A new front is emerging in Syria’s devastating civil war as Kurds and al-Qaeda-inspired Jihadist fighters fight a stiff battle for control of northern populated areas. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a pro-government Kurdish group in Syria, has taken control of two major towns on Syria's northern border with Turkey and is definitely gaining ground.
One should give the devil his due, the arrangement with Kurds is a wise and perspicacious move on the part of President Assad. As a result, Kurdish self-rule was established in most of the north-east. On July 2012 President Assad withdrew his military and officials from Kurdish territories in a bid to bolster support as the anti-government uprising unfolded. Kurdish regions including Ayn al-Arab and Afrin in the West are now being administered by PYD committees, and the party’s leader Salih Muslim has announced elections for an interim local parliament, raising the stakes in the pursuit of self-rule. «This administration will be like a temporary government», PYD spokesman Nawaf Khalil told Reuters from his home in exile in Germany. «We need to protect our borders and our people, we need to do something to improve the economic situation». (1) The Kurds hoisted the flag of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the most leading political Kurdish force in Syria and the only one with teeth.
But the Kurdish autonomy has come under threat as Islamists have emerged as a powerful force attempting to establish a religious state in the north. Kurdish fighters engaged in battles with the Islamic militants of the «Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant» and the «Nusra Front» in a number of cities in the north of Syria. The Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al Qaida, has been the most militarily effective. The following battles have brought together the fractious Kurds as they prepare to hold elections that will establish the foundation of self-rule for the Syrian minority of three million. There are instances when the Syrian government troops and Kurds formations join together to repel the Islamist threat. Near the town of Tel Abyad the 93th regiment of the 17th Syrian army division and Syrian Air Force aircraft provided support to the Kurdish armed formations. No matter how fragile it may be, something like an alliance between the Kurds and the government forces is beginning to loom.
The ongoing struggle with al-Qaeda-linked fighters is achieving what many Kurdish leaders in northern Syria have long been unable to do, unifying under the PYD banner an ethnic group long divided about its future between at least 16 parties.
On July 25 all the Kurdish parties gathered in Arbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish territory in northern Iraq under President Masoud Barzani.
Signaling the new mood of unity in Ras al-Ayn, the PYD hoisted the flag of the Supreme Kurdish Council, an umbrella organization of Kurdish parties in the country, co-founded by PYD. The second co-founder is Kurdish National Committee, consisted of 15 other Syrian Kurdish political parties. The Supreme Council was formed on July 2012 by Barzani’s effort to unite the two, but was unavailing for a year.
A planned Kurdish National Conference that will gather Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria is likely to take place between Aug. 20 and 30, a lawmaker from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said on July 28.
Bitlis lawmaker Hüsamettin Zenderlioğlu has been elected to be on the committee that was established during a meeting in Arbil to decide on the technical details. «From now on, Kurds do not have the will or aim to establish a state», Zenderlioğlu said. «Up to now we have made four meetings and these meetings will continue periodically. The conference will most probably take place between Aug. 20 and 30», he said, adding that up to 500 delegates would attend the conference in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has described the meeting as «historic». «Our main goal in holding this congress is for all Kurdish political factions to reach a shared strategy and voice», Barzani said in a speech.
The meeting will be «the first congress to be held on Kurdish land, and the first to gather all Kurdish parties and groups from across the political spectrum», Kawa Mahmoud, spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. He made precise that, «The congress isn’t meant to put in place a unified, centralized leadership, but to unify our positions in the face of the regional turmoil.» He added, «Each of the four Kurdish regions has its own different characteristics, which are mutually respected, and we don’t interfere in each other’s affairs. The Kurdish populations are free to decide their fate within their respective countries».
A wave of unrest across the Middle East has fueled aspirations among some Kurds of forging their own state in the region they call «Kurdistan», a land straddling the borders of eastern Turkey, northeast Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. The number of Kurds living in Southwest Asia is estimated at 26-34 million, with another one or two million living in diaspora. Kurds are the fourth largest ethnicity in Western Asia after the Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Kurds comprise anywhere from 18% to 25% of the population in Turkey, 15-20% in Iraq, 9% in Syria, 7% in Iran and 1.3% in Armenia. In all of these countries except Iran, Kurds form the second largest ethnic group. Roughly 55% of the world's Kurds live in Turkey, about 18% each in Iran and Iraq, and a bit over 5% in Syria.
Turkey: unease over new developments
The intention of Syrian Kurds to declare an autonomous region inside the borders of Syria has set off alarm bells in neighboring Turkey. Emergency plans are on the table to counter multiple scenarios. The declaration of autonomy or an independent federal region in Syrian Kurdistan will mean the Kurds control over 550 km of the border with Turkey. The al-Nusra Front Islamic fighters would control the remainder of the border of around 350 km. Al-Nusra Front is no friend of Ankara but rather a fellow traveler. The PYD is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that waged a bloody separatist struggle in south-eastern Turkey for three decades until it entered a peace process with Ankara last March. If the Turkish government’s dialogue with Turkish Kurds leader Abdullah Ocalan fails, Turkey will have only bitter options in a PYD-controlled area of Syria. The autonomy for Kurds just across the Turkey-Syria border will boost separatism among its own large Kurdish minority. On July 18 tens of thousands of demonstrators in the predominantly Kurdish populated towns in east and southeast Turkey held rallies «to celebrate the revolution in Rojava», the name for the Kurdish region in Syria.
«Turkey does not accept any formation of a de-facto region or the cutting of ties with other regions [in Syria] until an elected Syrian parliament is established, giving the political system its final shape», Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said during a visit to Poland on July 23. Quoted by the official Anadolu news agency, he warned that if the Syrian crisis starts to affect Turkey’s security, «Turkey has the right to take any measures it deems necessary to protect its borders».
