Mutlu Civiroglu, Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Middle East Analyst for the Jamestown Foundation specializing in Kurdish politics and Dilshad Othman, a Syrian specialist in information security and a U.S State Department Internet Freedom fellow to weigh in on the consequences of Kurds being left out of this week’s negotiations
Syria Deeply – Katarina Montgomery & Karen Leigh – Yesterday, Syrian Kurds said they would form an autonomous provincial government in Rojava, the Kurdish-language term for one of three majority-Kurdish regions in northeast Syria. The self-proclaimed government is complete with its own president and ministers.
The move comes two months after the country’s Kurds declared self-rule. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said elections for the new municipal council would be held this spring.
The announcement comes as Kurds are left without representation at this week’s Montreux peace talks, a U.N.-backed gathering of Syrian opposition groups, government representatives and international powers.
“Kurds have been struggling for decades. Hundreds of activists were tortured by the regime,” says Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst focusing on Syria and Turkey. “Ignoring the Kurds has a symbolic meaning that the future of Syria will not be any different for Kurds.”
Syria Deeply: What do Syrian Kurds want from the Geneva peace talks?
Wladimir van Wilgenburg: The main Kurdish parties want some kind of recognition of a Kurdish status in Syria. They want to have recognition for a form of self-rule over their own areas, such as autonomy, federalism or democratic autonomy. This is quite similar to what the Kurds in Iraq have. But the West wants the Syrian Kurds to be part of the Syrian opposition, or excluded from Geneva II. As a result, the Kurdish National Council, one of the main Kurdish power blocs, joined the Syrian Coalition due to Western pressure.
Now the PYD fears that their demands are not recognized and that it could turn out to be a second Lausanne that led to the creation of Turkey and the division of the Kurdish areas in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, without granting them any form of Kurdish autonomy or independence, as promised by the earlier treaty of Sevres.
Mutlu Civiroglu: Two major Kurdish umbrella groups, the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) and the Syrian Kurdish National Council (SKNC), recently announced they had reached agreement on several key issues, including unified Kurdish participation at the Geneva II Conference. This joint delegation wasn’t recognized at Geneva. Kurdish activists now feel that their demands are ignored, and their voices are silenced.
Kurds want to participate in Geneva II as Kurds, the biggest ethnic minority in the country and one of the groups that has been fighting the regime’s repression for decades. Hundreds of activists were tortured by the regime. Ignoring the Kurds has a symbolic meaning, which is that the future of Syria will not be any different for Kurds.
Dishad Othman: Most Kurds want the right to independent political decisions. They want to play a strong part in any decision-making process.
Kurds are trying to bring their case to any table, even Geneva II. Kurds were also targeted in military attacks. Of course they want a role in the decision-making process. They want to know how they will be represented in the “new Syria.”
SD: Why are Kurdish interests being negated at the talks?
WW: It’s not seen as an important issue, and the U.S. thinks that the Kurds should negotiate Kurdish rights with the Syrian opposition, rather than imposing unilateral decisions on the ground and declaring autonomy.
Moreover, the United States wants to exclude PYD from the negotiations since the U.S. is closely allied to Turkey, which opposes PYD, and also since it considers PYD to be close to the Syrian regime and the United States also claims that it wants to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria. In Iraq, the United States prefers Baghdad over the Kurds, and in Syria, the U.S. also prefers the Syrian state over the Kurds (in this case, the Syrian opposition, or Assad).
The Kurds feel excluded and suggest that neither the Syrian opposition nor the Syrian government recognize any form of Kurdish autonomy, although Assad is flirting with the Kurds by allowing them the rights of education and giving them back Syrian citizenship. The Kurds want to have an independent delegation to push for Kurdish rights, instead of just discussing the future of Assad and a new government.
SD: What will be the consequences if Kurdish interests are ignored at the negotiating table?
WW: I doubt that the Geneva conference will lead to any solution since the main armed groups are not involved in the discussions, such as the Kurdish YPG militia, the Islamic front that is the biggest armed opposition group on the ground, or the FSA. Off course, al-Qaida-affiliated/inspired groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are not invited, but they are also a significant power on the ground, and need to be dealt with somehow.
The Kurds want to have a say at the table, so if they do not have their own delegation, then Kurdish rights will most likely not be discussed, and the Kurdish “democratic autonomy” that was declared by PYD would not be recognized by the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition or the international community. Earlier, the Russians were willing to have the Supreme Kurdish Council to participate in Geneva II, but the Americans blocked it.
DO: The announcement of a autonomous administration in the northern part of Syria ahead of the Geneva talks is a direct reaction to Kurds not being invited to Geneva. They are sending a clear message that they are going to try and manage the area of northern Syria by themselves.
Kurds are waiting for a guarantee that their rights will be recognized on a political level. They are afraid of the new ideology and identity of the Syrian opposition. They are scared of the complexity of the battleground.
There is a lot to talk about at Geneva, especially in terms of the economy. It used to be one of the strongest, but is now one of the poorest. There is a genuine fear that if the Kurds are not at the table, they will lose their rights and will be going on a path away from a united Syria.
MC: The core organizers of Geneva II rushed the conference and wanted to show the diplomatic community that international efforts were under way, but unfortunately many groups are not represented at Geneva and by the Syrian National Coalition.
There will be one or two people at Geneva on behalf of the Syrian National Kurdish Council, but just like the Syrian National Council, they lack power on the ground among Kurds. Many colleagues I talk to said that this conference is born to be dead. This is a sad reality after three years.
Kurds are one of the largest minorities in Syria, and have a large presence in the Middle East. If there isn’t a solution to the Kurdish question, there won’t be stability in Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In Syria, Kurds have been the most organized militarily, socially, politically and economically. If you exclude the regime’s military power, the Kurds have the strongest army.
SD: If Kurds aren’t included in the decision-making process, how will they implement any agreements on the ground?
MC: I spoke to PYD’s leader and a member of SKNYC, and they both said they didn’t have a say in who represented them at Geneva, and that as a result they would not recognize the decisions made at Geneva. This is the risk that Geneva conference bears.
By excluding Kurds from Geneva, the international community is sending the message that Kurdistan is different from Syria, and that there isn’t a pluralistic Syria. This bolsters the feeling that Kurds are not a part of Syria’s future, and only further pushes them in a separate direction from Syria.
SD: How unified are the Kurdish political parties, and how does this translate on the ground?
MC: There is a consensus among Kurds that they have been highly successful in fighting extremist groups. The armed Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) has been actively fighting radical groups like al-Nusra and ISIS. These efforts have largely been ignored by the international community.
It’s correct that you can’t see YPG as the military power that represents everyone, but there is an increasing consensus in the region that YPG is the defender of the Rojava region, and a general respect for their achievements in fighting extremism and keeping the region intact.
DO: Politically, Kurds are managing the area of northern Syria by themselves. Kurds don’t have a militia, except the PYD – the largest Kurdish militia, which isn’t in good shape with the Syrian opposition. There are a lot of small groups in the FSA. There are Kurds, but they don’t follow the Kurdish political routes – they get their funds from the Syrian opposition. Most Kurds are in Kobani and Afrin, controlled by PYD.