By Ali Hussein Bakeer
The information transmitted about Syrian Kurds has to be meticulously weeded out of exaggerations. Turkey mustn’t view Syrian Kurds from the same perspective with which it views Iraqi Kurds or Kurds within its own borders.
The issue of Syrian Kurds has surfaced, with the regime forces withdrawing from some of the villages and towns in the northwest and northeastern regions of the country and surrendering their management and institutions to the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
It is estimated that the Kurdish population living in Syria is between 900 thousand and 1.6 million. While an important portion of this population lives in the northeastern part of the country, another portion lives in the northwest, dispersed along the Turkish-Syrian border. Syrian Kurds are divided among themselves; there are more than sixteen parties of Kurdish origin and these parties compete against each other to gain influence over the Kurdish population.
Unlike Iraqi Kurds, Syrian Kurds don’t have a unifying political leader such as Barzani or Talabani. What is more, some prominent Kurdish personalities have disappeared or have simply been murdered. The latest victim of these attacks has been leader of the Kurdish Future Movement Party Mashaal Tammo, a supporter of the revolution against the Assad regime. Contrary to other Kurdish parties acting within a narrow nationalist perspective, Tammo conducted his efforts with a view to help all of Syria.
To overcome this deep schism among Syrian Kurds, Barzani tried to intervene in order to bring the Syrian Kurds together, integrate their agendas and efforts and prevent fighting and media attacks within themselves. In this manner, the first meeting held between the different parties in Erbil was concluded with a few advisory decisions. Among the advisory decisions in question, there were recommendations such as the Syrian National Council of Kurds declaring its support for the Syrian revolution and Syrian Kurds being granted the right to determine their own future and to establish an autonomous government within their own region.
Syrian Kurds and the revolution
It could be said that Syrian Kurds can be sorted into three main groups according to their reaction to the Syrian revolution. The first group gives their full support to the revolution and works within national agendas that embrace all of Syria. This group is constituted of independent Kurds and the Kurdish Future Movement Party. The leader of the Kurdish Future Movement Party has been assassinated with the main suspects for the murder being the PYD and the Assad regime. While having attained some popularity among Kurds, these independent structures face hard working conditions in areas that are predominantly Kurdish. This is because these institutions more often conduct their work on a national scale.
The second group consists of people who express their support toward the revolution but have certain demands such as retaining some amount of autonomy and creating an administrative system that isn’t centralized. However the revolutionaries state that the Kurds have just as many rights and responsibilities as all the other aspects that make up the Syrian society. Politically this group is the strongest among Syrian Kurds because it is constituted from the alliance of many Kurdish parties. However the fact that this is a new entity and that its constituent parties are rather weak shouldn’t be disregarded.
The third group has a separatist mentality and works towards a wholly autonomous Kurdish entity, although not explicitly expressing this goal. The backbone of this group is the PYD, which has continuously relied on violent means and recently started collaborating with the Syrian regime. PYD is among the strongest of Kurdish parties and it has a significant popularity among Kurds that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Why have the regime forces deserted the Kurdish areas?
As earlier stated, the regime forces have withdrawn from some Kurdish villages and towns in the northeast and northwestern regions of the country and have abandoned the administrative management of these regions to the PYD, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. There are three main goals behind this move.
First, the forces in these regions were directed to Aleppo to fight the Free Syrian Army forces. This way the Assad regime could gauge the current pressure over the regular Syrian Army to a degree.
Second, the regime tried to create a buffer zone between itself and Turkey by turning the Kurds into an instrument that would hinder Turkish policy in the region. This way, whether or not Turkey chose to intervene, either way a trap would have been created for Turkey. Turkey’s attention was drawn to the Kurdish issue (or to the possibility of a Kurdish state within Syria) thus distracting it from the issue of toppling the Assad regime.
Third, the regime wanted to create fault lines between the Arab and Kurdish aspects of the opposition. The regime thinks it could play the Kurdish card in the future to legitimize encouraging other minorities such as the Alawites in the process of demanding separatist structures.
The risks of possibly incorrect policies
Turkey has to approach the issue of Syrian Kurds in a sensitive manner. Placing the Syrian Kurds in the same category as Iraqi Kurds or Kurds living within its own borders would be a great mistake. More importantly, a wrong policy decision with regard to this would not only affect Turkey but would also bear important and dangerous consequences that could affect the Syrian revolution. Therefore there are several “golden rules” that Turkey should pay attention to while conducting its Syrian policy.
First, Syrian Kurds aren’t united on one front and there are disagreements between Kurdish parties conducting a political struggle and the PYD which conducts and armed struggle. A wrong policy choice by Turkey could help unite these groups and increase nationalist tendencies, which would hurt Turkey’s interests. Such a development would also help the PYD, a self-proclaimed enemy of Turkey, grow in spite of other parties. This would help increase radically hostile sentiments against Turkey.
In such a situation there may be a schism between those who support the revolution perceiving Turkey as an ally and those who support the revolution but perceive Turkey as a threat. Therefore Turkey has to refrain from using speeches that explicitly or implicitly threaten interference in Syria due to the Syrian Kurd issue. It is essential that Turkey acts calm and rationally toward this issue. Furthermore, it is of vital importance that the information transmitted on Syrian Kurds is meticulously weeded out of exaggerations. Turkey mustn’t view Syrian Kurds from the same perspective with which it views Iraqi Kurds or Kurds within its own borders. Additionally, it is of critical importance that Turkey maintains communication with the Syrian National Council in order to mitigate the reactionary moves Syrian Kurds might make against Turkey. At the same time, Turkey must also maintain its communication with the Arab League, prominent Arab countries and other states that share its interests and worries with regard to Syrian Kurds.
Kurdish autonomous government?
In the current state of affairs, it seems quite difficult for Syria to be divided and a Kurdish state or a Kurdish autonomous region to be established. This is so because the Kurdish population in Syria isn’t as big as the one in Turkey, Iran or even Iraq. The population of Kurds in Syria doesn’t exceed 1.6 million in a country of 23 million. Therefore it is difficult for the Kurdish population to impose their own agenda on the Syrian people.
Furthermore, the geographical dispersion of Syrian Kurds along the northern Syrian line isn’t spread evenly. In fact a significant proportion of Syrian Kurds live in a concentrated area in the northeastern region, while there are smaller communities in the northwest. The fact that these residential areas are separated makes it harder for Syrians to establish a state or an autonomous region.
Perhaps the most important thing is that the Syrian opposition is against an autonomous government or a decentralized administrative system, despite promising civil rights to Kurds and other minorities and ensuring that every Syrian will have the same rights and responsibilities. This is because Syrians think such types of demands lack a legitimate foundation. Furthermore, there is no regional or Western support for an autonomous region being established in Syria. It seems impossible for Syrian Kurds to implement such a project without such backing. In conclusion, if we assume that such an autonomous region is established, it is impossible for such a region to survive on its own.
Original Turkish version of the piece was published in Analist Journal in September 2012.