The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are seeking greater autonomy. How to achieve that autonomy is another matter. Part 1 of 2.
In its simplest form, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq have the same goal: autonomy for a Kurdish region within their respective countries. And for the most part, they’ve each achieved this. Under the 2005 Iraqi constitution, Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous federal region. It participates in the federal government but has a separate government and infrastructure for governing the three provinces that comprise the region. In Syria, the civil war has forced the reallocation of Syrian government troops from Kurdish regions toward flashpoints in the conflict. In the wake of the government’s withdrawal, at the end of July, Kurds filled the power vacuum and asserted their autonomy. They are now flying Kurdish flags over former intelligence headquarters and teaching Kurdish openly in schools (I really recommend you follow that link. BBC’s Orla Guerin has done some wonderful reporting from the Syrian Kurdish region).
The ends are the same, but how they maintain the autonomy of these regions will necessarily be different. There are other interests at work: the interests of the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian Kurds, and all the other players, especially Turkey and the central Iraqi government. In this post, I discuss the actions and interests of Syria’s Kurds, and tomorrow I will discuss the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Syria’s Kurds now have a de facto autonomous province and an informal power structure is emerging, dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which began shoring up its control of the region in January when 1,000 PKK-affiliated Kurds were transferred from Iraq to Syria to begin “political work.” Their primary interest now is to secure this space. Guerin reports that some government troops remain in the area, but that they are few, nervous, and keeping to the couple remaining military bases. There is no certainty, though, that they will not return. The Syrian Kurds are girding for conflict; they have seized government buildings and set up their own armed checkpoints. In effect, the Kurds are building a monopoly on violence in the northeast corner of Syria.
There are holes in this monopoly, though, and it’s unclear if the proto-state will be willing to fill them. In the past couple months, there has been a notable uptick in attacks along the Syrian-Turkish border that Turkey has been quick to pin on the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). These have included bombings, cross-border raids, and the abduction of Turkish officials. The Syrian Kurds seem to be indifferent or even complicit in the increased violence — probably both, given that there doesn’t yet seem to be much of a formal government structure, and even if there were, it would be wrong to think of the emerging Syrian Kurdistan as a unitary actor (the PKK is even factionalized within itself and cannot present a cohesive platform). That being said, the apparent leadership, the PYD, was established by members of the PKK and the two are frequently conflated in government statements and press reports. This — and the PKK-affiliated flags flying just across the border — has Turkey anxious.
If there is a future for Syrian Kurdistan, it will be defined by a twisted map of power relations defined more by animosity than alliance.
Turkey opposes the PKK, which it (fairly) deems a terrorist organization, and is wary of an autonomous Kurdish region that could potentially be a safe haven for terrorism on its restive southeast border. That safe haven could stoke Kurdish efforts for autonomy in Turkey, a movement that has shifted more toward civil rights in recent years. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has stated that Turkey “will be against any de facto declaration of sovereignty inside Syria” without the consent of a new, democratically elected Syrian parliament — a prospect that seems unlikely anytime soon, and out of touch with the reality on the ground.
Syria has oppressed its Kurdish population for decades, but at the moment, the Assad regime is more concerned about a Turkish incursion. Davutoğlu and the U.S. ambassador to Turkey have claimed that the Syrian government is arming PKK elements, alluding to a new front in the proxy war between Syria and Turkey. Turkish officials also suspect that Tehran — though it has its own problems with PKK terrorism — is playing a double game and supporting PKK attacks against Turkey. “Turkey has good intelligence cooperations with Iran on the PKK,” a Turkish official commented to International Crisis Group, “but whenever there are sinister moves, it’s always Iran behind it…Iran could use the PKK to undermine our strategy.”
The Kurds are no friend to Ankara or Damascus — they distrust anyone who would threaten their autonomy. For that matter, they are wary of the Syrian opposition, which has been slow to speak to the issue of minority rights, even refusing to formally acknowledge Syria’s Kurdish population at a conference held by the opposition in July. (The opposition has claimed in return that the PYD is suppressing anti-Assad protests and assassinating opposition leaders.) The PKK, in particular, is a liability to all involved — a double-edged sword to the regime that is certain to fall back on Assad if the revolution collapses, a bullseye on the back of autonomy-seeking Kurds, and a terrorist threat to Turkey.
What these actors do next will determine the fate of Syrian Kurdistan. Turkey has been laying the groundwork for a limited intervention for months, and has amplified its language in recent weeks, and just concluded a major offensive against the PKK farther east. If Turkey moves to establish safe zones — which exist in some form already (what Soner Cagaptay has called “ink blots” on the border) and has been the case in some war games — I would not be surprised if it did so couched in the language of counterterrorism as cover for violating Syrian sovereignty. How Turkey would go about this is extremely delicate, though. Anything that could be construed as a Turkish occupation of Syrian Kurdish areas would fast become a quagmire, and a windfall to the Assad regime.
J. Dana Stuster is a Senior Editor for The Jerusalem Review.