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Syria’s Kurds defend their turf with eye on future Open in fullscreen

Khorshid Dali

Syria’s Kurds defend their turf with eye on future

Kurds rally near on the Turkish side of the border with Kobane [Ilyas Akengin/AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 22 January, 2015

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The Syrian revolution gave rise to a new call for Kurdish nationhood. But there are many obstacles in the way before any such dream is realised.

There is a belief that Syrian Kurds were not part of the 2011 revolt against the Assad regime. They had every reason to be, given the marginalisation and repression they suffered under his rule. In fact, they are a special case.

Though specific figures for Syria's Kurdish population do not exist, most estimates suggest they constitute 10 percent of the Syrian population, or 2.5 million.

They are mainly concentrated in the northeast of Syria, with large numbers of Kurds living in major cities such as Aleppo and Damascus. Most Kurdish residents of Damascus and Aleppo immigrated to these cities because of poor conditions in rural areas, despite the fact that the Kurdish areas are some of the most fertile in Syria, and are blessed with reserves of oil, gas and ample supplies of water.

The mass immigration of Kurds to urbanised areas was in itself an important indication of the state's impoverishment of Kurdish society and its neglect of rural areas as a whole.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, the first nationalist Kurdish party in the country, was established in 1957. The party represented Kurdish national aspirations and was a response to Arab nationalism during Syria's union with Egypt (1958 – 1961).

The United Arab Republic denied the ethnic identity of non-Arab minorities. Kurds were subject to extraordinary measures during this period, from the Arabisation of place names to the systematic repression of the Kurdish language, culture and political activism.

This campaign resulted in tens of thousands of Kurds being stripped of Syrian citizenship in an attempt to eradicate Kurdish national identity.

     After four years of conflict in Syria, Kurdish demands have escalated to a call for autonomy.

Before the Syrian crisis, the demands of the Kurdish movement in Syria were for freedom, democracy and pluralism, and more specific cultural and political demands relating to Kurdish national identity.

However, after four years of conflict, Kurdish demands have escalated into a call for autonomy. Various forms of federalism have been proposed, the constitutional recognition of Kurds in Syria, and that the word "Arab" be removed from the country's name, so it becomes the Syrian Republic instead of the Syrian Arab Republic.

These demands have stirred debate among Kurds and Arabs alike, as some believe these nationalist demands have nothing to do with the goal of toppling the current regime and establishing a new political system. They have cautioned this might lead to an Arab-Kurdish confrontation.

Kurdish political parties

There are two main Kurdish political blocs. The first is the Kurdish National Council, an alliance of 13 Kurdish parties that acknowledge the political authority of the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, Iraq.

The second bloc is the People's Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK), which is led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) headed by Salih Muslim, which refers to the political authority of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The MGRK succeeded in asserting its control over Kurdish areas in Syria, established an organised army called the People's Protection Units (YPG), and has announced Qamishli, Afrin and Kobane as autonomous cantons.

Lack of trust and pragmatism

Syrian Kurds distrust the regime and the opposition. Their attitudes toward the regime is clearly due to marginalisation, while their position toward the opposition is based on the opposition's lack of support for Kurdish national demands, even though the opposition has adopted the protection of minority rights in principle.

The Kurds also believe Turkey is working to restructure Syrian politics in a way that precludes the Kurds, because of Turkish fears this could aggravate its own Kurdish problem. Turkey opposes the idea of a special status for Syrian Kurds similar to that enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds in their autonomous region.

However, the Syrian crisis has presented the Kurds with a historic opportunity to achieve their national aspirations.

They have been able to peacefully take control of their areas, govern them autonomously and whet people's appetite for self-determination. Before the revolution, Kurds were not able to call for their national rights, raise a Kurdish flag or study in their own language. Now, Kurdish self-governance committees control an extensive area, and YPG forces are spread across the governorate of al-Hasakah and the towns of Afrin and Kobane in the north.

The regime's presence in the Kurdish areas is limited to military bases in Qamishli and al-Hasakah. Further, these forces have been able to fend off dozens of attacks by the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front.

And so, for the first time since the Sykes-Picot agreement, the new reality has rekindled the nationalist dream of a Kurdish state, dormant since the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne killed Kurdish national ambitions kindled by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.

Autonomy and secession

     There is a new Kurdish reality in Syria.

The announcement of Kurdish autonomy in northeast Syria provoked a strong reaction from the Syrian opposition, regional and international powers, and Kurdish parties that disagreed with the Kurdish Union Party, which was behind the announcement.

The successes of PYD forces in blocking the advance of the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front in the northeast made the PYD the dominant force in Kurdish areas. The announcement of autonomy was a logical development of the PYD's success in establishing its control over the Kurdish areas and organising everyday life after the Syrian regime withdrew its troops.

Supporters of autonomy believe the region needs to be ordered on the local level, at least until the end of the Syrian crisis, after which the area's relationship to the central government can be rebuilt.

Proponents of the autonomy project have been careful to avoid any reference to Kurdish nationhood. Nevertheless, some believe it is a move toward secession, while others believe the PYD has agreed with the regime to govern these areas until the end of the crisis.

Turkey and the opposition Syrian National Council rejected the announcement, calling the Kurdish Union Party an enemy of the Syrian revolution.

The US reacted cautiously. Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, asked the Kurds not to take any unilateral steps and work ensure the success of moderates within the Syrian revolution.

The Syrian regime, however, has remained silent.

There is a new Kurdish reality in Syria. A new, autonomous Kurdish area has arisen in Syria, geographically linked to the Kurdish areas in Iraq and Turkey. This will inevitably raise questions about Syrian national identity that any future government of all Syria will have to address.

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