James Denselow is director of the New Diplomacy Platform and a Middle East Security Analyst based at King’s College London.
Discussion over the exact nature of the Kurdish place in the Middle East is almost as old as the mountains in the areas where the majority of Kurds are to be found. For decades it was the fight of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and then the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Iraq that defined the world’s largest stateless peoples’ struggle for autonomy and a secure future. Yet today, with an ongoing peace process in Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) a beacon of stability in Iraq, the most pertinent debate increasingly concerns the future of the Kurds in Syria.
Syrian Kurds number over 2 million of a total of more than 25 million across Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Yet their story has been somewhat of a sideshow against the backdrop of the nascent Arab Spring revolutions, and then the bloody civil war that started in Syria back in March 2011. Assad, in his early response to the protest movement, offered a number of carrots to appease would-be enemies. Among these was the decree passed in April 2011 that offered long-denied nationality to between 150,000 and 300,000 Kurds in Hasakah governorate.
While the timing of the decree was overtly cynical against the context of growing opposition, Assad was right to be mindful of the Kurds, some 10 percent of Syria’s population, and their receptiveness to potential regime change. The northeast of the country, home to the majority of Syria’s Kurds, have a history of low-level unrest, with riots following a football match in 2004 leading to the deaths of some thirty Kurds and a subsequent regime crackdown on the town of Qamishli. I travelled to the town that straddles the border with Turkey in 2006, where I witnessed firsthand the saturation of mukhabaraat, secret policemen, and the understandable nervousness of the population to speak to foreign outsiders.
Following the escalation of the protests in Syria into a full-blown conflict, the regime withdrew its large-scale presence from the northeast, preferring to avoid potential fighting on too many fronts. In a sense, the Kurdish self-governance of this part of the country was seceded to them rather than earned through military struggle. Qamishli has become the center of this de-facto rule, with the bizarre scenario in which government buildings still fly the Ba’athist flag and Syrian troops are still present.
Yet this state of affairs was interrupted by the entry of fighters and emergent groups linked to Al-Qaeda. Suddenly the Kurds found themselves up against a new type of enemy, which took a brutal fight to their previous pockets of stability. Kidnapping in particular became a characteristic of this new challenge for the Kurds, with Al-Qaeda affiliates kidnapping 120 Kurdish civilians from a village earlier this month.
After fighting off these groups the main Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), unexpectedly declared Kurdish self-rule in November. This immediately attracted criticism from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who accused the PYD (which has links to the PKK in Turkey) of not “keeping its promise.” Subsequently PYD leader Salih Muslim Muhammad explained the ‘self-rule’ as more of an effort at formulizing the status quo and proceeding on developing a constitution, arranging elections and consolidating control over the lucrative oil resources and border crossings.
With the regime on the offensive and the opposition increasingly in disarray, it is impossible to know if the Kurds will be able to keep their current gains and perhaps even push for further autonomy in 2014, or if they will find the regime looking to reassert itself if it grows stronger. Of immediate concern to the PYD leadership is making sure they get a place at the table at the Geneva II peace talks scheduled for January–something that is by no means certain, and that could signify what other players’ views of Kurdish aspirations are at this point in time.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.