While most of Syria has been embroiled in turmoil and large-scale suffering, the Syrian Kurds have been presented with historic opportunities and the building blocks for unprecedented autonomy.
However, clashes with Syrian rebels, frosty relations with Ankara, not forgetting wide disunity, jostle for power and even clashes between rival Kurdish factions, threatens to derail the Syrian Kurdish project.
For some 2 million or so Kurds in Syria, there are dozens of political parties which tell its own story. Even before the start of the conflict in Syria, the Kurdish movement was largely plagued by disunity and lack of leadership. Unlike other Kurdistani constituents in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, the Kurdish struggle never had the same firm nationalist foundations. Today Syrian Kurdistan is at the forefront of the new Syria and the Kurdish nationalist renaissance.
However, growing hostility and struggle for influence is threating intra-Kurdish conflict at the time when all energies should be fixed on consolidating Syrian Kurdish gains and its future role in Syria.
The Erbil agreement of 2012 sought to paper over the cracks and bring a level of coordination and unity between the PKK leaning Democratic Union Party (PYD) led groups and those with closer links to Massaud Barzani and the Kurdistan regional leadership.
However, the accord has been tainted with suspicion and animosity from the start. The PYD clearly has the upper-hand in power and support, with the Kurdish military arm, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), dominated by the PYD.
Other Kurdish parties have worked to readdress the political imbalance. This clear line of contention culminated in a crisis between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership and the PYD in recent days after the arrest of 74 members of the Barzani-backed Democratic Party of Syria.
The arrests led to strongly-worded statements from the Kurdistan President and a closing of the KRG border with Syrian Kurdistan.
The statement from Barzani’s presidential office accused the PYD of reneging on the Erbil agreement, marginalising other parties and killing and detaining people.
The statement warned against the PYD to change its attitude and not to “…declare itself the representative of Kurdish people in Syria before elections are held.” Barzani warned the KRG would pursue another course of action if perceived autocratic rule continued.
PYD leader, Muslim Saleh, pointed to disagreements amongst the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which includes the recently formed pro-Barzani Kurdish Democratic Union, for cracks in the Erbil agreement.
Saleh emphasised that the arrested members had received military training in Kurdistan and that they would take action against any armed group not within the PYD led YPG umbrella and that fall under the Supreme Kurdish Council. Saleh welcomed any mediation efforts but warned against Barzani support for rival factions.
There is clearly a mismatch between the PYD’s aim to remain the enforcers on the ground and the KRG and the KNC aim to readdress the balance of both political and military power.
The only way of clarifying the grapple for power is via free and open elections. But even then, without a balanced and unbiased security force, whoever has military power will have a greater say.
Syrian Kurdistan is in great need of the KRG, both for political stability and as an economic and social lifeline. A deterioration of relations within Syrian Kurdistan and with the KRG leadership will be of great detriment to the Region.
The Kurdish military units should unite under one rank and for one purpose, to serve Syrian Kurdish aspirations. Narrow minded political agendas of any party are a backward step in the Kurdish nationalist struggle. With instability and raging civil war on its door step, an uncertain future and hardly firm foundations for its existence or regional backing, Syrian Kurds risk losing a great historical opportunity.