When it comes to pivotal international conferences, particularly in Switzerland, the Kurds hardly have a colourful record. It was the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 that cruelly deprived the Kurds of an independent homeland that was promised as part of the earlier Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Today the Kurds are slowly regaining control of their destiny, but still suffer from the fate enforced upon them by world powers whilst they were deprived of a voice.
With this in mind, the upcoming Geneva II conference that foreign powers hope will lead to a peaceful political solution to the bloody Syrian civil war is an important platform for the Syrian Kurds.
Yet in spite of intense negotiations in Erbil to mend the Kurdish divide and unite the Kurdish stand in Geneva, unity appears as elusive as ever and it’s becoming increasingly evident that the Kurds will send two separate delegations to the talks, and worryingly one with the Syrian regime delegation.
After decades of repression and confounded to the shadows of the Syrian state, the Syrian Kurds have been great benefactors of the intra-Arab turmoil and afforded a unique chapter in their history.
Yet a lack of unity has been a severe handicap that has threatened to undermine the new Kurdish dawn and historical juncture.
Regional jockeying over Rojava between the PKK, Turkey, Kurdistan Region and neighbouring powers has added to the tension.
The talks in Erbil between the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is more closely aligned with Massaud Barzani and is expected to attend Geneva talks with the opposition, and the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), which is spear-headed by the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) that refused to join the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), failed to produce a conclusive agreement despite earlier promise.
The Erbil Agreement of 2012 which united the Kurdish ranks with the establishment of the Kurdish Supreme Committee has all but eroded.
The PYD, who recently declared autonomy, is more closely aligned with the PKK and has been accused of monopolising power and has been the subject of strong criticism from the Kurdistan government,.
The Kurdish differences overshadow the fragile nature of the Kurdish gains in Syria. Thousands of Kurds continue to suffer in Syria and thousands more have sought refuge in the Kurdistan Region while fierce battles continue against Islamist forces.
The ideal position for the Kurds is to attend as a separate united delegation – this sends the strong message that the Kurds are a factor within their own right and not merely as a component of opposition struggle. In other words, fighting for your rights in a broader coalition dilutes the Kurdish cause by the leaving the Kurdish position to one of minority rights. The Kurds were often treated as second-class by Arabs in Syria and deserve a position as a distinct Syrian component. This will ensure Kurds are a separate topic where a separate solution is required with the ultimate goal of enshrining autonomy.
Of course, offering the Kurds such a position at the negotiating tables is likely to be blocked by Turkey, the US and some regional powers.
The need for a united and strong Kurdish position in Geneva is not that Geneva II is likely to herald the lofty goals expected. In contrary, a stubborn regime and a highly disjointed Syrian opposition are unlikely to strike an elusive political transition with such wide starting positions, but such a Kurdish position would be symbolic and send a strong message to the world that Syrian Kurdish rights and autonomy is not the end goal but a starting position.
The recent Erbil talks must continue with hope of bridging gaps, ensuring a share of power and decision making in Rojava, easing the suffering of the population through the opening of the border crossings and above all putting Kurdish national interests above any party or individual interests.