“Unity or PYD Power Play?: Syrian Kurdish Dynamics After the Erbil Agreement”

By Omar Hossino –  Ilhan Tanir  and Wladimir van Wilgenburg (15.10.2012)

On 11th July, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC; a group of 15 Syrian Kurdish groups in Syria), signed an agreement to prevent Kurdish infighting and to jointly administer the Kurdish areas of Syria with the newly-created Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC). Following this accord, henceforth referred to as the Erbil Agreement, fighters associated with the PYD took over the Kurdish districts and areas of the Hasakah and Aleppo governorates.

These developments, which took Turkey and the international community by surprise, have serious implications for Syria’s future, both nationally and regionally. On a national level, they further complicate a problem which has been left unresolved since the beginning of the Syrian uprising: Kurdish demands for federalism or autonomy ahead of the backdrop of a general failure of the Arab opposition to agree to a decentralized post-Assad political system. (Syria’s Kurds make up anywhere between 10-to-15 percent of the national population.) On the regional level, the presence of armed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria (known to be affiliated with the PKK in southern Turkey) has gravely exercised Ankara whilst also increasing the geopolitical profile of Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG), who has been heavily involved in supporting and mediating crises between the Syrian Kurdish factions.

This report will first examine the external and internal effects that the Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC) and the Erbil Agreement have had on the Syrian uprising and to what extent the Agreement has been implemented on the ground. The report will then take a closer look at the regional and international actors involved in resolving Syria’s Kurdish Question, and then offer policy recommendations. As an update on intramural Kurdish dynamics in Syria, this report can be seen as a sequel-of-sorts to a previous Henry Jackson Society publication: The Decisive Minority: The Critical Role of Syria’s Kurds in the Anti-Assad Revolution.


    With moderate Kurdish forces failing to reach an agreement with the Arab-Syrian opposition, Syria’s Kurds have been pushed to unite among themselves via the Erbil Agreement, which mandated the creation of a Supreme Kurdish Council. However, the effect of the Erbil Agreement has been the empowerment of radicals in the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD).

    On a regional level, the presence of armed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, who are known to be affiliated with the PKK in southern Turkey, has gravely worried and exercised Ankara. It has also increased the geopolitical profile of Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG), who has been heavily involved in supporting and mediating crises between the Syrian-Kurdish factions.

    The withdrawal of the Assad regime’s security forces from crucial Kurdish regions is helping Syria’s Kurds attain dramatic levels of self-governance and semi-autonomy. This will have a decisive impact on the course of the Syrian civil war and the post-Assad era.

    While the PYD is uneasy about the connections between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Turkey, and while it further fears that Ankara might prompt the rebels into fighting the PYD, the suspicion is mutual. Some FSA statements have indicated hostility towards the PYD, hostility which the latter group sees as orchestrated by its Syrian-Kurdish rivals.

    Ambiguity persists as to the level of FSA-PYD engagement, and it is unclear how much cooperation exists between the militant groups under the rapidly changing wartime circumstances.

    Without engagement by the United States and European Union in coordination with Turkey, Syria’s unresolved Kurdish problem could lead to devastating consequences, including increased PKK terrorist activity and the unintentional emboldening of the Assad regime. Specifically, the lack of pressure in pushing the Syrian-Arab opposition toward a political concordat with moderate Kurds is a major cause of the PYD’s gains in power and influence.

In-house experts are available for interview, comment and media appearances. Please contact HJS Communications Director Raheem Kassam on +44 (0) 7872833322 or by email at raheem.kassam@henryjacksonsociety.org

About the authors:

Ilhan Tanir, Henry Jackson Society Non-resident Associate Fellow

Ilhan Tanir is the Washington, DC correspondent for Vatan Daily, and frequent commentator for various American and Turkish news networks. He writes extensively and comments on Turkey-US relations, Syria, as well as issues related to the wider Middle East and Eurasian region. Mr. Tanir has been published in English and Turkish by some of the leading think tanks such as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Sada Journal, WINEP’s Fikra Forum, Turkey’s ORSAM, UK’s the Henry Jackson Society as well as various magazines and newspapers in these countries including Christian Science Monitor, Hurriyet Daily News, the Daily Star, Al Hayat, Al Monitor and others. He received his master’s degree at the George Mason University, Virginia; and bachelor’s at the Ankara University’s Political Science School, Ankara, Turkey.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Wladimir can Wilgenburg is a political analyst specializing in issues concerning Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey with a particular focus on Kurdish politics. In 2011 van Wilgenburg received an MA from the University of Utrecht’s Conflict Studies and Human Rights program. There he completed his MA dissertation on the Iraqi city of Kirkuk’s Arab political spectrum. Much of his work was based on first-hand research and interviews conducted by van Wilgenburg on the ground in Iraq. He is currently enrolled in the University of Exeter’s MA Kurdish Studies program. Van Wilgenburg is a contributor to the Jamestown Foundation’s book Volatile Landscape: Iraq and Its Insurgent Movements. He has also written extensively for Jamestown’s well-regarded Terrorism Monitor and Militant Leadership Monitor publications. In addition to Jamestown, he currently writes for Rudaw, an online Kurdish newspaper based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan that publishes in English, and Kurdish. Van Wilgenburg provides commentary and advice to a variety of media outlets such as the SETimes.com, and a various number of NGOs and think tanks.

Omar Hossino, Henry Jackson Society Contributor

Omar Hossino is a researcher based in Washington D.C. He holds an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University where he focused on U.S. counter-terrorism policy in Syria and Lebanon. He is the co-author of two reports for the Henry Jackson Society on Syria’s Kurdish opposition one of which was quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, and Reuters. He has visited Syria more than a dozen times and has written on the Syrian uprising in outlets such as the Al-Hayat, Al-Monitor, and Hurriyet Daily News as well as being quoted in outlets such as the Associated Press, National Interest, and Daily Zaman and appearing frequently on BBC News Arabic, Canada’s CTV, and Voice of America TV.

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