By O. Bahadir Dincer
The greater part of Syria’s population is made up of Arabs but it is generally claimed that Kurds are the largest minority (9%) in the country’s 22 million population, but it needs to be said that this figure is not definite. Some sources claim that 13 to 14% of the population of Syria is Kurdish. Other sources give different figures. The lowest of these is 2.8%. The obscurity arises from the way in which the Syrian government takes the view that everyone in the country is a Syrian Arab. This policy, it needs to be emphasized, has caused many minorities to be assimilated and Arabified.
Unlike the Kurds in neighbouring countries, the Kurds of Syria live in the north and noth east of the country although they are scattered across several regions. Places where they are concentrated include the province of al-Hasaka in the north East (the region of Jezire); and Mount Kurt, northwest of Aleppo, (Afrin); and the point where the River Euphrates crosses the Syrian border at Ayn el-Arab. The large cities, like Aleppo and Damascus, are also known to have significant Kurdish populations.
The Fragmented Structure of the Kurds
Despite efforts in recent years, the Kurds of Syria have not been able to achieve political unity. The reason for their disunity is that the Syrian Kurds depend not on political or ideological ideas but on tribal connections. All the Kurdish political parties in the country may be said to derive from the Syrian Kurdistan Democrat Party which began to break up in the 1960s and each of them has tried to gain power by getting control of a different tribe and because of this none of them were effective. In addition to this, the Ba’athist government created connections with different tribes at varying levels and in different forms and had a policy of discouraging the emergence of a common mindset, just as it did in its other organisation of the tribes.
It should also be said that many of the Kurds in Syria did not back separatist politics but tended rather to demand their rights. But under present circumstances some members of the regime are known to have tried to thoroughly radicalize Kurdish politicians and spend much effort on pacifying them by trying to bring them under the influence of the PKK.
The majority of the Kurdish Parties in Syria until very recently never used an expression such as Syrian Kurdistan. Their aim was to build a pluralist and democratic Syria which would respect all the elements in the country. Despite that the 2003 Iraq War was a turning point and some Kurdish groups began to discuss topics like autonomy and a federal form of government. Also some groups which began to discuss separation because of the growth of pressure upon them began to have a growing influence on Kurdish groups which advocated the unity and integrity of Syria and this made it necessary to take some measures.
The PKK has had a mixed effect on the political activities of the Syrian Kurds. The effect is shown basically on the Partiya Yekiti Demokrat (PYD – Democratic Unity Party), the most radical of the Syrian Kurdish Parties. Although it is claimed that there is no organic tie between the PKK and the PYD, re is accepted by the PYD that is an ideological link and that the party derives its ideological side from Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader. But until very recently this influence did not extend either in the PYD or the other parties to the use of violence.
Is Separate Administration on the way?
News items suggesting that the PKK and some other radical organisations had stepped up their influence along the Syrian-Turkish border from Afrin to Qamishli had had a lot of coverage recently in the media. Local information suggests things are more lively in North-eastern Syria than ever before. The vacuum of authority has spurred various local and foreign actors who want to be influential in the future of the region to engage in a blatant power struggle. Everyone has a different calculation and it is an indisputable fact that they making huge efforts to turn their plans into reality. But one must also acknowledge that there is nothing new about this situation.
A report on Syria prepared by USAK in March examined the situation and used the following words “ The influence of the PKK and various groups sympathetic to it has increased very rapidly on the Turkish-Syrian border in general and on the northeastern border of Syria in particular. Radical groups are trying to intimidate Kurdish groups opposed to the regime with the backing of the Assad regime. Kurdish groups which look at Turkey in a favourable light and the existing Ba’athis regime in Syria in an unfavourable one are being neutralised. Kurdish groups which make it openly clear that they are opposed to the present regime are like to face attempts to silence them in the very near future. One cannot help noticing that the situation in the Kurdish region is creating productive conditions for anyone eager to reorganise things in the wake of a possible intervention or civil war. Even if they cannot succeed in doing that, the situation at the very least implies the creation of a safe zone for them in which to plan attacks upon Turkey.”
What is new is the fact that Assad has now begun to withdraw from this region. Furthermore, one should not think of the way in which this issue has been blown out of proportion in recent weeks as being unconnected with either Turkey’s struggle against the PKK or the psychological manoeuvring of the Ba’athist regime which is on the point of being overthrown.
The Basic Ba’athist Strategy: Intimidate the People
The main strategy which Assad has followed from the outset is to intimidate the opposition or to put it more generally, the people, by using force and in line with this aim, even according to the most optimistic figures more than 20, 0000 people have been killed. But from the moment he understood that he would not succeed in intimidating the people, it is reckoned that he invoked a second scenario. It was to create the infrastructure which would lead directly to the break up of the country. On one hand different groups were armed. On the other, as happened in the case of the PKK, support was taken from various actors to repress the opposition. This led to the PKK becoming an influential actor in the north. At the end of the day the prediction was that the Kurdish regions in the north could be left to the PKK-PYD duo, who had long been trying to boost their influence there. And that is exactly what is happening at the moment.
In other words, it is generally known that the PYD and the PKK have acted on behalf of Assad in this region. The present writer was personally informed about this during an interview last March with one of the leading tribal figures in Jezire in terms which strikingly reveal the scale of the situation. The expression used region by the speaker was exactly “PKK militants and the forces of the regime organise night operations in the Kurdish regions, killing the Kurds and Arabs along the border. In my region the PKK carries out Assad’s dirty work and kills Kurds and Arabs who join the opposition.”
These remarks demonstrate to us that the Syrian regime was trying to solve its problem through cooperation with the PKK and PYD at the level of basic strategy. The current state of affairs demonstrates that the PKK and PYD are now acting not on behalf of the regime but in line with their own go. What is important here is that it can be seen that the PYD and the PKK do not have much influence in the area. The influence that people are mentioning arises chiefly from the pressure and violence they are using. Using the fact one is an interlocutor for the PKK or a protégé of Barzani will not confer the possession of influence in Syria’s Kurdish regions at this point. What counts is to get into direct communication with the Syrian Kurds themselves and to strengthen communication over the Arab tribes with whom they have lived for years.
The Importance of the Arab Tribes
The Jezire region is the region of Syria where Arab tribal society is strongest and various ethnic communities can be found side by side. On average 60% of the Arab tribes are found in this region, with its complex demographic structure, where non-Arab populations with political sensitivities, such as Kurds, Armenians, Syriacs, and Turkmen also live. The Kurds who share the region with the Arab tribes and Christians make up 25% of the population.
In the light of all these things, it seems clear that the Arab tribes will make an important contribution to ensuring unity in Syria after Assad. If, as seems quite possible, the state and government apparatus have been smashed, the Arab tribes may be able to play a role in convincing the Kurds of Syria about how their wishes and requests are to be met and to keep them at reasonable levels.
To conclude: as Carole O’leary, a well known expert on Arab tribalism argues, in the post-Assad era, the Kurds of Syria will find it necessary to consult with the Arab tribes and the various Christian communities in this border region which has such cultural diversity. These Arab tribal chiefs have had close contacts with the Kurds in Syria and they may be able to assist the Kurds when they negotiate for political and cultural rights in a united Syria. If the Kurds of Syria do not believe that the Syrian Arab tribes are their allies, then they could go down the route of the PKK and the PYD and act as lieutenants of different actors.
O. Bahadir Dincer
USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
This article was initially published in Analist on August 2012.