The Forgotten Kurds
Carving out a future for Syria’s Kurds?
Short of permanent conflict, one of the scenarios contemplated by regional and international strategists is a partition of Syria into autonomous or semi-autonomous regions. Syria was itself carved out of the Ottoman Empire less than a century ago by the Sykes-Picot agreement.
Simply put, if the Alawites take the north, the Sunnis establish an independent country in the center, and the Druze create a fiefdom in the south, then the Kurds (who make up roughly 10 percent of the Syrian population) would want to claim the country’s northeast, abutting regions of Turkey and Iraq where their fellow Kurds also reside in significant numbers.
The mere thought of a division arouses fiery emotions across the greater Middle East. Will the Kurds succeed in achieving now, amidst the rubble of the so-called Arab Spring, what they failed to achieve nearly a century ago? In fact, the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres foresaw an independent Kurdish state as Syria and Iraq gained self-determination, though the accord was never implemented.
The semi-autonomous ‘Kurdistan Region’ in northern Iraq is still regarded with suspicion—even contention—by some of its neighbors. Turkey notably continues to reject the term ‘Kurdistan’, despite its extensive commercial relations with the region. A second autonomous ‘Kurdistan Region’, this time in Syria, would be even harder for Ankara to swallow.
The forgotten Kurds
The Kurds of Syria, who number more than two million, have often been called the ‘forgotten Kurds.’ Over the years, many families were forced to leave Kurdish areas in search of employment, which was scarce in northeastern Syria. Settled around Damascus in slums and isolated from the rest of the world, they received far less media attention than their brethren in Iraq, Turkey or Iran. Still, most suffered just as much over the decades at the hands of the Syrian regime.
The Kurdish population in Syria began to swell beginning in the 1920s. As the Ottoman Empire fell apart, many Kurds fled to Syria from Turkey to escape oppression. They settled mainly in northern Syria, where nomadic Kurds had already arrived decades earlier.
When the Ba’ath party came to power in 1963, Kurds endured the consequences of the nationalist agenda, which included a full-fledged Arabization policy that ignored local ethnic norms. This included deportation, Arab settlements in Kurdish areas, prohibition of the Kurdish language, and the denial of Syrian citizenship, among other measures. Many Kurds were refused access to healthcare or education; others were denied work opportunities or forbidden from owning property. They could also not register births, marriages and deaths.
Astonishingly, what the Kurds are asking for in 2012 is no different from what they’ve demanded since 1963: basic human and economic rights.
Omar Sheikhmous, a veteran Kurdish politician from Syria, says: “In all their meetings with the Syrian Opposition, the Kurds have asked to be recognized as the second ethnic group in Syria. They have asked for political decentralization in the Kurdish regions of Aljazeera, Kobani and Afrin within Syrian unity. They have also asked for the abolition of all discriminatory policies like Arabization and the Arab Belt plan…”
Turkey’s chief headache
For Turkey, a key power player in the region, the prospect of a ‘Syrian Kurdistan’ along its border presents the threat of a second front in their ongoing battle against ‘terror’.
Autonomous Kurdish zones in neighboring Syria and Iraq, where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters have found refuge, would likely embolden Turkey’s own 10–15 million-strong Kurdish population to ramp up the campaign for various socio-political demands.
Cengiz Aktar, a Professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, maintains that Turkey views an autonomous Syrian-Kurdish state with apprehension because of the inordinate influence wielded by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) among Syrian Kurds.
“The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is essentially a PKK-affiliated formation and it seems they are very strong in northeast Syria,” he insists. “Although they have reached a kind of truce with the Kurdish National Council of Syria, which gathered 10 political parties under the auspices of Massoud Barzani [President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region] in June to work together against the Ba’ath regime in Damascus, they are still the strongest party in the Syrian Kurdish region.”
While the PKK operate in the Qandil mountains along the Iraqi-Turkish border—which is under the jurisdiction of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—Aktar asserts it is an altogether different matter if a PKK-affiliated party were in power in an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. According to him, this has become “the main concern, the chief headache for Turkey now.”
“According to unofficial sources, in the course of the past 30 years some 5,000 Syrian Kurdish fighters/guerrillas have died fighting for the PKK. This is a huge figure,” he emphasises.
Kani Xulam, director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Kurdish Information Network, confirms this assertion: “For close to 20 years, Syrian Kurds played a major role in the ranks of the PKK and managed to shake Turkey to its foundations. Ankara knows this and is anxious not to allow the PKK sympathizers a say in the emerging government. But it may be a little bit too late. PYD, the party with close links with the PKK, remains the most organized party in Syrian Kurdistan.”
But Omar Sheikhmous disputes the claim that the Syrian-Kurdish region is a PKK hotbed in its entirety. He believes Turkey’s fears are “exaggerated and propped up by extreme nationalist Kurds.”
“The Democratic Union Party (PYD) are strong in Afrin and to a lesser degree in Kobani, but not in Aljazeera (Qamishli, Hassakeh, etc,),” he avows. “There, the Kurdish National Council of Syria (KNCS) is stronger.”
Sheikhmous maintains that PYD is close to the Syrian regime as well as Iran, and as such, those Kurdish towns that are now under PYD control were handed over to the PYD by the Syrian army “to create problems.”
