TODAY’S MESOP COMMENTARY (I) : A powerful illusion: Syrian Kurds & the challenges to their autonomy

Author: Anne-Laure Barbosa – Published: 20 November 2013 – Edinburg International

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main faction representing Kurdish interests in Syria, attracted regional attention on 13 November with a unilateral declaration of self-rule. This decision concerns the northeastern enclave of Syria hosting a strong Kurdish majority, also known as Rojava.  PYD’s announcement, through its leader Saleh Muslim, has added another layer to the Syrian quagmire, with the opposition visibly splintering into groups articulating contrary agendas. Whilst Kurdish movements in neighbouring Turkey and Iraq have provided models for their Syrian counterparts to emulate, the declaration of autonomy responds to a set of factors finding their roots in immediate conditions, rather than long-term dynamics.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD, has been involved in operations against both the national army and radical Islamists. A pragmatic defense of territory, rather than ideology, has informed this twofold strategy. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the mainstream opposition party, has also recently accused the PYD of launching attacks against the Free Syrian Army (FSA), alongside regime forces. Even if those claims were accurate, the political exclusion suffered by the Kurds before the rebellion and this declaration of autonomy rule out the prospect of any long-term alliance with the central government. Several factors appear to have precipitated Saleh Muslim’s announcement. Over the past months, Kurdish militia have ousted radical Sunni fighters from several key locations, including the Yarubiya border crossing in Hasakah province between Syria and Iraq, as well as areas bordering Turkey. The YPG also took over oil-producing towns across north-eastern Syria, adding an economic dimension to the territorial and political reality of Rojava. Finally, regime forces were temporarily removed from the equation, as their resources were diverted towards more pressing conflict zones.

Emboldened by these victories and a generally conducive environment in the absence of direct opposition to their cause, PYD leaders saw an opportunity to translate a long-held dream for autonomy into practice. Iraqi Kurdistan provides a useful model in this respect, as an oil-rich enclave largely isolated from the daily series of bombings and sectarian strife visible elsewhere in Iraq. Parallels also seem easy to draw considering Syria’s instability and Rojuva’s control over oil resources. However, apparent similarities gloss over more powerful dynamics shaping the region. Although the technicalities of self-rule have not been outlined, the prospect of autonomous Syrian Kurdistan as a long-term project is indeed doubtful. Even if internal dynamics currently seem favorable, the regional arena is poorly compatible with Kurdish ambitions.

Turkey has been trying for months to secure a deal with the PKK (the Turkish equivalent of PYD), with a ceasefire agreed in May 2013 proving fragile in light of the party’s recent accusations that Turkey is waging a proxy war against Kurds in Syria. Events in Rojava could potentially remobilize PKK fighters, increasingly isolated within the country. A similar Kurdish movement across Turkey’s border could therefore reignite a regional momentum for autonomy and jeopardise peace talks. More surprisingly, even Iraqi Kurdistan opposed the PYD’s decision, which can be partly understood by its shared interest with Turkey regarding oil exports, prompting a political alignment with Istanbul. Competing prices in the event that Syrian Kurdistan manages to export crude oil is another element potentially detrimental to Erbil’s interests. Political and economic necessities in neighbouring countries therefore clash with the idea of an oil-producing, autonomous Kurdistan.

Even within Syria, autonomy can hardly be viable or tolerated in the long run. Apart from extremist entities affiliated with al-Qaeda, moderate opposition groups are also firmly positioned against any partition of Syria. The legitimacy of the SNC indeed rests on their capacity to represent a united Syrian opposition. Territorial fragmentation therefore goes against the raison d’être of the interim institution, especially when its credibility has already been severely undermined by the presence of extremist militants in the country.

The current leadership will certainly not show any tolerance towards territorial break-up. The artificial creation of Syria, resulting in a religiously diverse country, has commanded the use of Arab nationalism as the most plausible tool to bridge conflicting identities. As an overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking country, this policy has been followed by the Alawite minority in power since 1971. Although Kurds are largely excluded from such discourse, territorial fragmentation is contrary to an ideology seeking to integrate a collection of minorities into a coherent nation. It is also in direct contradiction with the regime’s rhetoric claiming the war is being waged by “terrorists” against Syria.

Should the Assad regime fall, new leaders will have to face similar challenges to guarantee national unity, and a Kurdish enclave modeled after Iraq will likely trigger more autonomous movements threatening the integrity of the state. The only configuration whereby the Kurds’ declaration of self-rule could be sustained in the long run is a federalist system, though this is unlikely considering the absence of a clear-cut distribution of social groups across the country.

Considering the hostility of the regional system and the constraints of the domestic environment, Kurdish ambitions will only be realised if the current stalemate ends in the physical partition of Syria.