Syrian Kurdish Ambitions

9 MINS READJul 27, 2012 | 10:29 GMT
Syrian Kurdish Ambitions
Syrian Kurds wave Kurdish and pre-Baath Syrian flags during a protest in Qamishli

The Syrian Kurds' Democratic Union Party announced July 23 that it had assumed control of the Kurdish towns of Efrin, Kobani, Amuda and Derek. The move followed the Syrian army's withdrawal from northern Syria. The party also announced its intention to form an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria. An autonomous Syrian Kurdish state would border semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in both Turkey and Iraq — an unacceptable outcome for Ankara and Baghdad, as well as for Tehran and Damascus.

However, Syria’s Kurdish population lacks internal cohesion and has little to offer in the way of strategic benefits, so it will be difficult for the Syrian Kurds to form a partnership with a regional government — a necessity for the Kurds to achieve autonomy. Inhabiting the least desirable geographic and economic position of any of the region’s Kurdish groups, Syrian Kurds are unlikely to realize their goal of a legally recognized autonomous region within Syria. But other states in the region with significant Kurdish populations — Iran, Iraq and Turkey — are watching with concern to see if the actions of Syria's Kurds can inspire similar movements in their territories.

The strategic imperative of any Arab Syrian regime, regardless of sect, is identical to that of Turkey, Iraq and Iran when it comes to the Kurds: to prevent the consolidation of an autonomous Kurdish state that can span the Kurdish borderlands. Government policies following this imperative have prevented Syria's Kurds, even under the Alawite regime, from meaningfully integrating into broader Syrian society.

Damascus has harshly suppressed Kurdish attempts to establish political and economic hegemony within their region. Most recently, the Syrian army put down pro-Kurdish riots in and around the northern town of Qamishli in 2004, 2005 and 2011. Aware of the risk that Turkey and Baathist Iraq might take steps to undermine an independent Kurdish state on their borders, the Syrian government was under additional pressure to prevent greater Kurdish political integration. With geography limiting their prospects for retreat, Syrian Kurdish separatist movements have been unable to reorganize and build up a meaningful support base as Kurds have done in Iraq.

Obstacles to Integration for Syria's Kurds

Unlike in neighboring Iraq, Kurds make up a small percentage of the population in Syria — prior to the uprising, less than 10 percent of Syria's population was Kurdish, compared to 17 percent of Iraq's population. Syrian Kurds are spread thinly across Syria's northern border region, although the greatest numbers are located in the northeastern Hasakah province. There are no significant urban populations of Syrian Kurds. The largest Kurdish town in Syria, Qamishli, has a population of 185,000, relatively tiny in comparison to the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Arbil, which has a population of 1.2 million.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish Regions

The geography of Syria's Kurdish area is also unique in the region. Syria's Kurdish population is primarily settled on the steppes of the Jazirah Plateau, which differs substantially from the defensible mountainous terrain inhabited by Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. The broad, flat lands of the plateau extend into Turkey and Iraq, making it relatively easy for governments in the region to roll armor in to crush unrest. A lack of resources and economic potential in northeastern Syria has also hindered the development of strong political groups or local Kurdish authority in the area, unlike in Iraq, whose Kurdish region has the duopoly of the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Despite these obstacles, the Democratic Union Party has emerged as one of the best organized Kurdish political organizations during the 16-month Syrian uprising. Founded in 2003 — the same year as the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq — the Democratic Union Party is a nationalist-socialist group. While its opponents claim the party has connections to either the rebels' Free Syrian Army or the regime of President Bashar al Assad, the party has thus far shown itself sympathetic to the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK. The Democratic Union Party also has garnered more support from Kurds in the region than the Kurdish National Council, a collection of 15 local Kurdish groups formed in 2011 and backed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and by Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani. Both the Barzani clan and the Kurdish National Council have criticized the Democratic Union Party's relationship with the PKK.

However, reports emerged July 26 that the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council have formed an alliance, calling it the Supreme Kurdish Council. The Supreme Kurdish Council formed the People's Protection Armed Forces, which captured the towns that the Democratic Party Union claimed July 23. Barzani purportedly encouraged the groups to unite, despite their ideological differences and mutual distrust, with promises of economic and moral support. But already there are signs of strain within this alliance. Democratic Union Party members still fly their party's flag — not the universally recognized Kurdish flag. Meanwhile, Kurdish National Council members are voicing their mistrust of their partner's supremacy, citing the Democratic Union Party's rumored connection to the al Assad regime. Additionally, the Kurdish National Council's links with Barzani and with Turkey are still viewed with suspicion by the Democratic Union Party, which has yet to renounce its support for PKK militancy — a fact that continues to give Turkey great cause for concern.

It is imperative for Syrian Kurds to unite ahead of their push for regional autonomy. But the deep-rooted differences and mistrust between the two largest Kurdish groups in Syria are going to complicate the prospect for long-term allegiances between the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council, while making it easier for outside parties such as Iran to manipulate them.

