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Some experts and politicians have concluded that the Syrian Kurds could form a similar autonomous area such as the Iraqi Kurds have.
Moreover, some even suggest that a Kurdish autonomy in Syria could give the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Syrian Kurdish areas. This could allegedly provide more opportunities for a landlocked Kurdish government in Iraq to become independent. And, as a result, the KRG would have the potential of a new export route as an alternative to Turkey.
The emergence of Kurdish-controlled Syrian territory has resulted in anxiety among Turkish nationalists in Turkey — especially due to the fact that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has been affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since 2012, controls most Kurdish areas near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. These fears focus on two issues:
(1) Kurdish areas of Syria being a staging ground for PKK attacks in the future.
(2) Syrian Kurdish areas gaining an autonomous status similar to the KRG in Iraq.
Moreover, Turkish nationalists fear Kurdish autonomy could be a stimulus for more Kurdish nationalism in Turkey.
The Turkish opposition (especially the Republican People’s Party [CHP]) tries to make use of these fears to disrupt the current peace process between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the PKK that gained momentum on May 8 and aims for PKK insurgents in Turkey to withdraw to Kandil in Iraq. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also tried to increase fears among the Turkish opposition. He allegedly told the CHP in March 2013: “The chance of Kurds establishing a state has increased. Kurds in Syria and Iraq have come together. The establishment of a Kurdish state is just a matter of time.”
The CHP accused the ruling AK Party of being the surrogate mother of “this greater Kurdistan.” The opposition fears that a successful peace process between the PKK and the AK Party could further strengthen the ruling party — part due to the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) supporting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s wish to have a presidential system in exchange for constitutional changes. The CHP fears a further entrenchment of AK Party power would be a threat to the already weak opposition party.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP head, told the Hürriyet daily: “The AK Party is supporting the Democratic Union Party’s efforts to gain control in northern Syria in order to divide Syria. Following the PYD’s control, northern parts of Iraq and Syria will be united, and access to the Mediterranean will also be possible,” he claimed.
In reality, this will not be possible. This is also understood by officials of the AK Party. Moreover, most Kurdish parties from Syria also recognize this — although the use of maps showing a homogenous “Western Kurdistan” connected to the sea continue to be spread by some Kurdish nationalist groups. In reality, the Kurdish areas remain landlocked. This could be one of the reasons why most of the Kurdish parties, including the PYD, suggest they do not want to “divide Syria,” although they prefer federalism or a form of democratic autonomy and the buildup of parallel state institutions.
During the French mandate in Syria, the disconnectedness of the Kurdish areas was already recognized by French official Pierre Terriere, who was responsible for the Upper Jazirah region (Hasakah) in Syria. Due to the fact that the Kurdish areas are fragmented into three separate regions, he saw the creation of an autonomous region that included all three regions as unattainable and advised Kurds and Christians to focus just on the province of Hasakah and make it an autonomous area.
However, after the end of the French mandate in 1946, Arab nationalist governments tried to weaken Kurdish dominance in Jazirah through “Arabization” policies of resettling Arabs in Kurdish-dominant areas near the border – the “Arab Belt policy” started in 1975 — and stripping 120,000 Kurds of their nationality in 1962. Damascus was afraid that Kurdish separatism could grow in Jazirah under the influence of Kurdish nationalist movements in neighboring countries.
Before the Syrian revolution in 2011, the issue of Kurdish autonomy was also discussed in August 2009 by US officials and Abdulhakim Bashar, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) — a party backed by KRG President Massoud Barzani. Bashar pointed out to US officials that the Kurdish areas were not contiguous: Kurds were concentrated in Aleppo, Afrin, Qamishli and other regions, all of which were disconnected from one another. It would be impossible to unite them territorially.
Yalçın Akdoğan, an advisor to Erdoğan, wrote a column for the Star daily in 2012 that said, “New Kandils cannot be permitted.” He noted that the Kurdish presence that extends from Efrin to Qamishli is not an unbroken belt or separate region like in Iraq’s Kurdistan, where all areas are quite connected, even the areas disputed between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds.
According to Jordi Tejel, an expert on Syrian Kurds, the Syrian Kurds occupy three narrow zones along the Turkish border that are isolated from one another: Upper Jazirah, Jarabulus, and Kurd Dagh (referring to the slightly mountainous territory in Efrin), going from east to west. The main Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli is part of Upper Jazira and part of the Hasakah province. Furthermore, Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) is the main Kurdish urban center of Jarabulus, while Efrin is the main center of Kurd Dagh. The main grassroots support of the PYD is based in Efrin, which borders the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-controlled areas on the right, such as A’zaz. Kobani lies to the right of Jarabulus.
After Kobani is the FSA-controlled Tal Abyad, which is close to Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye in Kurdish), which is divided by Syrian anti-Assad insurgents and the armed wing of the PYD, the People’s Defense Forces (YPG). From there to the Iraqi border, the areas are dominated by Syrian Kurds. It includes Qamishli, which is seen as the symbolic capital of the Kurdish areas in Syria and is still partially under control of the Syrian government. Moreover, this includes oil resource-rich areas near the Iraqi border that are controlled by the YPG.
None of the Kurdish-controlled areas are near the sea, and due to the fact that the PYD-controlled areas are interspersed with FSA-controlled areas, it is unlikely that these areas can be used as an alternative transit route for the Kurds. The Kurdish parties already have had problems with bringing aid supplies to some Kurdish areas due to tensions flaring up with FSA groups from time to time.
Moreover, it is impossible to connect the Kurdish enclaves to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, apart from the Hasakah province.
However, due to the fact that the Kurdish areas are controlled by the PKK-affiliated PYD, the PYD would need to cooperate with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the Simalka crossing point on the Iraqi side of the border. So far, this cooperation seems difficult. Tensions have erupted between the proxies of the KDP and the PKK before, but this hasn’t led to a civil war yet.
Therefore, although the PYD is in clear control of the Kurdish-dominated areas, this can’t lead to a connected autonomous Kurdish zone, such as in Iraq, or de-facto autonomy. Jazirah has the biggest chance of autonomous survival due to its oil resources and connection to Iraqi Kurdish areas through the Iraqi border. However, the opposition and Assad might not be happy with the Kurds controlling any resources in the future.
If the conflict in Syria continues, the Kurds will keep control of these enclaves. But it remains to be seen if the winning side in this conflict between Assad and the opposition would allow the survival of these Kurdish autonomous zones and accept a form of decentralization.
So far, both Assad and the Syrian opposition have expressed their opposition to any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish nationalists can only attain autonomy through de-facto moves on the ground.
*Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a specialist on the Middle East and an advisor to the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM).