While the world’s gaze is riveted on President Bashar Al Assad’s life-and-death struggle with his domestic and foreign enemies, the Kurds have seized the opportunity to boost their own political agenda. In a dramatic development, Kurdish forces have in recent days seized five Kurdish-majority towns in northern Syria, which lie in a strip of territory along the Turkish border. The Syrian government has allowed them to do so by withdrawing its troops.
These events have aroused ancient fears in Turkey and Iraq, as well as quiet jubilation in Israel, which has long had a semi-clandestine relationship with the Kurds, and welcomes any development which might weaken or dismember Syria.
Kurdish politics is fiendishly complicated but, in the present context, several groups deserve special mention: The Democratic Union Party (PYD), formed in 2003 and led by Saleh Muslim Mohammad, is by far the strongest single Kurdish group in Syria. It is armed and disciplined, and has not hesitated to use force against rivals and opponents.
The Kurdish National Council (KNC), formed in October 2011, is a loose (largely unarmed) political alliance of 11 Syrian Kurdish parties or factions.
The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is a militant Kurdish organisation in Turkey, which has waged war against the Turkish state in the interests of Kurdish independence over the past several decades. Ankara considers the PKK a terrorist organisation and has regularly bombed its clandestine bases in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. The Syrian PYD is closely affiliated to the PKK, some would even say it is a political front for it.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) rules a semi-independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, with a population of about five million. Arbil is its capital and its leader is President Masoud Barzani, first elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009.
This Kurdish autonomous enclave was born out of the long wars which Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussain waged against the Kurds. In its present form, the KRG took shape after the first Gulf War of 1991, when the US protected the Kurds by setting up a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The KRG was then consolidated when the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, overthrew Saddam, and prepared the ground for the restructuring of Iraq as a federal state of separate Arab and Kurdish entities.
This is the background to the alliance which Barzani negotiated at Arbil on July 11 between the PYD and the KNC, giving them joint responsibility for the border strip between Syria and Turkey — with the PYD, the stronger partner, in the driving seat. The withdrawal of Syrian troops made this Kurdish takeover possible.
Needless to say, these events have fired the ambitions of some Kurdish militants who imagine that a Kurdish Regional Government might now come to birth in northern Syria, on the model of the one in northern Iraq. The English-language edition of Rudaw (an Iraqi Kurdish periodical), carried a piece on July 23 by a Kurdish journalist Hiwa Osman, in which he wrote: “The Kurdish Region of Syria? Yes, it is possible. Now is the time to declare it!”
A Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Birand, went further still when he wrote that “a mega-Kurdish state is being founded”, potentially linking Kurdish enclaves in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
Turkey is understandably alarmed by this resurgence of expansionist Kurdish goals. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Syria of giving the PKK “custody” of northern Syria and has warned that Turkey would “not stand idle” in the face of this hostile development. “Turkey is capable of exercising its right to pursue Kurdish rebels inside Syria, if necessary,” he declared.
Erdogan clearly finds intolerable the prospect of the PKK establishing a safe haven in northern Syria, from which to infiltrate fighters into Turkey. He has sent Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Arbil to ask Masoud Barzani — no doubt in forceful terms — what game he thinks he is playing.
There is fevered speculation in the Turkish press that Erdogan is planning a military attack on northern Syria to create a buffer zone, with the twin objectives of defeating and dispersing Syrian Kurdish forces and of creating a foothold, or ‘safe zone’, for Syrian rebels fighting Al Assad.
What of Syria’s calculations? There are three possible reasons why Al Assad withdrew his troops from the Kurdish border region: he needs the troops for the defence of Damascus and Aleppo; he wants to punish Erdogan for his support of the Syrian opposition; and he is anxious to conciliate the Kurds, so as to dissuade them from joining the rebels. In fact, he started wooing them some months ago by issuing a presidential decree granting Syrian citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds — something they had been seeking for more than half a century.
What does Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki think of these developments? He is clearly watching the Syrian crisis with anxious attention. If Al Assad were to fall and be replaced by an Islamist regime, this could revive the hopes of Iraq’s minority Sunni community — and its Al Qaida allies — that Al Maliki and his Shiite alliance could also be toppled. Another of Al Maliki’s worries must be the possible influx into Iraq from Syria of thousands of militant Kurds who would serve to strengthen Kurdish claims to Kirkuk and its oil.
What are the Kurds own objectives? In spite of the concessions Al Assad has made to them, they have no love for him. But nor do they like the opposition. The PYD is hostile to the Turkish-based Syrian National Council, which it considers a Turkish puppet. More generally, the Kurdish national movement, which is essentially secular, has long been at odds with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and dreads its coming to power in Damascus.
The PYD leader Saleh Muslim Mohammad is more philosophical. He was quoted as saying: “The ruling powers in Damascus come and go. For us Kurds, this isn’t so important. What is important is that we Kurds assert our existence.” The Syrian Kurds do not expect to win their independence from the Syrian state. They know that it is not a realistic goal: Kurdish enclaves in Syria are too scattered. They do seek, however, a large measure of autonomy, in which they no longer face discrimination, and in which their rights, both political and cultural, are guaranteed.
Erdogan is no doubt watching how the PYD and the KNC run the Kurdish towns they now control on the Syrian border. If they behave, he will not intervene. But if they start infiltrating fighters into Turkey, he is bound to react forcefully. For its part, the PKK has warned that, if the Turks intervene, it will turn “all of Kurdistan into a war zone”.
A major factor of instability has thus been added to an already volatile region. The Kurdish pot is simmering. If it boils over, it risks scalding everyone within reach.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, including Al Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.