Syria’s Kurds, deeply divided, may determine the war’s outcome

WLADIMIR VAN WILGENBURG – The Globe and Mail –  Mar. 27 2013 – Kurds, numbering more than two million, are a critical group in the greater Syria conflict. So far, they have sided with neither the regime in Damascus nor revolutionary forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad. For decades they have been seeking greater autonomy from the Syrian state and, depending on how the current conflict plays out, they stand to be the great winners – or losers – of the Syrian revolt.

The Syrian Kurds are more and more dominated by Kurdish parties outside of Syria: the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Iraq-based Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP-affiliated parties are more open to negotiations with the Syrian national opposition, while the PKK is more reluctant to support a Turkish-supported opposition. But this could change.

The PKK has the Syria-based Democratic Union Party and its armed militia, the People’s Defence Units, while the KDP funds the Democratic Political Union consisting of four political parties. The PKK-backed party says it is neutral and opposing both Mr. Assad and the rebel Free Syrian Army, while the Democratic Political Union is less powerful and more open to deals with the Syrian opposition and co-operation with the rebels (under the condition that the FSA lets the Kurds control the Kurdish-dominated areas).

But the PKK-backed Democratic Union dominates the Kurdish areas in Northern Syria (Aleppo and Hassakah) by force, while the KDP-funded parties lack armed militias. But they do have better relations with the West, since the KDP has good connections with Turkey.

The relations between Iraqi-backed Democratic Political Union and the Turkish-backed Democratic Union Party have been tense after an agreement was reached between the rebel Military Council and the PKK-backed party in February, 2013, after rounds of infighting and tensions, with allegations by the PKK-backed forces that the armed opposition fighting them was supported by the Turkish army. This led to rumours the ceasefire was a result of the peace negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish state. Moreover, the deal led to better relations between the Syrian opposition and the Iraqi-backed Kurds.

When the Turkish-Kurd-backed militias were fighting the rebels between November and February, the Syrian Kurds were generally united against the Free Syrian Army and the Islamist groups, but when the fighting stopped, tensions and fights erupted in the city of Efrin, and later in Hasakah province too. Although the Syrian Kurds are very divided, they are against Arabs dominating Kurdish areas. Moreover, they want guarantees from the Syrian opposition to recognize Kurdish demands for more decentralization within Syria. The Syrian opposition said they would discuss decentralization only after the fall of Assad.

But the Kurdish groups are united in wanting recognition of their rights before the fall of the Assad regime. The West tried to push both sides to an agreement last year, but it didn’t work out.

The future of the Syrian Kurds will depend heavily on a deal and concessions by the Syrian opposition, if Mr. Assad falls. If the regime does not fall and the fighting continues, they will continue to assert control over their own areas, which could lead to intra-Kurdish fighting, or fights with armed groups opposing Kurdish control over Northern Syria which contains important oil resources.

But it is unlikely that the Islamist Kurd Ghassan Hitto from Damascus, the new leader of the Syrian transitional government, will appease Kurdish demands for more autonomy in Northern Syria. The future for the Syrian Kurds remain uncertain, but a deal between Turkey and the PKK – which this week emerged as a political possibility with a PKK ceasefire in southeast Turkey – could certainly improve relations.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst with the Jamestown Foundation specializing in issues concerning Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey with a particular focus on Kurdish politics.