Isolation of the Kurds in Syria

As a result of the political and military changes in Syria after March 2011, Kurds now control three major territories in Syria: Kobani, Afrin, and Hasaka. However, they face political difficulties due to the many schisms among the Kurdish parties, Turkey’s fear that Syrian Kurds will unite their cantons in northern Syria, and deteriorating relations with the Arab groups in the Syrian opposition. Without resolving at least some of these issues, Syrian Kurds will find themselves surrounded by hostile countries.

The differences among Syrian Kurdish political parties are due to the national and regional links to three Kurdish parties. The first two parties are based in the Iraqi Kurdistan: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by the regional president, Masoud Barzani, and the National Kurdistan Union (YNDK), led by the former Iraqi president, Jalal Talbani. The third party is the Turkey-based Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which the United States and Turkey have designated as a terrorist group, and which Abdullah Ocalan has led for over fifteen years from his detention in Imrali, Turkey.

The ties of the Syrian Kurdish parties to these external parties allow the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (PYD) to establish firm control over the Kurdish areas of Syria. Late in 2013, the PYD declared what it calls the “democratic autonomous civil administration in Syria,” which included the participation of Syrian Kurdish parties and groups leaning towards the YNDK and the PKK as well as local Arab and Assyrian parties, particularly in the Jazira area of Syria.

In 2011, Turkey tried to curb the PYD’s advance in order to prevent any PKK growth in Syria. Using its relationship with Erbil, it decided to support the pro-Barzani (KDP)-leaning Kurdish Council in Syria (KNC), treating it as the sole representative of Syrian Kurds and refusing to deal bilaterally with the PYD. It also allowed Islamist fighters traveling from Turkey to Syria to fight the Assad regime, seeing them as an additional counterweight against the PYD.

Instead of preventing the PYD from gaining power in Syria, Turkey’s actions strengthened the PYD. The PYD gained territory, Kurds saw it as the only protection against Islamist fighters, and the PYD and KNC tried to increase cooperation. In July 2012, the KNC and PYD caught Turkey off guard and agreed to the Erbil Declaration, under which the two parties would have governed the Kurdish territories jointly, but the Declaration was never implemented. In an effort to resolve the KNC and PYD differences, the Kurdistan presidency sponsored political negotiations, but these also failed to reach a solution because the PYD insisted that KNC forces must fight under banner of the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The KNC rejected this condition, leaving the PYD as the main party in the autonomous region with no KNC involvement.

The breakup of the Syrian opposition into an internal and external opposition resulted into Kurdish-Kurdish and Kurdish-Arab divisions. The KNC is a member of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which the PYD has described as “playing a hostile role towards the democratic autonomous administration.” Consequently a Kurdish-Kurdish division emerged between the PYD—the de facto administrator of the Syrian Kurdish cities—and the KNC. The PYD accuses the KNC of collaborating with both the Turkish government and SNC to reject Kurdish autonomous rule and support Islamist groups. The KNC, on the other hand, accuses the PYD of coordinating with the Syrian regime due to its vague stance on the Syrian uprising. In fact, the internal Kurdish political disagreements are what might lead to an armed conflict as in the case of the Kurdish strife in Iraq in the mid-1990s. The KNC has a military arm training in Iraqi Kurdistan, to which the PYD has denied access to the Syrian Kurdish territories unless the KNC operates under the YPG.

Political differences between the PYD and Arab opposition parties led to the decline in Arab-Kurdish relations. For example, the PYD was one of the founding members of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change  (NCB), which was launched in Damascus after the Syrian uprising broke out. However, PYD-NCB relations began to collapse when the PYD declared its plans for self-rule, a move that the NCB saw as dividing Syria. The PYD withdrew from the NCB on January 8, 2016, saying that members of the NCB were “prisoners of uncompromising nationalism that had led to the problems in Syria.” Kurdish military forces have been at odds with opposition forces since the beginning of the war. In November 2012, fighting broke out between Kurdish forces and the Nusra Front and Kata’ib Ghurabaa’ al-Sham. When the then SNC-president Moaz al-Khateeb called for the groups to stop fighting, the PYD president Salih Muslim said that Turkey chose the Kurdish representatives on the SNC and that they did not represent Syrian-Kurdish interests. Relations furthered soured as Kurdish forces aggressively pursued their autonomy project, even at the expense of local Arabs and opposition forces.

There is still cooperation between Kurds and some Arab groups. The co-governor of Hasaka (Jazira canton) is an Arab tribal leader, who jointly governs with a female counterpart in the PYD and a counterpart from the Assad regime. The Kurdish YPG joined the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes Arab and Assyrian fighters, although it is mainly made up of the YPG. Arab tribes continuously threaten to cut off relations, especially because Kurds are the effective rulers of Arab territories, even though there is a minor Arab representation. The Kurdish ruling party’s intentions are well-known—they want a Kurdish entity independent of Syria.

Syrian Kurds relations with Turkey have continued to decline because Turkey is concerned with the establishment of a Kurdish entity in Syria due to the affiliation of the PYD to the Turkish PKK, especially after the collapse of the negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK. Moreover, Turkey has targeted Kurdish fighters in Syria to prevent them from crossing the Euphrates and uniting Kobani and Afrin.

Despite all these political and ethnic problems, Syrian Kurds need to establish relations with at least one of the neighboring areas in order to survive economically, otherwise the autonomous region will be landlocked and surrounded by hostile countries. If Syrian Kurds cannot establish relations with Turkey and their relations with Arab groups continues to decline, working more with Iraqi Kurdistan is the only way for Syrian Kurds to sell the oil from their territories. Alternatively, the PYD might invest in building relations with KNC in hopes of improving relations with Turkey and Syrian Arabs, given that the KNC is a member of the SNC and continues to have good relations with the Arab parties. This would only be feasible if the PYD and KNC reach a consensus on the administration of the Kurdish areas.

Jiwan Soz is a Kurdish Syrian journalist who writes for several Arab newspapers and agencies, including al-Quds al-Arabi and al-Jazeera. 

Image: Photo: An officer of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) stands guard near the Syrian-Iraq border October 31, 2012. Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani warned Kurds in Syria against being sucked into the "fires of discord," urging them to preserve Kurdish unity as tensions between rival factions threaten to spillover into violence. Syria's Kurds see the war ravaging their country as an unprecedented opportunity to gain the kind of freedoms enjoyed by their ethnic kin in neighbouring Iraq, where they live autonomously from the federal capital in Baghdad. Picture taken October 31, 2012. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani