Syria: the Kurdish view

This essay forms part of an eight-part ECFR series exploring the regional responses, dynamics and ramifications of the Syrian uprising and civil war. These…

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

This essay forms part of an eight-part ECFR series exploring the regional responses, dynamics and ramifications of the Syrian uprising and civil war. These essays have been drawn together in the ECFR report – The regional struggle of Syria.

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The civil war and implosion of Syria has offered the region’s Kurds an opportunity to assert their shared vision of deepening political emancipation. With the weakening of central government control over Syria, the most pressing question now facing its Kurdish population is which power centre – the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq or the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) – will take the lead. The answer will go some way towards shaping the response of regional neighbours, who are wary of a strengthened Kurdish region. Turkey is particularly cautious: Ankara’s current peace talks with the PKK are a direct result of this concern and the fate of these talks will be vital in determining just how Kurds emerge from the conflict.

Kurdish politics in Syria cannot be understood without looking at the vast shadow cast by the two regional power centres: the KRG and PKK. The KRG dates back to the first Gulf war, when a de facto autonomous region was established in Iraq’s north, and was subsequently ratified with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The two primary forces within the KRG, Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) (of these, Barzani has established himself as the pre-eminent power), both emerged to fight for Kurdish rights in Iraq. In contrast, the PKK emerged as an armed group in 1984, following the violent suppression of the Kurdish left by Turkey’s junta. The PKK launched a guerrilla struggle against security forces in Turkey’s southeast, which peaked in the 1990s and led to some 30,000 deaths, mass migration and political polarisation. Operating from northern Iraq, the PKK was also supported by Syria until 1998, and has an offshoot in Iran (the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan or PJAK).

Both of these power centres are now jockeying for influence in Syria given the vacuum resulting from Bashar al-Assad’s weakening hold over Kurdish populated areas. In July 2012, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – seen as affiliated with, or at least close to, the PKK – established control over five towns in Syria’s north-eastern al-Jazeera region, excluding Qamishly, the area’s most significant urban centre. It mobilised its own militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG). However, although dominant, it faces a rival in the so-called Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella group of 16 Syrian Kurdish political parties, whose most prominent members are closely allied with, if not an extension of, Barzani’s KDP. The KNC has its own militia, the Special Coordination Committee (SCC). In contrast to the Barzani-backed KNC, the PYD is seen as supported by his KRG opponent, Talabani, reflecting an extension into Syria of their domestic KRG rivalry.

On the back of tensions between the PYD and KNC, a tentative settlement (brokered by Barzani) was reached in Erbil on 12 July 2012 leading to the creation of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, a governing body for Syrian Kurdistan comprising members of both groups. However, the Erbil Agreement formalised a modus vivendi between the PYD and KNC, rather than a full-blown alliance. The threat of intra-Kurdish fighting remains a very real prospect (for example, forces loyal to the Kurdish Freedom (Azadi) Party that withdrew from the KNC clashed with the YPG in Aleppo in early March). Moving forward, the nature of the relationship between the two will hang on which party gains the upper hand – currently the PYD is far more dominant and unlikely to cede power – , as well as the fate of Turkish-PKK peace talks.

At present, external threats – both from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Assad’s forces – have tempered further intra-Kurdish friction. YPG forces have clashed with the FSA, including fighters from the Nusra Front, on several occasions across the northern and north-eastern fronts. Significantly, Kurdish relations with Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition movement are very bad and Kurdish representative factions have not been drawn into the main opposition body, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), due to their insistence on Kurdish autonomy and opposition to declaring Syria an Arab state. The SNC has refused to take this position and its close ties to Ankara, which despite current peace talks wants to contain Turkish ambitions, have increased Kurdish suspicions of the body.

But there is also a stigma attached to internecine conflict amongst Kurds going back to the 1994-1997 civil war in northern Iraq that pitted Barzani against Talabani (who was supported by the PKK and Iran). The Erbil Agreement in Syria is therefore a continuation of a strategy of intra-Kurdish co-existence already attempted in Iraq. By the same token, rising intra-Kurdish tensions in the al-Jazeera region could have a negative knock-on effect on dynamics across the Iraqi border in the KRG, potentially threatening the well-established stability and growing prosperity of that region.

Against this backdrop, two competing visions for resolving the Kurdish issue within Syria have emerged, championed by Barzani and the PKK. Given that Barzani sees himself as a leader of all Kurds, it is no surprise that he would like to be the guarantor of a Kurdish entity in post-Assad Syria, modelled on the KRG. Barzani has acted as mediator between different Syrian Kurdish factions, and has also defended the vision of local Kurds who want to establish their own unit within a federated country. Barzani’s reaching out to the PYD with the Erbil Agreement, was partly aimed at enticing the PYD out of the PKK’s grasp. Barzani is also training Syrian Kurdish fighters in Iraq, hoping to establish a force tied to himself that can rival the YPG – and help secure the region’s independent security much as the peshmerga has done in Iraq. Moving forward, it is not inconceivable that the KRG may have a substantial stake in a new autonomous Kurdish region in Syria

This expansion of influence in Syria would also give Barzani the opportunity to strengthen the KRG’s hand, both regionally and more specifically vis-a-vis the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. (Despite some recent attempts to engage in dialogue, the KRG remains in dispute with Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on several issues: the status of both disputed territories along its border with the rest of Iraq and oil fields located near Kirkuk; as well as the right to control and sell the KRG’s oil resources independently of Baghdad.)

