As the bloody uprising in Syria intensifies by the week, Syrian Kurds have tried to keep a distance from the ever violent conflict by safeguarding the region from fighting and consolidating their newfound autonomy.
Control over parts of the Kurdish region sees a remarkable turn of fortune for Kurds in Syria but has been viewed with great suspicion by Turkey, whose leadership yet again warned that they will not tolerate Kurdish self-rule.
Owed to great distrust between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Kurdish forces predominantly of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurds have largely stayed out of the Arab-Sunni revolution, and have prevented the FSA from entering Kurdish controlled areas. The Kurds have in the main tried to leverage strategic positions by cutting deals with both rebels and Assad forces.
However, as the rebel control of areas within Aleppo and the greater Aleppo region grows and with it the supply routes from the Turkish border to key rebel held areas, it naturally trespasses grounds of Kurdish forces and thus the seeds of conflict are evident.
With deep animosity that underscores both camps, Kurds fearing a second marginalization when Sunni rebels assume power and rebels accusing the Kurds of supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the situation was always on a knife edge.
Fighting that erupted in Aleppo’s Kurdish districts and later in the village of Yazi Bagh and near other Kurdish towns close to the Turkish border, threatened to open a second unwanted front in an already complex and increasingly brutal civil war.
With the Kurds suffering more than any other group in Syria and natural components of any anti-Assad movement, it is ironic that the Kurds feel like a marginalized part of the Syrian National Council (SNC) or the uprising on the ground. This is partly owed to shrewd manipulation by Assad by bolstering Kurdish power, sowing disunity amongst Kurds and driving a wedge in the opposition but is also down to the failure and lack of significant efforts within the SNC to entice the Kurds.
The Kurds continue to look beyond the present, with the future posing the greatest dilemma. What role will the Kurds be afforded in a post Assad era and what mechanism will be in place to protect Kurdish rights? Can Kurds be sure that they won’t suffer the same fate under Sunni Arab rule?
Some elements of the SNC and the FSA have openly opposed the idea of establishing a Kurdish autonomous entity, while certain groups within the FSA have openly threatened to turn guns on the Kurdish forces once they are finished with Assad.
A stronger Kurdish buy-in and reassurance to the Kurdish community would have certainly expedited Assad’s downfall. And Turkey, a flag bearer of the Syrian opposition, must take some blame for the current friction between Kurds and Arabs. Turkey’s remarks, anxiety and threats against Kurdish autonomous development, that naturally weights on SNC sentiments, has alienated the Kurds further. It has left the Kurds stuck between Assad, FSA and Turkey.
Unless strong reconciliation efforts takes place between Kurds and Arabs, not only will the “Lebanonisation” of the Syria conflict became ever nearer, but Syria will be finding itself fighting another deadly war after Assad’s downfall.
Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, warnings amidst the increasing power and autonomy of Syrian Kurds is hardly new. He warned previously that Turkey would “not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey”.
This week Erdoğan warned that Turkey would not allow the formation of a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, in the same way as it has for Iraq. “We cannot let playing of such a scenario here [in Syria]. We told this to Barzani too. We wanted him to know this,” stated Erdoğan.
In spite of the Turkish stance, Syrian Kurds have already attained de-facto autonomy and although not enshrined in legislature, Syrian Kurds are unlikely to revert back after tasting self-rule.
Erdogan’s and Turkey’s clear concern is the PYD and the growing re-emergence of the PKK influence in Syria and Turkey. However, the issue goes much deeper than the PYD and narrow-minded policies of Turkey fail to comprehend the bigger picture in Syria.
There are dozens of Kurdish parties, many with representation in the SNC and who Turkey have enjoyed dialogue, and while the PYD has the upper hand at present, control of Kurdish regions is not exclusively in the hands of the PYD.
More importantly, what can Turkey, or for that matter the Kurdistan Region, do to prevent Kurdish autonomy in Syria? Of course the Kurdistan leadership has strong influence on the Syrian Kurds, but the fact of the matter is that Syria Kurds under democratic rights cannot have rules or conditions imposed on them from inside Syria let alone from Turkey.
Kurdish autonomy in Iraq was also a frequent Turkish red-line but Turkey had no choice but to succumb to geopolitical realities on its doorstep. In one way or another, Turkey will have to accept also a Kurdish region in Syria.
Aside from the rhetoric, there is little Turkey can do to prevent Kurdish autonomous advancement in Syria. If it intervenes directly both now and in the future, it will spark a deadly cross border battle with Kurdish forces. The PKK in particular would work hard to safeguard Kurdish gains in Syria, and solidify its growing influence. Any war in the Kurdish areas of Syria would mean even greater violence in Turkey.
It makes Turkey’s position all the more ironic, on the one had it supports the rebels against dictatorship and promotes a free Syria, and on the other hand it tries to subdue the pluralistic dimension of Syria.
Turkey must work harder to entice Kurdish moderates and stop its exclusive focus on the PYD. There are dozens of Kurdish parties and with an autonomous Kurdish entity an unavoidable reality it should build relations with parties and individuals that it can work with and trust.
The starting point should be Turkey’s strong denouncement of growing Arab-Kurd violence, to reassure Syrian Kurds of Turkey’s support and build more alliances with Syrian Kurdish parties.
When you cannot directly prevent a reality, you should do your best to influence it to your advantage. For this Turkey must lean heavily on the Kurdistan Region leadership. Barzani can have a strong influence on the PYD and the autonomous Kurdish region in Syria and dilute the PKK influence on the region.
If the Kurds become stuck between distrusted Sunni rebels, an unbalanced SNC, a hostile Turkey or a distant Kurdistan Region, then their natural protectors become the PKK.