MESOP BACKGROUNDER : Why Syria’s Kurds want federalism, and who opposes it

Analysis: The latest Syrian Kurdish move toward cementing autonomy comes as no surprise – but how far will it go?

Tanya Goudsouzian, Lara Fatah | 17 Mar 2016 12:26 GMT | War & Conflict, Human Rights, Politics, Middle East, ISIS

It was not long after Syria’s anti-government protests turned bloody that debate among regional analysts started over whether the chaos would lead to the country being divided along sectarian lines. If the conflict continued to spiral out of control, could there be a partition allowing the Alawites to take the north, Sunnis to take the centre, Druze to create a fiefdom in the south, and the Kurds (who make up roughly 10 percent of the Syrian population) to claim the country’s northeast?

Fast-forward two years later, in November of 2013, Syrian Kurds unilaterally declared an autonomous zone in the country’s northeast. The region – made up of three cantons, or towns – Jazira, Kobane and Afrin – was called “Rojava” (Kurdish for West, and a reference to the Syrian towns that Kurds claim as Western Kurdistan).

The announcement got little attention, as the world was focused on the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), the escalating sectarian violence in Iraq and the interim Iran nuclear deal.

The big shift happened in September 2014, when Kobane, a town bordering Turkey, came under siege by ISIL. The battle captured the world’s attention and it even got its own hashtag – #SaveKobane. The world’s attention eventually faded even though the town’s hardships did not.

Talk of partition was resurrected in late February when US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that “partition might be part of Plan B for Syria“. This was amplified earlier this month when Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced that federalism is a possible solution for Syria.

The Arab world roared in protest, with one Syrian opposition representative, Riad Hijab, saying “it will not be acceptable at all“.

Yet, on Wednesday, as Russia began its partial withdrawal from Syria, Syrian Kurds made headlines yet again by announcing that the Rojava region was preparing to declare a “federal system”.

Anas al-Abda, head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary Forces, told the London-based Al Hayat newspaper: “One of the main fixtures of the Syrian revolution is the unity and integrity of the Syrian territory and people. Any proposal that undermines this is not acceptable.”

He also panned the timing of the announcement, as if to coincide with the start of the Geneva Talks, as “a real attempt to sabotage the negotiation process”.

For many stakeholders, federalism has become something of a dirty word, conjuring up images of oppressed minorities, smaller nation-states, and groups simply vying for power.

This is a familar story for both Syria and Iraq: both emerged from the Ottoman Empire a century ago by the Sykes-Picot agreement.

And Kurds – whether in Syria, Iraq, Iran or Turkey – have made no secret of their longing for an independent homeland. He refuted that the timing had anything to do with the Russian withdrawal, but did not comment on whether the announcement was an effort to gain some leverage in the Geneva Talks.

The Kurds of Syria, who number more than two million, used to be called the “forgotten Kurds”. Isolated from the rest of the world, they received far less media attention than their brethren in Iraq, Turkey or Iran. Still, most suffered just as much over the decades at the hands of the Syrian regime.

When the Baath party came to power in 1963, Kurds endured the consequences of the nationalist agenda, which included a full-fledged Arabisation policy. This reportedly included deportation, prohibition of the Kurdish language, and the denial of Syrian citizenship, among other measures.

While the Kurds were vocal participants in the campaign against Bashar al-Assad in the early days of the protests, over the course of the past five years there has been much speculation over whose side the Kurds are fighting on in the Syrian war.Without a doubt, the Syrian Kurds are keen to emulate their brethren in Iraq by establishing an officially recognised autonomous zone. But the dynamics at play are very different.

Some have surmised that Syrian Kurds have adopted a more pragmatic stance, and reached an agreement with Assad: to fight ISIL in exchange for the measure of autonomy they achieved in 2013. Syrian Kurdish sources, however, insist they are fighting Assad forces, as well as ISIL.As Semo is quick to point out, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are currently engaged in a battle with Syrian government troops in Qamishli “to ensure as many Kurdish areas as possible are liberated from the grip of the Assad regime”.

Without a doubt, the Syrian Kurds are keen to emulate their brethren in Iraq by establishing an officially recognised autonomous zone. But the dynamics at play are very different.

“I don’t see the declaration as a flash in the pan,” said Shwan Zulal, a Kurdish affairs analyst. “The PYD and YPG will not relinquish their territorial gains without a fierce fight – only if Turkey and Assad worked together could they push them out. And that doesn’t seem likely.”

If this latest Syrian Kurdish attempt to edge closer toward the dream of independence will be met with enthusiastic support from the Kurdish street across the Middle East, it is not guaranteed to receive any official backing from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The spokesman of the opposition Iraqi Kurdish Gorran party, Shoresh Haji, told Al Jazeera that while he couldn’t speak on behalf of all Kurds, he would say that “the Kurds here [the Kurdistan Region of Iraq] are very supportive and sympathetic to their brothers and sisters in Rojava, and they will back their wishes”.”I think it will play out more along partisan lines,” he said, explaining that local political parties will voice support for the sake of popular support.

“The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] will be more openly supportive of the move, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] will be shy about openly supporting the PYD’s ambitions due to their relationship with Turkey.”

Indeed, the KRG has largely survived on the good graces of the US and Turkey. And if the US and Turkey are less than thrilled with unilateral Syrian Kurdish statements about autonomy, the KRG is not likely to endorse them either. Syrian Kurds, after all, share closer ties – both ideological and kinship – with their brethren in Turkey than those in Iraq.

The Americans have already voiced their opposition to a federal Kurdish region in Syria, apparently pre-empting an actual declaration. The US State Department issued a statement on Wednesday affirming they would not support “any” self-ruled, semi-autonomous zone in Syria.

Although Washington has been supportive and even indispensable to the measure of independence Kurds have achieved in neighbouring Iraq since 1991, the Americans would have fierce reservations over allowing the formation of an independent Kurdish “statelet” bordering its ally, Turkey.

Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian

Follow Lara Fatah on Twitter: @Lara_FFatahSource: Al Jazeera