On self-rule, Kurds find themselves out in the cold again
The Arab League’s recent denunciation of a declaration by Syria’s Kurds establishing a self-governing was predictable, despite the Kurds’ move being presented as a blueprint for a future decentralised Syrian state.
Ahmed Ben Helli, the league’s deputy secretary-general, said the 22-member bloc rejected any “separatist” initiative that could harm the unity and territorial integrity of Syria. The Arab League view, shared by the mainstream Syrian opposition, is that no unilateral action should be taken that threatens the status quo of a centralised Syria.
That is a position that reflects an underlying suspicion of the Kurds, their relationship with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and their perceived desire to build an independent state. Kurds would argue that, after five years of civil war, Syria’s unity and territorial integrity have been torn asunder and that their reaffirmation of self-rule is little more than a reflection of facts on the ground.
The federal plan implies a division of Syria into self-governing Kurdish, Sunni, Alawite and Druze regions with a central government in Damascus.
The developments in northern Syria coincide with proposals for an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and with Turkey’s renewed war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a wider crackdown on Turkey’s Kurds.
The so-called Federation of Northern Syria includes three majority Kurdish cantons — Jazeerah, Afrin and Kobane — that declared autonomy in 2014. Although the region’s leaders say they are building a democracy, and the federation declaration was backed by representatives of non-Kurdish minorities, the region is dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.
Despite the success of these Kurdish forces, heavily supported by the United States, in pushing back the fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) as well as holding off rival Islamist opposition groups, the mainstream Syrian opposition has been broadly hostile to Kurdish aspirations to run their own affairs.
The Syrian National Coalition opposition-in-exile went so far as to assert the declaration was an attempt to “usurp the will of the Syrian people”.
Neither does the initiative have total support among the Kurds. It has been rejected by the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is close to the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil in neighbouring Iraq. “Although the KNC has been in favour of federalism since 2012, it strictly opposes any attempt to impose federalism on the Syrian people without a preceding discussion,” the KNC said in a statement.
Ankara is outright hostile, regarding the PYD in Syria as an offshoot of the PKK that it claims is intent on further destabilising the region with the aim of carving out a future Kurdish state in Turkey.
Turkey’s crackdown against its own Kurdish population has included a ban on large gatherings in the south-east, the Kurdish heartland. That led to security forces deploying water cannon against Kurds who gathered to celebrate the Kurdish new year, Nowruz, in the town of Silopi.
Washington, which has come to regard the YPG in Syria and the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq as its most reliable allies in the fight against ISIS, said it would not accept the establishment of any autonomous zones in Syria. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said future constitutional arrangements would have to be agreed at the stalled peace talks in Geneva.
The trouble is that the PYD has been squeezed out of the peace process because of opposition from Turkey and anti-Assad groups in Syria. The United States has gone along with the ban, although it refuses to accept Ankara’s argument that the Syrian Kurdish party is merely an offshoot of the terrorist-designated PKK.
A consequence of attempts to politically isolate the Kurds has been to push them into the welcoming arms of Russia. The PYD opened its first overseas representative office in Moscow in February, providing its mission head, Abd Salam Muhammad Ali, with an opportunity to castigate those who had frozen the party out of Geneva and to welcome Russian intervention in Syria.
Three months earlier, Turkey’s mainstream pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party opened an office in the Russian capital following a visit by its co-leader Selahattin Demirtas. The Russians are reported to have been supplying weapons to the PYD and the firmly pro-Western Kurdish administration in Erbil by agreement with the central government in Baghdad.
Until now, the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq have relied on Western allies to supply weapons and carry out air strikes to help reverse the ISIS tide. However, given the disagreements among ISIS’s local, regional and international opponents, Moscow has been given an opportunity to play the Kurdish card as part of its strategy of dominating the outcome of the diplomatic process.