The Kurds in Syria: on the road to independence?

By Mattijs Messely, MEDEA Institute

A lot has been written about the Syrian crisis. During the last months many have started to wonder whether this crisis has become a full-blown civil war. This is not merely a semantic discussion, because the possibility that ethnic and religious dividing lines overshadow the original cause of the Syrian crisis – being a struggle for more democracy – would have serious consequences for the whole region. The last months it became apparent that the geopolitical stakes have not diminished, sadly the opposite is true. Iran and its allies are backing the Assad regime while Saudi-Arabia and its own are supporting the rebels. On the battlefields the fundamentalist fractions of Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have gained more ground – in the city of Raqqa there are regular executions held in public by the ISIS. And now it seems like the United States have not turned their backs at Syria now the provenance of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) newest weaponry is unclear. That the FSA, which is in fact the only important secular rebel force, enjoys the unofficial support of the Western powers is generally accepted.

In between all these fighting factions is one that is less numerous, but nevertheless important in the whole situation. The Kurds in Syria are a factor that should not be underestimated in this war, but is often neglected. However, a major part of the north-eastern Syria is in control of different Kurdish militias, of which the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG, the “Popular Protection Units”) is the biggest and most important. The north-east is not only controlled by the Kurds militarily speaking, but is also de facto governed by this ethnic group on an economic and political level. The Syrian-Kurdish political parties have founded their own bureaucracy with various facilities for the population – a judicial system with own prisons and a registration office for vehicles are just two examples. The production of crude oil is a major source of income for the region and the Kurds also have their own school system. The Syrian Kurds know a high degree of autonomy, but this is not recognized by the regime. The question remains whether this autonomy is a first step towards an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurds are a cultural entity that separates itself from the other ethnic groups in the Middle-East by its language. There are still debates about the specific ethnic division lines and the possible borders of the now non-existent Kurdistan, but it is a fact that there are a lot of tensions between the Kurds and the different governments of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In Iran and Turkey – also the two countries where the largest groups of Kurds live – the relations are very bad, since the central authority does not recognize them and sees the political parties as groups who erode national sovereignty. In Iraq, however, the Kurdish autonomy and self-governance is extensive. After the First Gulf War they received the right to form their own government and parliament in 1992.

kurdes fuyant

© ITV News. Syrian Kurds crossing the Tigris river search for a new life.

The territory of the Kurds in Syria overlaps a region that has a very high severity of fighting. The Islamist groups, the Syrian regime, the FSA and the Kurds all fight for their own battle. Many Kurdish inhabitants who are not active in combat have fled the region and headed for Iraq, where the situation is very different for ordinary citizens. This region is of an enormous strategic importance, because of the proximity of Iraq, Turkey and Iran, but the Kurds and the fundamentalist rebels also fight because of opposite values. The Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ), the female counterpart of the YPG, are also numerous, well-trained and heavily armed. To say that all Kurds are in favor of gender equality is a bridge too far, but the amount of female members in the army and police is remarkable to say the least. Most of the Kurdish parties are rather progressive to far-left. This is of course something the ultra-conservative Salafi factions do not agree with.

femme kurde

© Bassem Mroue/AP. Female fighter of the Popular Protection Units guards a checkpoint near Qamishli, Syria.

The situation as it unfolds now does not provide any answers but leaves us with a lot of questions instead, also when we look at the position of the Kurds. The Syrian-Kurdish leaders are very ambiguous about their own struggle. It is a fact that the Kurdish militias fight against Al-Nusra and the ISIS most of the time. And it is also true that Bachar Al-Assad’s regime is not glad with the current degree of autonomy in the north-east. However, Kurdish fighters and soldiers of the regime do seem to be able to live next to each other. This does not mean they are allies though. Which strategic choices the Kurdish leaders have made remains unclear for the time being. Do they rather opt for the Syrian regime than for the Sunni rebel forces, because this is the most beneficial to them? Or do they think they have to win the struggle against the rebels first only to later focus on the regime? Apart from the strategic choices the final goal remains unclear. Are the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds going for an adherence of both regions or do these remain two autonomous regions in different states? Lastly, the consequences of these possible scenarios for the Kurds in Turkey and Iran and the countries themselves are impossible to calculate. Especially not now both Turkey’s Erdogan as well as Iran’s Rohani have made clear they want to play a major role in the Middle-East.


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