Syrian Kurdish National Project Fraught With Obstacles

By Bachir Hilal – AL Monitor – Posted 2013-12-18 – On Dec. 3, 2013, Salih Muslim, head of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), declared his demand for an independent Syrian Kurdish region formed of three provinces under a federal Syrian state. He added, “A committee is preparing this region’s constitution.”

This demand came after the PYD declared an independent interim administration on Nov. 12, 2013, in the mostly Kurdish West Kurdistan region. The administration joined small parties and dismissed the Kurdish National Council, which is formed of a large number of parties and which is a member in the opposition’s National Coalition. The latter strongly criticized this step and described Muslim’s party as anti-revolutionary. Ahmad Toum, the head of the coalition’s interim government, reiterated this description and dismissed the entry of Muslim’s party as part of the united opposition’s delegation to the forthcoming Geneva II Conference.

Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshyar Zebari did not have a very different point of view. During the Manama Dialogue’s Regional Security Summit, he stated, “The Kurdish parties that are calling for separation from Syria are working closely with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”

“This does not mean that the Kurds do not sympathize with their brothers across the borders, but it is one of the regime’s strategies to persist,” he added.

The nature and truth behind the relations between the PYD and Assad’s regime are not clearly defined. Moreover, Muslim is one of the pillars of “the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change,” which considers itself national opposition, while it is classified by fabricated media as “internal” opposition whose effective role distinctly showed the divisions among the opposition and partially legitimized the regime’s claims regarding weapons, foreign intervention and sectarianization. Despite this, Muslim’s political stance and his work to tighten his direct grip on some Syrian regions suggest dangerous problems for a Syrian revolution with an already weakening line of action and degrading internal and external conditions for achievement. While the revolution itself is to be blamed for some of the various reasons behind its weakness, the National Kurdish Movement’s means and ends have also played a part.

Any “national” approach to the Syrian Kurds’ issues suggests admitting the effect of the historic discriminatory policies of Baath power and Assad’s regime to erase the Kurds’ ethnic and cultural identity and to target them, just like the other Syrians, through general oppression, impoverishment, unbalanced growth and massive imbalance in the distribution of wealth. It would also necessitate recognizing the disintegrating effect that has resulted from the rising power of jihadist groups and warlords and from the local tensions in the Syrian revolution.

The proposal of the independent Kurdish region project in a federal framework alerts us to the fact that the opposition cannot persist with its previous approach that delays any serious attempts before the fall of the regime. Yet, this proposal cannot circumvent the various political impediments by relying on military defeat in a secondary civil war.

Far from any dogmatic stance regarding federalism, which might be the passage to rational solutions for the problems of political consensus in countries rocked by national, identity-based and factional conflicts at once, the first impediment to the region’s project stems from an attempt to unilaterally impose it as an exclusive constitutional option for the future Syria.

The second impediment lies in the fact that these regions are home to various ethnicities and religions, which can no longer be smothered within historical lines, nor through the former Baathist and nationalist system or even “counter Baathism.” Thus, non-Kurdish citizens, who were original inhabitants, individuals or groups believe that their existence is threatened by the project as it was presented. This has to some extent nurtured the ranks of jihadist forces, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the war they are waging.

Second, a part of the Kurds themselves does not know how to put forth the project and is unaware of its prospects. At a closer look, it is clear that many forces involved in the historical Kurdish movement, even those who supported the federal option, are against “solo solutions to the Kurdish cause,” as said Abdul Hamid Darwish, the secretary-general of the Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party. Moreover, there are concerns that the PYD project could be based on a one-party system, a hybrid of a pro forma front as was the case in Syria under Assad and in Iraq under Saddam.

The third impediment relates to the position of non-Syrian Kurds and regional powers. Muslim’s project is further proof that Kurds will become major players in the region after the consolidation of the Iraqi Kurdistan model and in light of the fragile previous regional balances. This is not to mention that the identity of Muslim and the way he will put forth this project will contribute to interim unprecedented conflicts/agreements among Kurds themselves, in addition to the pressure from neighboring countries.

Indeed, one ought to mention the measures taken a few months ago by the KRG, preventing Muslim from entering its territories, which put off the National Kurdish Conference in Erbil. The conference has been delayed three times in the past month under the pretext of “incomplete preparations and technical reasons.”

The PYD reiterated these excuses in a statement to Al-Hayat on Nov.12. The party also mentioned that the Kurdistan government wanted to defer the conference. This is not to mention the pressure by the Turkish and Iranian governments and the disagreements among Kurdish parties regarding the representation of parts of Greater Kurdistan.

“There is a difference in the population distribution of these areas. Equality would be unfair, especially since the number of Kurds in northern Kurdistan (Turkey) is estimated at 25 million people, which is a large proportion compared with the population of other parts in Iraq, Iran and Syria,” the party said.

This indicates the possible emergence of a united Kurdish entity and in light of the current military, demographic and “organizational” power, the PKK is likely to become “the leading party” in the future state. This state will be established in accordance with its ideologies and work contexts as a central state. This is true despite the differing levels of economic and social development in the various parts of the state, and differences in representation, and its association with culture and the public sphere.

This is without forgetting the reactions of those most affected by a federal state, i.e., Turkey and Iran. These two states were established along the lines of the nation-state model and include different national, ethnic and sectarian components. The worst thing, however, is the increasing chaos within the Syrian opposition.