Can the Kurds lead in Syria?

The urgent issue for the Kurds is to develop a governance model that will work in Kurdish majority as well as Arab majority areas.

The liberation of Raqqa is nearing an end as the US-backed, Kurdish-led forces close in on the final few neighbourhoods under control of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). This development could represent the beginning of a major new chapter in the conflict that will empower the Kurdish-led project of a federal Syria. It will follow other principal turning points in the conflict, such as the rise of ISIS, the rise of Syrian Kurds, the Russian intervention, and the retaking of Aleppo by the Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian regime. Following the capture of Raqqa − ISIS’s political and operational headquarters – the group will cease to be one of the primary actors in the Syrian conflict and will be less able to carry out sophisticated attacks in Western capitals.

The offensive on Raqqa also made the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) the country’s second most powerful force in the country, giving it a powerful role in charting the future of Syria. The Kurdish-led fighting units and their administrative authority − the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) − now control of most of the country’s oil fields as well as all three major dams, and most fertile agricultural land.

But in the push to defeat ISIS in its de-facto capital, the SDF has also pushed into non-Kurdish areas, testing the limits of their power and begging the question of how they will manage potential political and ethnic tensions in these new territories.

In earlier phases of the Syrian conflict, the Kurdish leadership prioritised fighting over governance and diplomacy. Their effectiveness as a fighting force was proven time and again against ISIS, leading the US to support them as their partner on the ground in 2014. But it was only a matter of time until the emphasis on fighting had to shift towards governance, especially once they had taken key Arab majority areas, such as Tal Abyad, Shaddadah, and Manbij.

In the course of the Syrian conflict the Kurds have evolved from being a repressed community that was denied cultural, political, and even citizenship rights, into potential king-makers. More than anything, their strong organisation in the face of a fractured anti-Assad opposition and battered regime forces helped them to win that position.

From fighting to governing

The question faced by the Kurdish leadership now is how to govern. So far, the Kurds have calculated that their political gains will be easier to hold onto in a federalised Syrian state than a centralised one. What the Kurds want to avoid is a situation in which a land-locked independent Kurdish state is carved out within ethnically mixed regions of northern Syria.

The urgent issue for the Kurds is to develop a governance model that will work in Kurdish majority as well as Arab majority areas. Up until now the Kurdish leadership has sought to practice a pluralistic governance model, enlisting support from a variety of local actors, be they former FSA groups, tribal leaders, or prominent representatives of different ethnic and religious groups.

This model has been more successful in Manbij, for example, than in Tal Abyad or Shaddadah, begging the question of how well it will work in Raqqa, once it is eventually captured. Aware of potential risks involved in governing multi-ethnic areas, the Kurds want to keep their footprint light to ensure that the fragmented Arab forces do not unite against them. Any attempt by the Kurds to dominate the administration of Raqqa, even if they are able to win support of its tribal leaders, would only undermine the long-term strategic interests of the Syrian Kurdish leadership.

Once most hostile forces in Raqqa had been neutralised, the US gave its blessing to the current Raqqa Civilian Council, co-led by an Arab tribal leader and a Kurdish engineer, to rule after the liberation of the city. In its current form, the interim council is prioritising providing services to citizens rather than governing them, and this will remain the case until the city is fully liberated.

The International Coalition against ISIS has also assisted their efforts to govern the city by training a local police force comprised of citizens from Raqqa. The number of qualified security personnel increases every day and is expected to reach 3,000 when the training is complete.

Whether Raqqa will join the Kurdish-led self-declared federal administrations is not clear. The Civilian Administration Council of Manbij, another Arab majority city liberated from ISIS by the SDF has yet to decide whether they will join the DFNS.

The best way of predicting what might happen in Raqqa, at least for now, is to monitor the situation in Manbij, which has become much more peaceful since the Kurds took control.

Limits to the Kurdish advance

The international dimension may seem detached from questions of local governance in Syria, but in fact it is of central importance. Particularly because strong opposition by regional powers and ack of international support for the Kurds could potentially spoil their attempts to establish a workable and pluralistic method of governance.

The political realities on the ground and potential ethnic and political tensions there are not the only factors limiting the Kurdish-led military advance. The Syrian Kurds face a strong veto on their initiatives from regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. In August, the first ever visit by an Iranian chief of staff to Turkey since 1979 took place, indicating the emergence of a potential pact to stifle the political ambitions of the Kurds in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The US decision to back the Kurdish fighting forces in Syria complicates the geopolitical picture. Since Turkey and the US are both NATO members and while one side is arming the Kurds, the other is trying to limit their influence. That’s not to mention the influence of Russia, which is allied with Assad’s regime in Syria.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Kurds in Syria, the majority of whom are led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), chose not to be part of any power blocs. Instead, they formed their own camp and continue engaging with a variety of competing local, regional and international forces. Hence, the Kurds, at different phases of the conflict, have communicated with the Assad regime, the Turkish government, the US, Russia, and Iran.

The EU has been punching well below its weight throughout the Syrian conflict, despite feeling its knock-on effects in the form of the refugee influx and attacks by ISIS on European soil. However, as the potential for real governance rises, the bloc should consider weighing in to support local forces that are attempting to stabilise of the region.

The road ahead

Today, one of the principal aims of the Kurds is to maintain US support for its leadership in selected regions of Syria. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the Kurdish backbone of the SDF, sees the US as its primary ally on the ground. In regions where the US is less keen to support the YPG, such as Afrin, the group engages with Russia. A recent Russian declaration to Ankara that they want the Kurdish leadership to take part in the Astana peace talks is a successful result of this political attitude.

However, their careful balancing act will become harder to sustain as the Kurdish leadership find themselves with more territory on their hands and caught in a geopolitical battle over their role in the region.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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