil resources falls out of Damascus’ control. Moreover, Israel would be delighted to see Iran’s Kurdish minority take inspiration from their Syrian counterparts and demand increased autonomy, or perhaps independence, from the Islamic Republic. In fact, like the PYD, the most militant Kurdish group in Iranian Kurdistan, the Party of Free Life Kurdistan (PJAK), is a PKK-affiliate group.
Unquestionably, the PKK has much to gain from increased Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. The PYD, formed by Salih Muslim Muhammad in 2003, has maintained close ties with the PKK. Many analysts even label the PYD as a political front for the PKK. If Turkey’s military invades Syrian Kurdistan to target Kurdish militants, the PKK has warned that it will turn “all of Kurdistan into a war zone.” Nonetheless, the PKK is not supported by all in northeastern Syria. Along certain parts of the Turkish border, Kurds only constitute 30-40 percent of the population, and relations with Arab tribes have often been tense in recent history.
Challenges on Both Sides of the Border
Despite the Syrian Kurds’ success in exploiting the Syrian civil war to gain autonomy, many delicate variables will determine their future. Will the Arab tribes in northeastern Syria peacefully accept de facto Kurdish control? Would either Assad or the Free Syrian Army accept an autonomous Kurdish region if or when the civil war ends? If Turkey invades Syrian Kurdistan, will Barzani’s government side with its fellow Kurds or be lured by economic pressure into remaining neutral?
Even as Turkey’s ruling Islamist party learns that the Middle East is a challenging region in which to pursue a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, it may one day regret its role in undermining the Assad regime. Although Assad’s ouster and the rise of a pro-Turkis h Sunni regime in Damascus could expand Turkey’s influence in a new Middle East, what price will they pay for this greater regional power?
As the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003 paved the way for a semi-autonomous Kurdish state on Turkey’s border with Iraq, the “Arab Spring” in Syria will likely create another one along the border with Syria. Although Turkey’s government has determined that ousting Assad would advance its interests, it may have to accept a PKK safe haven along the Syrian border as blowback from its role in further militarizing the conflict in Syria.
Giorgio Cafiero is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.