Following on from the experience of the KRG, Barzani’s model stands for a peaceful and gradual solution to the Kurdish issue: establishing autonomous entities; fostering economic interdependence by developing cross-border trade and investment; and building and strengthening energy links (including with the regional powerhouse, Turkey). Although within Iraq this model is geared towards strengthening the KRG’s autonomy vis-a-vis Baghdad, regionally it is viewed favourably as it does not involve an assertive and destabilising cross-border Kurdish actor bent on full independence. Of greater concern to regional actors is the PKK or “Qandil” model, which is focused on Turkey. The PKK’s strategic goals have changed over time from secession to democratic autonomy (as acknowledged by the organisation’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan), but the use of violence against Turkey remains in the minds of many in the PKK the surest way for extracting concessions.

Syrian Kurds have long been exposed to the pan-Kurdish nationalist message espoused by the PKK. Until the late 1990s the PKK was abetted by the Baathist regime and was able to operate out of Syrian territory (at which point Assad expelled Öcalan, curtailed PKK activities, and drew very close to Ankara). One-third of PKK guerrillas are said to be of Syrian origin, and the growing autonomy of Syria’s Kurds – including the rise to prominence of the PKK affiliated PYD – suggests that the region could yet follow the PKK rather than Barzani model. This would threaten Turkey in particular, through the consolidation of a Kurdish territory under PKK influence.

Both Kurdish factions have aligned with external actors. Most notably, since 2009 Barzani has cultivated close relations with Turkey, a primary trading and investment partner for northern Iraq, and a potential conduit of energy exports (a gas pipeline deal was signed in May 2012). Barzani views Ankara as an ally in opposing the centralising schemes of Maliki, who has accused the Turks of pro-Sunni bias. Ankara, in turn, sees Barzani as an extra plank in the effort to pacify the PKK and reach a political solution to its internal Kurdish. Turkey’s AKP government has also backed the Erbil agreement which is, indirectly, a confidence building measure with the PKK.

At least until recently, the PKK and PYD were suspected by rivals to have acted as proxies of the Assad regime (and even Iran), to heighten Turkish fears about the potential consequences of Assad’s fall and to prevent the full opposition takeover of the north. (Unconfirmed reports of PKK fighters relocating to Syria from their bases in Iraq’s Qandil mountains with Iranian help, support this position.) The PYD dismisses such allegations, pointing to its track record of confronting the regime, including in 2004 when it led a local uprising which was violently suppressed by Assad. The PYD also continues to blame Turkey and its allies in Syria for not providing sufficient concessions to Kurdish demands for autonomy in a post-Assad Syria; for barring it from membership in the opposition coalition; and for orchestrating Free Syrian Army attacks on it in November 2012.

Given an increase in attacks against military and police forces in Turkey’s southeast provinces in the summer of 2012 (which left 700 dead), Turkey itself suspects the PKK – and by extension the PYD – of acting on the orders of Damascus, as it did in the 1990s. This escalation was seen by Ankara as an attempt to bring the Syrian conflict into its own backyard in retaliation for its support of the opposition (and the FSA in particular). Turkey has repeatedly issued warnings against the PYD and its militia, raising the prospect of a pre-emptive attack against their bases in Syria. Additionally, the conflict in Syria has exacerbated the rivalry between Ankara and Tehran, contributing to a growing fear on the part of the Turkish government that Iran has made peace with PJAK, a local offshoot of the PKK, which could now give them greater room to mount attacks in Turkey.

Despite the two competing visions offered by Barzani and the PKK, the potential success of the recently launched Turkish-Kurd peace process (the so-called “solution process”) could serve to dampen intra-Kurdish divisions and lead to a de facto convergence between the Erbil and Qandil models, and in so doing draw in Turkish support. In such a scenario, the two sides would probably compete for leadership rather than substance. A deal resolving Turkish-PKK tensions would directly address Turkey’s fears regarding the emergence of a potentially militant Kurdish region in Syria. At the same time, if talks proceed smoothly, they might have positive implications for any prospective Syrian transition by reducing the chances for confrontation between Kurds and the Turkish-backed opposition, and facilitating more substantive Kurdish representation in the opposition coalition.

By contrast, a failure of the current peace effort will result in even greater polarisation between the AKP and PKK, and a likely return to guerrilla warfare. In such a scenario, PYD-held areas in Syria could become a second base for the PKK, though the flat terrain suggests this would be more difficult than in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. Turkey could be expected to take a more aggressive position against an autonomous region, potentially even – as it periodically does in Iraq – intervening militarily. Importantly the failure of talks and hostility with Turkey would also leave Syrian Kurds domestically isolated as the Turkish backed Syrian opposition would likely follow Ankara’s lead and assume a hostile line. Turkey might even direct its allies in the armed Syrian opposition to target the Kurds.

Short of a unifying deal between Kurdish factions based on the successful conclusion of talks with Turkey any Kurdish region in Syria would also be likely to be contested by Kurdish factions. This political struggle could provoke intra-regional violence that could draw in outside players such as Turkey and Kurdish factions from neighbouring states, and potentially spread to Iraq.

As the Syrian conflict continues, Syrian Kurds will face stark choices – to side with the regime, with the opposition or elements therein, or increasingly turn to co-ethnics to entrench a more independent existence. However, the more Syria falls apart the more likely the latter scenario is, and the more likely external forces such as the Iraqi peshmerga or the PKK will be drawn in – either in cooperation or competition. In these circumstances, with de facto Kurdish autonomy having been established in northern Iraq and in Syria, the temptation to consolidate these gains and push against re-centralization will be great. The success of this push will largely be dependent on internal dynamics and the response from Turkey – on both fronts much now depends on how peace talks between Turkey and the PKK evolve.

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

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ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow