In Chaos of Syria Conflict, Kurds’ Autonomy Rests on Shaky Ground

By Michael M. Gunter, 03 Feb 2014 – The autonomous districts recently declared by many of Syria’s Kurds—who with some 2.2 million persons make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population—have potentially important implications for the deadlocked Syrian civil war that has been raging for almost three years. This struggle has increasingly drawn in the United States and Russia, as well as various regional parties, such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, among others. In addition, Syria itself has degenerated into a Hobbesian war of all against all as the various opposition factions—increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadists from abroad—have begun fighting among themselves as well as against the Assad regime. Through all this the Syrian Kurds have claimed to be following a third, more neutral path that does not identify fully with either the regime or the opposition.

However, the Syrian Kurds themselves are notoriously divided, both among themselves and in their affiliations with outside parties—mainly the more radical Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Turkey and the more moderate Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Out of this disorder, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—supposedly headed by Salih Muslim Mohammed, but actually controlled by the PKK—has emerged as by far the most powerful group. It was this group that actually declared autonomy, despite opposition from most of the other small Kurdish parties in Syria as well as Turkey, the KRG and practically all other interested actors, including the United States. The fact that the PYD was not invited to the Geneva II talks regarding Syria’s future indicates the range of this opposition and bodes ill for Syrian Kurdish prospects, but even more for finding any solutions to the raging civil war.

Unlike the geographically contiguous Kurdish region in Iraq that the United States, the United Kingdom and France supported with a no-fly zone after defeating Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, Syria’s Kurdish regions largely consist of three noncontiguous areas in the north of the country, provinces that also contain large numbers of Arabs and other minorities. Nor is anybody seeking to protect the Syrian Kurds by providing a no-fly zone. Indeed, outside actors have simply stood by and watched while foreign jihadists have sought to overpower the Syrian Kurds. Only the battle-hardened PKK fighters along with those of the PYD have mostly managed to fend off this jihadist challenge.

Thus, the prospects for Kurdish autonomy in Syria are not analogous to the success of the KRG’s earlier established autonomy. Syrian Kurdish autonomy exists only because of the anarchy and power vacuum created by the Syrian civil war. Still, Syrian Kurdish autonomy obviously inspires Kurdish ambitions in Turkey and Iraq, and is part of the newly empowered Kurdish movement that is challenging the established borders where Kurds live.

In the meantime, how will Syrian autonomy affect the contours of the Syrian civil war, Bashar Assad’s central government in Damascus and negotiations for a potential transitional Syrian government? De facto Syrian Kurdish autonomy began only in July 2012, when the Assad regime suddenly pulled its troops out of many Kurdish areas in order to concentrate on holding off the opposition in Syria’s heartland. Thus, from the start Kurdish autonomy has existed by virtue of an unwritten understanding between the PYD and Damascus. While the civil war continues, the immediate needs of the two actors still largely coincide. However, in the long run, the PYD and Damascus remain totally opposed. The PYD’s Mohammed recently reiterated that his party is struggling for democratic self-rule within Syria, that the Kurds want democratic rights and constitutional recognition within a post-Assad Syria and that the Kurds do not want to split from Syria and form a national state.

Thus, while the Syrian Kurds seem to sometimes be cooperating with the regime, they have always maintained that in the end Assad must leave and a new democratic future must begin. The Kurds even claim that their democratic self-rule could become a model for many others in the Middle East. Envisioning how this might happen, however, would stretch anybody’s imagination. Kurdish autonomy is therefore not likely to become a game changer in the continuing Syrian civil war.

Even if Assad were overthrown, which no longer seems likely, it would no more end the Syrian civil war than the overthrow of Saddam Hussein brought peace to Iraq 10 years ago. The remnants of Assad’s supporters would probably withdraw toward the coast, while the opposition continued its internal struggles with the aid of various outside supporters. What type of final partition would result is difficult to foresee because Syria is not divided into clearly separated ethno-sectarian districts. All of the important cities are also a sectarian hodgepodge. With the exception of Jabal Druze and the coastal Latakia and Tartous provinces, there are no sizable areas of territory where any one Syrian minority constitutes a majority, although Sunnis clearly predominate on a national level.

Although their future remains murky and will largely be determined by the results of the Syrian civil war, it is unlikely that the Kurds in Syria will return to the abyss of the forgotten. If either the regime or the opposition wins a decisive victory, the winning side will seek to reduce the Kurds to a lesser status than they presently enjoy. However, given the Kurdish empowerment that stemmed from the civil war and pan-Kurdish achievements in Iraq and Turkey, it would be impossible to completely undo the gains the Kurds have achieved for themselves. If Syria is reunited by the Assad regime or its opposition, there will be no return to the days of some Kurds being classified as “ajanib,” or foreigners, legally stripped of many of their rights. Decree 49, issued by Assad on April 7, 2011, granted citizenship to some Kurds registered as foreigners in Syria, paving the way for these stateless people to finally become Syrian citizens across the country. No matter how the Syrian civil war ends, the Kurds will continue to enjoy at least some of their newly won political, social and cultural rights.