Thomas McGee – January 17, 2013 – Thomas McGee is a scholar in Kurdish Studies focusing on the Kurds of Syria and their civil society initiatives. He was based in Syria for the first eight months of the Revolution and two years prior to its start. He speaks Kurdish and Arabic and has travelled widely in the Kurdish regions of Syria. Based on his experiences, he has also published as a freelance journalist for the Guardian and BBC.
Do Syria’s Kurds what an independent state? The answer might surprise you.
As of late, Western journalists have taken to reporting on the situation of de facto Kurdish autonomy in the north of Syria. However, extrapolations from better-known Kurdish communities (notably those in the federal Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq and the PKK in Turkey) often misrepresent the reality of Syrian Kurds.
Journalistic approaches are all too often framed through the fears and propaganda of neighboring states. Articles on the Kurds of Syria have a tendency to focus on Kurdish ambition to establish an independent state or to form a political unity across present-day international borders. Few Syrian Kurds, however, are realistically considering, let alone calling for, such measures.
None of the more than fifteen Kurdish parties in Syria are officially seeking the formation of an independent or a trans-state political entity. Such notions are only propagated by a few long-term exiled politicians who do not represent the parties within Syria. In fact, the internal political actors present solutions to the Kurdish problem in Syria within a framework of established state boundaries. Party positions involve varying decrees of (political) de-centralization and self-administration. Meanwhile, the trademark slogan of the Kurdish street has become ‘Democracy for Syria; Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan’.
Any project to extend the existing autonomous Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq to cover the Kurds of Syria an idea frequently floated by foreign journalists would involve the considerable practical challenge – if not impossibility – of integrating two complex political systems each dominated by its own set of well-established personalities. Furthermore, at present such a relationship would not be in the interest of either side. The Kurdistan Regional Government would not wish to jeopardize its own development, security, and international partnerships by embarking on a project that might be vulnerable to the spread of instability in Syria. At the same time, Syrian Kurds are not looking to sacrifice their newfound freedoms by entering into a relationship that would subordinate them to an already established entity. At present, both sides still have too much to lose.
This does not mean that Kurds in Syria do not emotively identify with those across state boundaries. Indeed, there is a strong sense of belonging to the pan-Kurdish community. Likewise, it does not mean that Syrian Kurds consider they have any less legitimate right to be included in their own nation-state entity than any other people. legitimate right to be included in their own nation-state entity than any other people. Indeed, when journalists ask Syrian Kurds, ‘would you like your own state?’ – as it might be offered on a plate – most will respond that indeed they would. However, the pan-Kurdish identity and legitimate right of a people to statehood are not manifest in the present-day political demands of Syria’s Kurds.
Map of Western Kurdistan. Credit :YASA Kurdish Centre for Legal Studies & Consultancy
Many have instead conveyed to me that it is imperative they participate in, and benefit from, future development in their region. Having a stake in society and its development is a priority that unites Syrian Kurds, whatever form of self-determination they advocate. If they are to accept some kind of de-centralization, it must ensure effective political representation for Kurds, and differ significantly from the administrative de-centralization, which has long governed Syria and contributed to the oppression of Kurds. Indeed, rather than reflecting local interests, province-specific legislation under the Ba’athists has been a mechanism to victimize and divide Kurdish communities.
While for fifty years the central government has exploited their resource-rich region, Syrian Kurds have remained disadvantaged. They place a greater degree of importance on their economic and political development, which can only be sustainable if a requisite degree of local stability is preserved. As such, few Kurds are advocating the kinds of self-determination projects, which would challenge Syria’s sovereignty. Their policy is one of non-provocation, seeking to avoid confrontation on their (de facto) territorial boundaries, be they with Turkey in the north, or with the Free Syrian Army inside Syria, itself perceived by many as a Turkish proxy. To the same end, the Kurdish parties the Kurdish parties have recently taken actions to form a consolidated Kurdish unity in Syria, politically represented by the Destiya Bilind a Kurdî (Supreme Kurdish Body).
Kurds of Syria have long been misunderstood, not only by international media, but also by mainstream Syrian opposition, which has viewed them with suspicion. If citizenship (returned by Assad last year after 50 years of state deprivation) has in some way deterred Kurds from joining the revolution, it is not because they are repaying the regime’s gesture with their loyalty, but because the opposition has failed to effectively reassure Kurds that they will be treated as equal citizens in a post-Assad Syria.
e formal mainstream of Syria’s opposition has therefore been unable to realize what one report one report describes as the Kurds’ potential to be ‘the decisive minority’ in the revolution. The statement by former leader of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalion, that ‘there is no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan’ – not to mention his comparison between Syria’s Kurds and immigrants to France – demonstrates an unaccommodating position on incorporating the political aspirations of Kurds into the future Syrian state, as well as an insensitivity to assertions of their identity and fundamental existence. Just as daristan (forest) is literally a ‘place of trees’ and goristan (cemetry) is a ‘place of graves’, the descriptive function of Kurdistan as the ‘place of Kurds’ cannot be denied.
In response to Ghalioun, demonstrations across Kurdish regions of Syria affirmed ‘Kurdistan li vir e’ (here is Kurdistan). It is for the political and economic development of these regions that Kurds now seek to promote stability, rather than lobbying for the unrealistic and provocative ambitions of pan-Kurdish independence.
Thomas McGee is a scholar in Kurdish Studies focusing on the Kurds of Syria and their civil society initiatives. He was based in Syria for the first eight months of the Revolution and two years prior to its start. He speaks Kurdish and Arabic and has travelled widely in the Kurdish regions of Syria. Based on his experiences, he has also published as a freelance journalist for the Guardian and BBC. His work can be found at www.journalisted.com/thomas-mcgee