The breakdown of authority in Syria and creation of a Kurdish enclave there has unexpectedly pushed Kurds to the forefront of regional politics—and almost nobody’s happy.
The opposition Syrian National Council, the umbrella group leading the fight against the regime’s forces, has refused to accept Kurdish demands for self-rule, causing a rift with the Syrian Kurdish parties. Turkey, which is battling its own Kurdish rebellion, is concerned about the effect of a new Kurdish autonomous region right on the border and has threatened military action against the enclave. Meanwhile, the United States, which says it wants Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to go but doesn’t want to commit forces to make it happen, has stated its opposition to Syrian Kurdish autonomy.
The real fear isn’t that Syria will be divided. It’s that Kurds are uniting. The breakdown of Syrian authority has pushed Kurds across the region to work together, something unthinkable just a few months ago.
Take Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. Barzani is a well-known critic of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish Kurdish rebel group fighting for self-rule inside Turkey. He’s frequently condemned PKK attacks on Turkey and been wary of PKK attempts to build influence among Iraqi Kurds. Barzani also has called on the PKK to withdraw from its remote mountain bases in northern Iraq because they invite Turkish military retaliation. In the 1990s, he even sent his peshmerga guerrillas to fight alongside Turkish troops in a failed attempt to oust PKK rebels from the area. Meanwhile, he’s built very close political and economic ties wtih Turkey, which offers the Iraqi Kurds their only real outlet to Western markets and goods.
Today, however, Barzani is facilitating the PKK’s entry into legitimate politics and helping the group solidify its long-sought role as a regional player. Barzani recently brokered a power-sharing agreement between the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which consists of about sixteen small Syrian Kurdish parties, and the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which is the best organized, best armed and single biggest Kurdish party inside Syria.
The PYD is also a supporter, if not an actual branch, of the PKK. The Syrian Kurdish parties agreed they needed to work together if Kurds were to prevail in their demand for autonomy. “In this sensitive time,” reads the Erbil agreement, named after the Iraqi Kurdish capital where the parties met, “it is necessary to overcome all conflicts and obstacles that interfere with a unified Kurdish front.” The agreement created a joint council for governing the Kurdish region of Syria and committed them to working to overthrow Assad. They also agreed that the region would not be used for armed attacks. Put otherwise, there would be no PKK attacks on Turkey from Syria.
Barzani’s willingness to work with the PYD underscores the overlapping relations among Kurdish groups. The PKK isn’t the only group with an affiliate in Syria. Most of the Kurdish political parties in Syria have some connection or loyalty to Barzani, but they are small and divided. Because of this, and with the Syrian National Council hostile to Kurdish demands, Barzani had little choice but to build links to the PYD or risk losing influence over the developing Syrian Kurdish enclave.
The Erbil deal formalized a role for Barzani’s allied parties and other non-PYD Kurdish nationalist groups by committing them to developing a unified political solution for the Kurdish area. In the process, Barzani also gave himself a boost as a Kurdish power broker and a regional leader. “There is nothing in the foreseeable future that might pose a serious threat to the unity of the supreme Kurdish Body,” PYD leader Salih Muslim said in an email interview, referring to the new Kurdish council. “All parties are serious and determined to continue working together.“
Barzani’s decision to get involved is a reminder of how the Kurdish problem cuts across borders, which is exactly what states in the region have always feared. Ankara, for one, has long worried that what happens to Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Syria or Iran would strengthen Turkish Kurdish separatists or legitimize international calls for Turkey to grant Kurds national rights. Turkey is right to be concerned. After Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, the creation of a Kurdish federation in northern Iraq reinvigorated nationalist demands by Turkish Kurds, who demanded no less for themselves. (These demands were one reason why in 2005 the PKK abandoned the cease-fire it had called after PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and imprisoned by Turkey in 1999.) If Syrian Kurds win autonomy, Turkey’s reasons for denying its Kurdish minority the same will sound specious. After all, it’s hard to keep claiming that Kurds don’t know what they want—or don’t really want what they say—if almost one-half of the region’s Kurds govern themselves.
Syria and the PKK
More than anything else, the new Kurdish politics in Syria puts the spotlight on the PKK, the armed guerrilla group fighting for self-rule inside Turkey. The group has been fighting for almost thirty years for self-rule in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast and now dominates Kurdish national politics inside Turkey.
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to end the conflict through democratic reform but over the past two years has reverted to repression of legal Kurdish politics and activities. The PKK, meanwhile, has upped its actions, recently pinning down Turkish troops for three weeks in the Semdinli area near the Iraqi border, and briefly kidnapping a parliamentarian traveling through the region.
Turkey argues that the Syrian Kurdish PYD party must be cut out of any deal because it is part of the PKK, listed as a terrorist group by the United States and Europe. The Syrian Kurdish party denies an official link, saying only that their members admire and follow the ideology of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. “The PKK has supporters in the four parts of Kurdistan and no-one can prevent it,” PYD leader Muslim noted.
The existence of a Syrian Kurdish party close to—or a part of—the PKK is hardly surprising. Ocalan built up the PKK from Damascus, where he based himself soon after fleeing Turkey in 1979. The Syrian authorities allowed him to recruit among Syrian Kurds for the fight against Turkey, which Ocalan said would be the first step to liberating all of Kurdistan. (It helped that Syrian Kurds often had relatives across the border in Turkey.).
Ocalan was popular among Syrian Kurds. The previous PYD head, Fuad Omer, told me he remembers going to a private talk Ocalan gave in the late 1990s to nationalist-minded Syrian Kurds. And the PKK benefited from Syria’s willingness to more or less leave Ocalan alone if he kept a low profile, didn’t meddle in domestic issues and didn’t use Syrian territory to attack Turkey.
After Ocalan was forced to flee from Syria in 1998, amid Turkish threats to attack Syria, the PKK’s structure in the country collapsed, but its supporters remained. The PYD grew out of the remnants of the PKK’s former organization structure inside Syria. Turkey fears that if the PYD gains a formal hold over Syrian Kurdistan, this will be a political and military boost for the PKK.
But the PKK doesn’t need access to Syrian territory to maintain its armed pressure on Turkey. If anything, the involvement of the PKK, or its supporters, in Syrian Kurdish politics is more of a challenge to the PKK than to Turkey. After all, the PKK isn’t known for tolerating dissidents or rivals—at one point once upon a time, it regularly assassinated them—but now its supporters in Syria have committed to working with other Kurdish parties.
The PKK isn’t used to giving political supporters inside Turkey the freedom to act as they see fit. Now, it needs to refrain from demanding the PYD follow rebel dictates. If the Syrian Kurds are free to practice democratic politics, this means that Kurdish groups inside Turkey will have more leverage to press the PKK to give them the same leeway. This can only have a positive effect on how Kurdish politics is practiced in Turkey and even in Iraq.
Likewise, it’s time for the United States and Turkey to reevaluate their approaches to Kurdish politics, whether in Syria or in Turkey. Too often U.S. policy in the region seems as much a hostage to fears of Kurdish autonomy as it is to fears of Turkish military intervention to stop Kurds from gaining autonomy. Washington needs to jettison this approach.