The Kurds Are Now Their Own Worst Enemies

Despite their declaration of self-rule in Syria, internal rivalries threaten the Kurds’ ascendency

By Ranj Alaaldin  – Doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics & Political Science

Last Tuesday’s official announcement by a leading Syrian Kurdish rebel group that it intends to form a government in the Kurdish-dominated northeast of Syria signals the emergence of yet another autonomous Kurdish region, following in the footsteps of Iraqi Kurdistan where Kurds have enjoyed semi-autonomy since the 1990s.

The advent of the Syrian conflict saw Syria’s Kurds take control of the northeast after Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition prompted Bashar Al-Assad to withdraw his forces from the region and allow the Kurds to take control of several towns and cities in July 2012.

Syria’s main Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a sister organization of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state for the past 30 years over territory and human rights, now constitutes the de facto government of the region. Its announcement on Tuesday included plans to create a parliament of 82 members elected from three districts across the region, which will each have their own local assemblies. The plan is due to be implemented within six months.

The rise of the PYD has prompted concerns in Ankara that it may strengthen the hand of the PKK and that it might encourage Turkey’s own Kurds to pursue a similar territorial status. Ankara’s misfire is symptomatic of both Turkey’s realist foreign policy toward the Arab Spring—one based around picking and choosing groups in the region that it believed could best serve Turkish interests—and the mismanagement of that foreign policy. In the case of the latter, it was Turkey’s unconditional support for the Arab-led opposition in Syria and its failure to accommodate the Kurds in its plans for the region that has seen the Kurds make their mark on both the Syrian state and the broader region.

Assad’s carte blanche allowed the PYD to establish checkpoints and educational and healthcare services, thus entrenching its dominance and influence. Formed only in 2003, the group has a well-trained and armed group of fighters known as the People’s Protection Units.

The ascent of the Kurds and their territorial expansion in the region means that the composition of both the Syrian and Iraqi state may be re-configured, particularly as Iraq’s Sunni Arabs edge closer to accepting federalism and the creation of a so-called Sunni autonomous region. This could alter the shape of the Middle East as a whole, something that remains a distant but not improbable reality.

Yet, the underlying weakness in the Kurdish cause on the regional front remains one of division. Rivalries cutting across the region persist between Kurdish parties and movements. Iraqi Kurdistan’s main party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has, for example, supported Syrian Kurdish fighters, but its influence has been limited because of its historic rivalry with the PKK and the dominance of the group in Syria. The two sides fought each other in the 1990s.

To counter the PYD influence, Turkey, alongside the KDP, has tried to embolden PYD rival groups like the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a coalition of sixteen Syrian Kurdish parties that have competing ideological and political visions. However, the KNC has little legitimacy and representation in Syria. It has now fragmented, to the extent that it is nearly non-existent.

Despite the intra-Kurdish divisions and the uncertainties of the region, the Kurds will operate with increased leverage, particularly on the domestic front in Iraq and Syria.

Ranj Alaaldin is a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he focuses on Iraq’s Kurds and Shi’a political mobilization. He is also a visiting scholar at Columbia University.