The rise of Syria’s Kurds

Kurds declare autonomous zone in northern Syria despite some objections from brethren in Iraq.

Syrian Kurds were subjected to brutal suppression by President Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafiz [AFP]

Syrian Kurds declared an autonomous government in northern Syria on Tuesday, a move that follows in the footsteps of Iraqi Kurds who have established what scholars often describe as a prosperous “quasi-state” thanks to the US-led wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

Though the declaration of autonomy by Syrian Kurds defies both Turkey and the US, its timing is ideal and nobody seems to be able to reverse the move in a region mired in turmoil. Coming just a day before the Geneva II conference, where Kurds have no direct representation, the announcement has raised further doubts about the effectiveness of world powers to find a top-down solution for Syria’s increasingly multi-dimensional conflict.

Announced in the predominately Kurdish-populated city of Qamishli to a cheering audience of several hundred people waving Kurdish flags, the move was led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful Syrian Kurdish group whose armed wing has successfully prevented al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels from controlling “Syrian Kurdistan”, also known as Rojava.

The Rojava government seems to enjoy the support of most Kurds in Syria. Signatories of the declaration include representatives of more than 50 parties. The new administration will be in charge of the affairs of three provinces including Qamishli, Afrin and Kobani, where Kurds are predominant but other peoples such as Arabs and Assyrians live, too.

In many ways, Rojava is similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqi Kurds chose pragmatism over idealism by staying part of an oil-rich Iraq rather than declaring independence in a landlocked region. Syrian Kurds are calling for the same thing: federalism not outright secession.


Nevertheless, there are already questions raised over the viability of this fledgling autonomous zone in a country ravaged by internecine conflict. The primary threat to Rojava’s existence is its location: It is surrounded by hostile powers. At present, it enjoys virtually no support, and it is not likely to gain the support of the Arab Sunni opposition, their regional backers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, or the United States – not immediately anyway. Rojava also lacks the kind of no-fly zone backing that the Iraqi Kurds were granted after the First Gulf War in 1991.

At present, it enjoys virtually no support, and it is not likely to gain the support of the Arab Sunni opposition, their regional backers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, or the United States – not immediately anyway.


For Turkey and the US, support is likely to be held back due to the PYD’s linkage to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group designated as a “terrorist” group by both countries. The PYD itself is not listed as such by most nations and its leader, Salih Muslim, travels freely in Europe and has visited Turkey, too.

More significantly, perhaps, Rojava enjoys only lukewarm support from the top leadership of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRG). Turkey has pressured KRG President Masoud Barzani to take a hostile approach towards the PYD.

Last November, Barzani issued a strong statement against the PYD’s announcement of the autonomy plan, calling it “autocracy”. That led to a war of words between the KRG and PYD. Local news reports said that the KRG banned Muslim from traveling through Erbil airport, forcing the PYD leader to use Baghdad as his point of departure.

Even though Turkey hopes to see stronger action taken by the KRG against the PYD, there is only so much the KRG is able – or willing – to do in that regard.

Observers of Kurdish affairs know well that it is inconceivable for Barzani to engage in an armed confrontation with the PYD. Such an action would be tantamount to political suicide when his own constituency harbours a great deal of sympathy for both the PYD and PKK rebels based in the mountains of northern Iraq.

And yet, has the KRG not tolerated an even bigger Turkish enemy, the PKK, on its soil for more than a decade? Does it not allow for weapons and aid to be (secretly) transferred to its bases in the Qandil Mountains?

It is also worth noting that other Iraqi Kurdish parties, including the PUK party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Gorran, the second most popular party in Kurdistan, do not share Barzani’s anti-PYD stance.

Moreover, Barzani might rhetorically be opposed to the PYD’s advances in Syria, but he knows in practice the mere emergence of the PYD has multiple advantages. Firstly, the PYD serves as a bulwark to prevent al-Qaeda from crossing the porous border into Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Iraqi-Kurdish leader also seems to realise that the PYD, as it is the case with the PKK, provides extra political leverage for him against Turkey, which has increasingly appeared as a staunch supporter of the KRG’s controversial oil policy in Iraq and internationally.

Indeed, Barzani’s rhetoric ought not to be confused with his government’s actions, and most would argue that Erbil’s anti-PYD stance is more tactical than real. After all, Iraqi Kurds have opened their border for more than 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees and spent millions of dollars on housing and feeding them.

Timing is everything

The timing of the PYD’s declaration could not be more ideal. It comes at a time when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing a strong domestic challenge to his authority as Turkish prosecutors have opened corruption investigations targeting members of his cabinet including sons of ministers. This has made Turkey too focused on its own domestic problems to be able to pursue any concrete counter measure against Kurdish advances in Syria.

Furthermore, the corruption scandal seems to have brought the PKK – and in turn the PYD – closer to Erdogan. In an interesting turn of events, PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, recently made a highly pro-Erdogan statement calling the corruption investigation “a coup” attempt to remove a leader who has undertaken more reforms vis-a-vis Kurds than any of his predecessors ever had in the modern history of Turkey.

A few years ago, Turkey put aside whatever ill will it harboured toward the KRG and came to terms with it.  No doubt, economic interests had a great deal to do with the change of heart. The move eventually provided Turkey with a gateway to Iraq, turning the oil-rich country into Turkey’s second largest export market.

It is worth noting that Kurdish-populated northeastern Syria also sits on relatively large oil reserves. Last year, the European Union said moderate Syrian Arab rebels could sell Syrian oil. They have not been able to do so since the oil fields are not under their control. But there have reportedly been clashes between Kurdish rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate over the oil fields.

Whatever happens, for observers of the region, history seems to be repeating itself. It might well be just a matter of time for Turkey to come to terms with another KRG in Syria.

Namo Abdulla is Washington bureau chief for Rudaw, a 24-hour news channel in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He hosts an English-language show on Rudaw called Inside America, which discusses US foreign policy in the Middle East.