The Syrian Kurds have suffered more than any other group under decades of Baathist dictatorship. The Syrian civil war opened an unchartered and once unthinkable opportunity for the Syrian Kurds, but the growing Kurdish assertiveness and power has not been without controversy.
The Syrian Kurdish region is dominated both politically and militarily by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their announcement of an interim administration for the growing Kurdish areas under their control resulted in a backlash from many sides.
No doubt self-governance would placate the remarkable turnaround in Kurdish fortunes which on paper is a benefit for all of greater Kurdistan, so why such controversy?
Timing and the actors is of course key at such a delicate juncture in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and beyond. The Syrian revolution is at a sensitive stage but it is factors across the borders that are more pronounced. The Syrian conflict has ramifications across the Middle Eastern divide and this is no different for the Kurds.
Syrian Kurdistan may number no more than 10% of the Syrian population or 2 million people, but disunity with dozens or so parties is plain to see. There is a split of sentiment for the PKK of whom the Syrian Kurdistan population has enjoyed historic ties and groups more closely affiliated with Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The current correlations between the PYD, PKK, Kurdistan Region, Ankara and even Baghdad add to the sensitive mix. Whilst the Kurdistan Region is enjoying increasing prominence in the region and greater strategic, political and economic ties with Ankara, the PKK is a headache for Ankara that in spite of the peace process will not go away.
Ankara’s anxiety and rejection of the unilateral declaration of autonomy by the PYD is no surprise. Ankara naturally prefers a KRG influence that they can trust in Syrian Kurdistan than the region becoming a de facto extension of PKK sphere of influence, that they would find difficult to combat.
Ultimately Ankara cannot ignore developments in Syrian Kurdistan and must at the same time not antagonise the PKK. The rocky peace process needs a jumpstart. Ankara may have taken a number of bold steps, but it won’t take much for emotions to re-spill into armed conflict.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has to manoeuvre wisely with the Kurds with fast approaching national elections in Turkey, knowing that the Kurdish vote holds a decisive swing.
President Barzani’s historic visit to Diyarbakir at such a critical juncture was no coincidence. Erdogan needs to sway Kurdish sentiment and the Kurdish vote in 2014 will speak volumes in how the peace process and the PKK conflict will unravel. Greater Kurdish vote for AKP sends a strong message to the PKK.
At the same time, it promotes Barzani as a credible leader of greater Kurdistan, and sends a warning to the PKK leadership.
President Barzani wrote a strongly worded statement upon the declaration of autonomy by the PYD. It is not that Barzani would not want to see a Kurdish region in Syria, in fact this would greatly placate Kurdish power within the Middle East and open a de-facto bridge between Kurds on both sides. It is the fact that it is the PYD who would ultimately hold control and sway over the region, further eroding the Erbil Agreement of 2012.
Barzani lamented the “marginalisation” of other Kurdish parties and the PYDs perceived collusion with the Syrian regime and stated “We only support the steps that have the consensus of all Kurdish parties in Rojava…we refuse to deal with unilateral actions.” Barzani urged all Kurdish parties to return to the principles of the Erbil Agreement as the “best option to strengthen the Kurdish position in Syria”
The relations between the PYD and Syrian opposition forces have been one of mistrust and the Syrian National Council has accused the Syrian Kurds of collaborating with Bashar al Assad many times.
In response to Kurdish plans for a transitional administration, the Syrian National Council labelled the PYD as a “group hostile to the Syrian revolution”, even as the Coalition announced its own plans for an interim government in rebel-held territory.
With growing divide and differing camps, the Syrian Kurds are naturally at risk of wasting this historical juncture.
It must be noted that the PYD enjoys strong support amongst the Kurds and their stock has risen as they have affectively pushed back Islamist forces in Kurdish areas. They cannot be ignored as a major actor. However, the PYD and ultimately Syrian Kurdish region will struggle against a backdrop of animosity from the KRG, Turkey and the Syrian opposition.
The sooner the PYD and KRG can mend their bridges along with other Kurdish parties in Syria the better. At the same time, the PYD needs Ankara. The last thing the Syrian Kurds need is an isolated region. Finally, Syrian Kurds must maneuverer carefully with a future Syrian in mind. They need all the support to ensure self-rule is wrapped in legislation and not controversy. Self-rule is a must and a minimum for the Syrian Kurds.