The situation in Syria is regularly discussed in Turkey at the highest level. The Turkish general staff has announced an increase in security measures at the country's South-Eastern borders and is giving an amplified response to the shootings from abroad «in accordance with the rules of applying military force». Over the weekend of July 20-21 Gen. Galip Mendi of the Turkish Second Land Command inspected the readiness situation of the troops with more Turkish Air Force jets starting to patrol along the Syrian border. Turkish media reported stepped-up military surveillance flights and special forces patrols along the border. On July 26 it was reported that that Turkish F-16s will fly reconnaissance flights along the Syrian frontier highlight rising alarm over border security and suggest a further internationalization of the civil war in Syria with implications for Turkey and the region's Kurds.
Sabah, a pro-Justice and Development (AK) Party daily newspaper in Turkey, reported that steps are being taken to establish a ten kilometer-wide security zone along the Syrian border to deal with military threats, illicit trafficking in arms and people, and other problems. These measures include reconnaissance flights by Turkish F-16s, whose pilots’ rules of engagement reportedly include permission to fly up to 5 kilometers into Syrian territory and to shoot if they feel threatened. Sabah also cited the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles and plans to construct a several kilometer-long wall near Reyhanli, in Turkey’s Hatay province, which has been the scene of cross-border firing and other problems for months.
The brewing crisis between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds is compounded by the lack of progress in peace talks with the PKK. These have run into trouble over what the Kurds say is the government’s failure to deliver on any of its promises, including reforming anti-terror laws under which thousands of Kurdish politicians and activists have been jailed. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan retorts that the PKK has not stuck with its own pledge to withdraw all of its forces from Turkey by June. Mutual suspicions remain after hundreds of years when the Ottoman Empire first extended its reach into the Kurdish-speaking regions.
Turkey has waged a three-decade civil war against its 14 million Kurds. To prevent the appearance of anything like a Greater Kurdistan, it will do its best to counter any attempt at Kurdish unification, even if it means something more serious than just opening fire from time to time across the Syrian border. But with civil unrest, which has just taken place involving millions, and the PKK internal factor, Turkey would commit a great folly to dearly pay for in case in lets itself be dragged into combat on Syrian soil. It will spoil the perfect relationship with the KRG and receive no benefits but losses and headaches aggravating the things to no avail. The Syrian government has preferred an arrangement and benefited from it, so would Turkey in case it gives priority to dialogue instead of intimidation and sabre rattling.
Options and Prospects
Turkey, Syria and Iran all see an independent Kurdish movement as a threat. Before the Arab Spring set in, the states had attempted to collaborate with each other to counter the Kurdish aspiration for self-identity or even independence. It’s all over now. Turkey is not an Iranian friend now; it has become a bitter enemy of Syria. For all these countries the chances to quell the Kurdish movement have diminished significantly. Baghdad still has not recovered from war. Tehran has been weakened because of the international pressure as a response to its nuclear program, so it turns a blind eye to the Kurds autonomous activities. The Arab upheavals accelerated the collapse of the Turkish-Iranian-Syrian axis. The revolution in Syria turned Ankara and Damascus into enemies and gave impetus to Syrian Kurds collaboration with their brethren in Turkey, not to speak of the PKK card, the turn of events Turkey could have easily foreseen before it adopted its hostile, anti-Assad approach.
Syria remains volatile and unstable with ethnic and religious groups fighting one another. Syrian Kurds are likely to draw lessons and follow the successful example of Iraqi Kurds in establishing an enclave of their own while the rest of the country is involved in war. Actually, Iraqi Kurdish forces have already started training Syrian Kurdish fighters. The Syrian war has allowed the Kurds, occupying the far northeast of the country, to carve out a relatively autonomous and stable region, free of government and, what’s more important, rebel control. Syrian Kurds are pushing for self-rule short of independence and there is nothing Turkey or anybody else can do with this reality. The tumultuous events in the Middle East, which has become the world’s most volatile region, provides an ample opportunity for Kurdish awakening. This process is gaining ground separately within each of the four communities with all corresponding specific features, but the trans-border activities are, and most probably will be, increasingly getting the Kurds national political consciousness together. The Kurdish factor appears to be on the way to shake the Middle East geostrategic lines and pillars. In Syria Kurds are demanding a federal system providing them with significant autonomy at least. The Kurds in Turkey are using the intricacies of internal situation to press for democratic autonomy, as they call it. In Iran, they are still to rise from obscurity but the start of the process is there. Thanks to US intervention and the developments it spurred, Iraq has become the heartland of Kurds’ self-identity and the establishment of the KRG, which, to call a spade a spade, rules nothing else but de facto a Kurdish state. That’s where Iranian, Syrian and Turkish Kurds increasingly look for guidance.
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Iraqi Kurdistan has all the features of a state: independent institutions, a constitution and the armed forces (Peshmerga), a thriving economy, diplomatic representation and borders between the Kurdish and Arab parts of the Iraqi state. Syrian Kurdistan has started on its way to acquire the trappings of a state. The creation of Greater Kurdistan will have to manage conflicting Kurdish aspirations in Syria, Iran and Turkey. The process of unification is not a bed of roses. The situation of Kurds in Turkey is different from that of Kurds in Iran which is different from that of Kurds in Iraq or Syria. There are also Turks, Arabs, Assyrians and other peoples and religions in the lands predominantly populated by Kurds. The unification process presupposes getting together different groups with different backgrounds, cultures and visions. A new secular, democratic non-Arab nation may appear to change the volatile Middle East. Another possibility is the emergence of a differences-torn territory with bleak prospects for future. The Kurds face a multifaceted problem with many questions to answer. But they have become a factor of the Middle East and political scene, a factor to reckon with no matter where the tide may turn in the volatile region.