Syrian Kurds have endured decades of repression and denial and in the case of thousands treatment as virtual foreigners in the lands of their very ancestors. If anyone should have a gripe against the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad it is the Kurds, yet the Kurds have remained largely on the side-lines of the two-year bloodshed in Syria.
While much of the West is locked in debate about ways of ending the immense suffering and the protracted civil war in Syria and speeding-up by Assad’s demise, the Syrian Kurds remain a vital card in tipping the balance of war against the regime.
Division and splinter groups are commonplace throughout the Syrian opposition and it’s no different in Syrian Kurdistan, with dozens of Kurdish parties in the political fold, but with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) continuing to orchestrate the greatest influence and military might.
The Kurds with thousands of well-trained militia would be natural partners to court in the overthrow of Assad, yet ironically Syrian rebel groups, namely Jabhat al Nusra, have been battling Kurdish fighters in the north instead.
Most Syrian Kurds, particularly the PYD with long alleged ties to the PKK, have distrusted Arab opposition groups, especially those with Turkish backing, fearing marginalisation in a post-Assad era or seeing their historic autonomous gains wiped away.
It is for this reason that they have tried to remain relatively neutral in the conflict and facilitated indirect understandings with the regime in Kurdish-dominated areas. It was win-win at the time, as Kurds took historical control of most of their region while Assad was spared a further frontline and likely a further depletion of his forces in a confrontation with the Kurds.
The Kurdish priority was to safeguard Kurdish gains, spare violence in Kurdish areas and to leave their fate in their own hands.
The Kurdistan Region leadership succeeded in uniting the various Kurdish factions last year but animosity and distrust in Kurdish circles remains common-place.
However, in recent weeks it appears that the Kurds are increasingly ready to end their neutrality and fight regime forces. This can be seen with the coordination between Syrian rebels and People’s Defense Units (YPG) in the Kurdish dominated Sheikh Makqsud district of Aleppo, where Kurdish fighters have helped to choke the vital supply routes of the regime.
The regime retaliated for this apparent change of heart by the Kurds with a deadly airstrike on the district killing 15 people as well as attacking Kurdish units on the outskirts of Qamishli, with the Kurds launching their retaliatory attacks of their own. A bombing just this week of a Kurdish village in the oil-rich Hasaka province killed 11 civilians, which the Kurdish National Council called a “serious escalation by the regime”.
In addition, in recent days Syrian rebel groups have started attacking army positions in Hasaka and more importantly on Qamishli itself.
It is not clear whether the recent Arab-rebel attacks in Hasaka is in coordination with the Kurds, but judged by recent events, the Arab rebels are unlikely to have a launched an attack that would have risked a Kurdish backlash as seen in the past.
If the Syrian rebels and Kurdish parties can muster a workable and long-term understanding, the liberation of Qamishli and indeed all of north-eastern Syria would form a formidable enclave against the regime.
The PKK is a card that Syria has effectively used against Turkey in the past, and unsurprisingly Syrian support increased for the PKK rebels after Turkey became key actors in the Syrian struggle and provided major support to the Syrian opposition.
Assad successfully split the Syrian opposition and even the Kurds. But the recent change of Kurdish stance on the ground and a truce that has taken hold between Islamist rebels and the YPG forces is perhaps more linked to developments in the peace process in Turkey than direct changes in Syria.
Turkey is on the verge of historic peace with the PKK and significant strides have been taken since the turn of the year to end the armed rebellion and find a long-term solution to the Kurdish question.
The timing of developments in Ankara is noticeable. Turkey, seeking to became a major force in the new Middle East that is been laid, is facing the prospect of a de facto Kurdish state in Syria alongside the already strong and strategically important Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The Kurdish reality on its doorstep has expedited the quest for peace. A lack of long-term peace in Turkey would severely undermine stability in Turkey and its regional influence.
The effect of the PKK peace process can be seen with a thawing of ties between Ankara and the PYD. If the PKK successfully ends its armed struggle, then for Turkey, the PYD and particularly a Syrian Kurdish region will be much more tolerable.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently put a list of conditions for any engagement with the PYD, a far cry from a previous stance of no dialogue at all. Although the idea of “pre-conditions” has not gone down too well with the PYD leadership, a level of dialogue is inevitable and somewhat natural and the conditions set when studied are not real obstacles. These conditions include not siding with the Assad regime, avoiding “fait accompli” until a parliament is formed and not supporting terror in Turkey.
The Turkish stance is also linked to its increasing frustration with the prolonged nature of the Syrian war and Assad’s stubborn grip on power. The Kurds, whose areas includes much of the country’s oil wealth, have the strength to turn the tide against the regime and close the one-loop in the north-east of the country that has acted as a breathing space for the regime.
All the while, the West continues to sluggishly ponder their next move in Syria with thousands of Syrian dying each day. While the Western powers have been far too slow to devise a strategy in Syria, Islamist groups who have proved the most coordinated and affective against the regime have filled the vacuum.
As a result of the West’s inaction, there is now a race between Free Syrian Army moderates and the increasingly influential Islamist rebels to take Damascus. The Islamist groups will now have a seat at the Syrian table in the aftermath of the conflict whether the West likes it or not. Failing that, another civil war will mark the end of this one.
As for the Kurds, who are also integral components to any future Syria, a more concrete outreach by Syrian opposition forces and Turkey as well as more recognition and support from Western powers could well mean the pendulum can swing against Assad.
Kurdistan may well be divided, but increasingly the Kurdish borders are been eroded. Future harmony and the attainment of peace in Turkey are linked to Syria and beyond. For example, the PKK will likely maintain a condition that Turkey does not meddle in Syrian Kurdish affairs or adopt any policies against a future Syrian Kurdistan.
Imagine if Kurdish autonomy or rights were not granted in a future Syria and a war broke out, would the PKK and Turkish Kurds stand idle? Could Ankara really intervene in such a situation without aggravating the Kurds? Either way, peace and stability cannot be achieved in any part of Kurdistan, if other parts prove volatile or restive.