A Kurdish View of the Revolution: Between Irbil, Ankara, and the Syrian Opposition

Jehad Saleh   – 31 Oct 2012 – FIKRA FORUM – The Kurdish issue in Syria has evolved in both regional and international arenas due to several factors. While activity of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PPK) and its Syrian affiliate the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has increased, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) strives to serve as a legitimate representative of the Syrian Kurdish movement in the revolution.

The impact of these competing forces has affected the KNC’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the Syrian opposition, and has influenced Turkey’s role in the crisis. From the perspective of Kurds supporting the KNC, it is the Kurdish aspiration for federalism within a democratic Syria that suffers at the expense of regional power plays and alliances between Turkey, the KRG, and the PKK.

Turkey and the Kurdish Issue

After a KNC delegation visited Washington to meet with U.S. officials last May, Ankara’s concerns grew with this Kurdish gesture, which demonstrated a potential American rapprochement over the Syrian Kurdish issue, along with the possibility for Washington to adopt the Kurdish cause and support the KNC. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) refuted Kurdish presence in Syria through the media, and even went so far as to deny the historic existence of Kurds in Syria, alleging that they emigrated from Turkey and Iraq. These accusations, coupled with discrimination and distrust toward the Kurds within the Syrian opposition (exposed during the July 2012 conference in Cairo), incited anger among Kurds toward Islamist currents, and thus the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is known to take orders from the MB and Ankara. Such animosity also contributed to the Kurds’ lack of faith in the Syrian opposition as a whole, which maintains an unclear position toward the rights of Kurds and their role in the Syrian Revolution.

Kurdish Militant Control and KRG Mediation

The rift between the Kurdish movement and the Syrian opposition has since widened due to the PYD’s de facto military rule of  many Kurdish regions in Syria. The PYD has implemented its policies and agenda after taking up arms, constructing barriers, and patrolling the Kurdish areas, particularly in Kobani [Ain al-Arab] and Afrin. Indirectly aiding the Assad regime through its control, the PYD has reportedly assaulted Kurdish protestors, arrested, kidnapped and threatened activists, and confiscated banners calling for the fall of the regime. Its presence has negatively impacted the relationship between the SNC and KNC, creating a state of distrust and anger on the Kurdish street, and resulting in revolutionary activists accusing the Kurds of disloyalty.

Due to the transgressions of the PYD and followers of PKK leader Öcalan, along with Kurdish apprehensions toward Syria, KRG President Massoud Barzani’s was prompted to contain the crisis. Though the KNC was resistant to cooperating with Öcalan’s followers, doubting their true intentions regarding Kurdish rights and the revolution, and fearing military confrontation and intra-Kurdish fighting (which has been a strategy of all regimes in the region, in order to weaken and fragment the Kurds), President Barzani applied pressure and united the PYD and KNC to form the Kurdish High Council. From the point of view of KNC supporters, this new council has yet to contribute anything positive to the political process or the Kurdish quest for autonomy due to the individualism and opportunism of the PYD, and has demonstrated disrespect for the KNC and Kurdish revolutionaries. Furthermore, it has refused to abide by the resolutions of the Hawler [Irbil] Meeting, the first of which was the cessation of all armed encounters.

The PYD’s principle guidance comes from PKK leadership, based in the Qandil Mountains on the Iran-Iraq border, who use Syrian Kurds as a political card against Ankara, and have not clarified their true position toward the Syrian regime. Their actions within Syria demonstrate the way in which they cooperate with the regime in exchange for the freedom to run a number of their own state institutions, control security and access to food, and create a political space where Öcalan’s followers are able to implement their policies under the pretext of protecting the Kurdish area. In reality, many Kurds feel that the PYD does not represent their interests, and has contributed to a hostile political situation for the Syrian Kurds and the KNC, creating a deadlock on the Kurdish ambitions, and inviting suspicions from the Syrian opposition and the international community. All of this has weakened the political position of Syrian Kurds within Syria and internationally. Indeed, Barzani’s policy toward Syrian Kurds seems strange and counterproductive, but despite his best intentions of helping the Kurds, it is a stance that collides with Turkey. For this reason, he pursues a common interest between Hawler [Irbil] and Ankara at the cost of Syrian Kurds and their role in the revolution.

An Unlikely, but Profitable, Turkey-KRG Alliance

It is widely known that economic and political interests between Hawler [Irbil] and Ankara are sizeable, and that the majority of the economic sector and investments in Iraqi Kurdistan are in the hands of Turkish companies. Likewise, Turkey is considered to be the single largest economic outlet for the KRG. Therefore, Barzani does not have the option of upsetting Turkey; rather, he works to strengthen their relationship on the basis of their mutual interests. Despite Turkey’s distrust of the KRG, it recognizes the benefit of such a relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly because Barzani has proven to be capable of acting on his control over the Kurdish situation in Syria, and applying pressure on the PKK concentrated in Qandil.

Conversely, Barzani seems to have the power to intimidate and pressure Ankara using these cards.  Both sides are acting solely on the basis of common interest, which became quite clear with the aforementioned Kurdish-Turkish coordination over Syrian Kurds. Barzani was able to pressure the KNC to cooperate with the PYD and to meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whereby Turkey promised to help the Kurds of Syria on the condition that they postpone their federalist ambitions and their struggle for autonomy within Syria until after the fall of Assad. Regardless of Turkey’s promise to provide logistical support to the KNC, it has yet to offer any real aid, be it financial or political, or even a mere satellite channel.

Next Steps for Syria’s Kurds

Kurds in Syria are acutely aware of these complex dynamics; however, due to the lack of international support in face of the political and economic power of Turkey and the KRG, they have resorted to waiting in anticipation. Meanwhile, the KNC is purportedly restructuring their council in order to best situate themselves to bring down Assad’s regime and achieve federalism in Syria so that they may partake in the political game and build a democratic state that provides them with power, security and stability. The leaders of the Kurdish movement in Syria are far from a deadlock, pessimistic about the wall of challenges before them. On the contrary, they are trying to improve their relationship with Hawler [Irbil] in order to benefit Kurdish rights in the region, a cause they share facing Tehran and Ankara, who are greatly threatened by Kurdish ambition.

The KNC is steadfast in its refusal to join the SNC, yet it seeks to remain non-violently active in the revolution, and to act as a comprehensive outlet for all Syrian opposition groups to bring about an agreement to form a pluralistic, democratic, de-centralized state. This initiative, however, will require political agreements between Ankara, Hawler [Irbil], the Syrian opposition, and international decision-makers. Despite the dangers that surround them, the Kurds in Syria still believe in their ability to work for a democratic Syria, and seek to achieve their goals.

Jehad Saleh is an independent Syrian Kurdish journalist based in Washington, DC.