“The Syrian regime withdrew from some of these Kurdish towns and left their control to PYD deliberately to create problems between the Kurds and the Syrian Free Army,” he says. “But after pressures from the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, they have agreed to control these places together with the Kurdish National Council of Syria (KNCS).”
According to Sheikhmous, a few small towns with populations of about 10,000 have come under Kurdish control, and only a few others that have populations over 50,000—such as Amouda, Qamishli, Deerik, Ain Alarab, and Afrin—are still under some form of Syrian management. In any event, not all border towns have strategic value, which is why access and control remain volatile and contested at this stage.
Moustafa Mohamed, a Syrian Kurd who served as member of the People’s Council (Syria’s parliament) between 1990-1994, concurs. He stresses that Kurdish aspirations and objectives are contained within Syria.
“Syrian Kurds don’t want independence. We all agree on one Syria, with a multi-party system. We are all against any attempt to divide Syria. Syrian Kurds will coordinate with the other Arab factions of the opposition in order to get rid of the Assad regime,” he says.
“There will be no hardship and difficulties between the Kurdish people in Syria and those Kurds in other countries in the region. And there ought not to be any concerns over security for the Turkish government and the Iraqi government.”
Mohamed is now a member of the Syrian National Council, which is headed by Abdul Bassit Seyda—who is also a Syrian Kurd.
Disunity has almost always plagued Kurds, and regional and international actors repeatedly exploited these differences to quash Kurdish aspirations.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is seen as the PKK’s political wing in Syria, which riles Turkey, and which was the principle reason why it was initially reluctant to join with other Kurdish parties in the fight against Assad.
For its part, the KRG in Iraq pushed the rival Kurdish factions in Syria to sign a co-operation treaty. The initial treaty signed in Erbil between the Kurdish National Council of Syria (KNCS) and the PYD on 11 June was followed by a second accord on 12 July, this time incorporating all Kurdish parties in Syria to form transitional governing bodies in Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria.
Despite these agreements, however, the unity is fragile at best.
“There are many problems, but everybody is putting a lot of effort that the agreement should be respected and implemented. But with PKK, there are never any guarantees because they are both pragmatic and unpredictable,” says Sheikhmous.
Consequently, to say that there is some resentment among Syrian Kurds over the perceived lack of support from the KRG to the Syrian Kurds would indeed be an understatement. Remarkably, Massoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, recently revealed that they have started training Syrian Kurds, though it was unclear to what end.
“The level of aid from Iraqi Kurds has been very limited and not satisfactory. Only now, some efforts are being made to collect funds and aid. Some soldiers who deserted [the Syrian army] have also received training,” says Sheikhmous.
Plausibility of Syrian Kurdish autonomy
Internal divisions over long-term agendas may have been set aside for now in the interest of presenting a unified front to various Arab opposition factions, but it is fair to examine the plausibility of Syria’s Kurds achieving their age-old aspirations.
The various Kurdish parties in Syria are doing their best to avoid “fratricidal fighting” and avoid clashing with the Syrian opposition. As Sheikhmous says, “the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD) and PKK have their own agendas.”
According to Cengiz Aktar, there are enough challenges externally to dampen any hyperbolic dreams of full-fledged independence.
“It will be very difficult to have their own region. It depends on the evolution of the civil war in Syria,” says Aktar. “The other players in the region, such as Ankara, Baghdad and even Erbil, are not happy with the idea of a partitioned Syria. If their will prevails, it will be very difficult for Syrian Kurds to have a state in the north…. A Kurdish state in the region is not viable.”
In the mayhem experienced by the entire Middle East region following the uprisings, there is a perception that these are critical times and that fresh opportunities may yet emerge for minority populations who have long been denied freedom and independence. The upheavals have raised existential questions for many of the countries whose borders were drafted by wily British and French politicians, and those borders may be ready for reconfiguration.
With respect to Syria, it is fair to inquire whether the fall of the Assad regime may present Kurds with the opening to dream of, or perhaps even pen, a new Sèvres Treaty—one that would actually be implemented.
Cengiz Aktar believes that “we are in fact living in a post-Sykes-Picot era, as well as a post-neocolonial era.”
“All these nice designs for the Middle East invented in the British Foreign Office are going down the drain,” he said. “But for the peoples of the region that are confessional driven, autonomy based on homogeneous territories is bad news,” he maintains.
“Frankly, the Kurds have learned politics [since the days of the Sèvres Treaty]. I don’t think at the end of the day they will go for a state. They know it is much too adventurous and unviable. And I think they will exert pressure to all involved parties to have maximum autonomy.”
Xulam seems to agree: “The minorities in Syria who constitute close to 40 percent of the population need to come together to guarantee their rights. The United Nations, the European Union and the U.S. hopefully will play a positive role in the formation of the new power blocks in Damascus. In other words, even if ‘Syrian Kurdistan’ doesn’t take the path of Iraqi Kurdistan, it will have greater liberties than what the previous government offered to the Kurds.”
Whether the idea is premature or an impossible dream is debatable, of course, although epochal developments carry surprises few can foresee.