Exploiting the Uprising

Despite decades of repression under the al Assad regime, Syria's Kurds have been hesitant to support the Syrian rebels. The Kurds recognize that any Arab government that replaces the al Assad regime will maintain the imperative to oppose Kurdish autonomy. As a result, the Kurds have largely adopted a policy of neutrality, which has allowed northeastern Syria to remain relatively unscathed throughout the uprising.

In light of the recent fracturing of the pillars of the Alawite regime, the Syrian army has withdrawn from northern Syria to focus on more strategic regions held by the rebels, namely Aleppo and Damascus. Meanwhile, the security vacuum in Syria's Kurdish territories has grabbed the attention of Turkey, which is watching the actions of Syria's Kurds. With the Syrian regime, the largest obstacle to Kurdish political expansion, focused on suppressing the rebels, Syrian Kurds — specifically the Democratic Union Party — have moved quickly. Kurds have claimed the Kurdish towns of Efrin, Kobani, Amuda and Derek. Though the Kurds are cognizant of the threat the Arab-dominated Free Syrian Army could eventually pose to them, some government offices in these towns are flying both the Kurdish and Free Syrian Army flags, likely in an attempt to win over the Syrian opposition now that the al Assad regime seems to be faltering.

Absence of Foreign Backing

Given the difficult geography of the Kurdish regions and the fact that they are landlocked and surrounded by states that oppose Kurdish autonomy, any Kurdish autonomous movement must have foreign backing to succeed. The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq illustrates this perfectly. Even with comparatively established military, political and economic institutions and sizable hydrocarbon reserves, the Kurdistan Regional Government was able to achieve regional autonomy only with U.S. backing, which it received in exchange for Kurdish cooperation in toppling Saddam Hussein.

But Syria's Kurds, with their small population and lack of strategic resources, military capabilities and economic structures, have little to offer would-be patrons. In fact, it was these limitations that led the Democratic Union Party to accommodate the PKK; the militant guerrilla group offered the best support the party could hope to garner.

Moreover, governments in the region are uneasy at the thought of another autonomous Kurdish state. Indeed, a day after the Democratic Union Party declared an autonomous Syrian Kurdish state, the Turkish National Security Council attempted to downplay the significance of the development. The regional unpopularity of another Kurdish state makes the need for external support even more important. The United States, lacking strategic interests in Syria and unwilling to upset Turkey, is not going to back Syria's Kurds.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is the mostly likely backer of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish state. As its relationship with Baghdad sours, the Arbil-based Kurdish government has increased its alignment with and economic dependence on Turkey. Turkey's assistance does not come without a price, however — it is predicated on Arbil's ability to rein in PKK militancy on both sides of the Turkey-Iraq border. Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani have been instrumental in forging the cooperation with Turkey and have attempted through the Kurdish National Council to link up with the Syrian Kurds. As the Kurdistan Regional Government becomes more economically dependent on Turkey, it will look elsewhere to build leverage in its relationship with Ankara. Syria offers that opportunity because of Turkey's needs regarding the PKK.

Turkey will doubtless rely on its relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government to pressure Arbil into limiting Syrian Kurdish ambitions, but Ankara cannot be too trusting at this stage. With the Democratic Union Party's quick move to the forefront of the Syrian Kurdish political front, the Kurdistan Regional Government is now forced to deal directly with its opponent (due to Arbil's partnership with Ankara) and with a regional supporter of the PKK. Turkey faces two potential outcomes, both of them intolerable: the formation of a PKK haven on the Syrian side of the border, or two neighboring Kurdish statelets that would surely encourage Kurdish separatist movements within Turkey territory. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced July 25 his country's intolerance for an independent Syrian Kurdish state, signaling that Turkey could intervene militarily across the Syrian border.

Turkey will likely use the Kurdistan Regional Government as a conduit for economic support to Syrian Kurds, echoing its strategy in northern Iraq. Ankara can try to temporarily assuage some key Kurdish concerns and offer development aid, cash subsidies and infrastructure projects to the region — without actually supporting an autonomous state. Such support must run through Arbil, however, because should Ankara publicly assist the Syrian Kurds, it could embolden Turkey's own Kurdish population to seek autonomy. But rather than genuinely seeking to prop up Syria's Kurds, through this assistance Turkey will likely be biding its time until an Arab power can consolidate and assert itself within Syria and suppress Syrian Kurdish ambitions for autonomy. While this approach will require careful maneuvering and the cooperation of an increasingly emboldened Democratic Union Party, it carries less risk than a Turkish military intervention against Syrian Kurds harboring PKK militants. 

Turkey will also face competition from Iran, whose own Iraqi Kurdish networks — built primarily through the Talabani clan and its political arm, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — are trying to outmaneuver the Barzanis to support the Syrian Kurds. Iran has strong incentive now to use Kurdish militancy and the threat of a Kurdish autonomous state in Syria to undermine Turkish ambitions in Syria. Even with indirect support for the Democratic Union Party and the PKK, Iran can attempt to create a Kurdish insurgency that would undermine both the Barzanis' attempts to control PKK militancy and the Turkish government's faith in Arbil as a reliable regional partner. Iran also does not want to see an independent Kurdish state in Syria, but it will encourage militant activity there to undermine both the regime that replaces al Assad and Turkish ambitions in the region.

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