All of my previous posts on the Kurds have focused on their trials and triumphs in Iraq, since that is the only state in which they have managed to carve out a safe, self-governing federal region of their own. The only reason to bring up the other “little Kurdistans” in the region would be to lament once again about how marginalized, suppressed, and immiserated they are by their host governments.
Syria has long been one of the worst offenders, denying its 1.7 million Kurds (approximately 10% of the population and Syria’s largest minority group) a variety of Kurdish language, education, and cultural rights. There is a prohibition on Kurdish names for people and businesses, as well as on Kurdish-language books and schools. And until last year, hundreds of thousands of Syria’s Kurds were even denied basic citizenship, meaning that for a half century they were in effect stateless prisoners inside Syria, without access to government services and unable to leave due to no passports. Over the years there have been forced Kurdish population transfers, and ruthless suppression of all political dissent. It’s been bad.
Well, now here we have the ongoing disintegration of the Syrian state and the imminent downfall of the odious Assad regime. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” says Rahm Emanuel; and as their brethren in Iraq did twenty years ago, the Kurds of Syria are now trying to find ways to guarantee their rights and security in whatever post-Assad order emerges from the chaos.
So what do you need to know about the current state of things, in order to be a hit at all the big Kurd-centric dinner parties this summer? Here’s a primer:
1. Turkey is a key player, and as ever, a little dodgy:
Turkey never liked the idea of an autonomous Kurdish region right over their border with Iraq, because they saw it as a constant provocation for their own restive Kurdish population to aspire to something similar. That paranoia has ebbed quite a bit, mostly due to the tremendous economic opportunities that a safe, prospering Kurdistan can offer Turkey and the region as a whole. Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan now do over $6 billion of bilateral trade annually, and they continue to look for ways to expand economic ties.
But Turkey’s not about to just embrace a Kurdistan redux in Syria. This is because one of the two main Kurdish groups in Syria is the PYD (Democratic Union Party), which is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, an armed guerilla group that has been waging war on the Turkish government for the last thirty years seeking an independent Kurdish state in Turkey. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the US, EU, and of course by Turkey.
Needless to say, Turkey is deeply troubled by the involvement of the PYD in the Syrian conflict. The PYD just signed an accord with the other major Syrian Kurdish group, the KNC (Kurdish National Council), to share power and civic responsibilities in the Kurdish dominated areas (more on this below). There’s no confirmed information, but there are reports that the Kurds now control significant territory in northeast Syria, having rooted out Assad’s security forces. It’s claimed that the KNC and the PYD are sharing administration of these areas 50/50.
Turkey is incensed that a PKK-affilliated group has been legitimized in this way. Ankara has vowed that it will simply not allow the PYD to have control of any territory near its border. This has raised the spectre of a Turkish military incursion into Syria. Scary stuff.
2. The Kurds in Syria are unified, sort of, maybe.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Kurds have been mixed in their feelings about the rebel uprising. Sure, they hated the Assad regime, but if getting rid of him meant the emergence of a Sunni Arab-dominated Islamist state, that might not be any better for their interests. They had reason to worry about this because the main umbrella opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has refused to provide the Kurds with any assurances regarding their future political rights in a post-Assad Syria. The KNC continues to try to resolve its disputes with the SNC, but it refuses to go into a post-Assad Syria without hard guarantees about Kurdish rights of self-determination. The SNC seems to have some troubling Arab chauvinist and Islamist elements that are not inclined to be accommodating to Kurdish national interests.
So, to distance themselves from both the Assad regime and the opposition SNC, the two main Kurdish groups in Syria (the KNC and the PYD) have recently signed a power-sharing accord in the Kurdish-dominated northeast region. Unity is a good thing, but as noted above, the PYD is a deeply problematic group, and its loyalties and motives are not altogether clear. Despite the accord, the KNC remains wary and untrustful of the PYD, and for good reason: The PYD has previously had ties to the Assad regime, and its militants have very recently attacked and threatened KNC members. Frankly it’s unlikely that this Kurdish accord will last very long.
One important point about the accord: it was orchestrated by the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil. This leads to the next point:
3. The Kurds of Iraq are trying to help their Syrian brethren.
President Barzani has confirmed that Iraqi Kurdistan has providing military training to Syrian Kurds who have fled the violence, in preparation for their return to help defend Kurdish areas in Syria. And by helping broker the Kurdish accord, Barzani is also doing all he can to avoid internecine bloodshed. Here the Kurds of Iraq can serve as a cautionary tale: they underwent their own years of division and civil war in the ’90s, and they know all too well how badly this tragic interlude set back their goals for self-government and economic development.
This is sort of Turkey’s nightmare scenario: the Kurdish mothership in Iraq providing succor and inspiration and material support to Kurds in an adjoining state, in order to help them secure a similar measure of territorial and political autonomy. And while government in Iraqi Kurdistan has been a very willing partner with Turkey in the latter’s fight against the PKK, Turkey can’t be happy that Barzani is facilitating power-sharing accords that include PKK associates.
4. Either way, some sort of “Syrian Kurdistan” seems inevitable in the new Syria.
Barzani’s brokering deals, a Syrian Kurdish security force is being trained, the Kurds hold territory in the northeast, and they’re holding out for rights guarantees in the new Syria: this is not your grandfather’s weak, diffuse Kurdish movement. They are proactive, strong, and have an assertive Kurdish patron in northern Iraq which is willing to use its diplomatic and military power to advance the cause. As Syria expert and fellow Kurdistan aficionado Michael Weiss notes,
The message could not be clearer: the Kurds are their own political and military power in a rapidly deteriorating Syria. If the world is interested, it can negotiate with them directly…. [E]ven if this agreement eventually breaks down, as an earlier one did, it’s hard to imagine the Kurds willingly ceding their new-found semi-independence to anything other than a federalist government like the one their brethren have in Iraq.
This is a long-awaited and deserved deliverance. It is all tenuous still, but very heartening. All that’s left is for Assad the butcher to be put in the dock, to answer for his years of oppression and depravity and murder. It will be a bitter irony for him that his dedication to mass murder ultimately helped usher in the birth of Syrian Kurdistan.