Tag Archives: Syrian Kurds

Prospects of Geneva 2, Syrian Kurdish Autonomy and why Syria will never be whole again

As representatives of the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition met in Geneva, the prospects of an agreement to end the bitter 3 year civil war that has killed over 130,000 and displaced millions were dim.

The fiery exchanges at the opening of the conference in Montreaux and the deep reluctance to even meet face-to-face, never the mind the entrenched positions over the fate of Bashar al-Assad, underscored the challenges of securing any meaningful agreement.

Yet in so many ways, getting the opposing sides in the same room was an accomplishment in itself. With every bullet fired, every air strike launched and every death recorded, the animosity only deepens and reconciliation is pushed a step further. The profound emotional scarring cannot be patched in a few days in Geneva, but let there be no doubt, the regime and opposition have no choice but to reach a peaceful settlement sooner or later.

If there was a military solution it would have been achieved months ago. 3 years on, with the forces in a stalemate and with most of Syria lying in ruins and blood, no matter the eventual outcome, how can anyone truly feel victorious? What will they govern with some cities in literal ruin and billions of dollars needed to reconstruct the country?

More importantly, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Syria can ever be whole again. Too much damage has been done and the polarization is now too great for Syria to ever return to any sense of unity.

In this light, it was symbolic and largely missed due to the intense focus on Geneva, that the Syrian Kurds declared administrative autonomy and a provincial governance on the eve of the conference.

The Kurds who have had relative self-rule since July 2012 are increasingly working towards safeguarding and formalizing their new found autonomy. The Kurdish area in Syria, or Rojava as most proudly refer to, is set to be ruled under 3 cantons, Kobani, Efrin and Jazira with an Autonomous Governing Council in each region.

Kurds are already preparing a local constitution and have their eyes on holding elections early this year as well as taking many steps to resume normal life in the region. Anyone would think this is taking place in a distant land, but this is taking place in the same country ruled by Assad and gripped by a deadly civil war.

The growing Kurdish confidence and assertiveness having successfully warded off Islamist forces, naturally unnerves Turkey and other regional players. The Syrian Kurdistan region is effectively governed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with links to the PKK and protected by the People Defense Units. This only adds to Turkish anxiety.

Yet with the Syrian Kurds stamping their authority, it was ironic that in Geneva the Kurds were refused a separate delegation or had any specific mention. Regardless of any political deal in Geneva, the Kurds are not about to take a step back into the dark days of the past and relinquish their hard fought gains.

With Alawites weary of Sunni backlash in any post-Assad era, there will almost certainly be a de facto sectarian delineation in Syria to add to the ethnic lines that the Kurdish self-rule promises.

The only way Syria can be truly patched is a loose federation where Sunni, Kurds or Alawites govern their own regions.

The problem in Syria is that the opposition is not represented by one group but a spectrum of forces with differing agendas. Take the SNC, they only agreed to attend the peace talks after dozens of their members walked out in protest and even if anything is agreed long-term, they have insufficient sway with the fighters on the ground.

This introduces the likely scenario that if a broader peace agreement was achieved, it would never be comprehensive and thus there is every chance that the opposition and regime forces may turn their guns on other forces, in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Islamic groups that will never accept or recognize any agreement.

Unfortunately for Syria, the fighting has a long way to go before it reaches its course, regardless of any symbolic breakthrough in Geneva.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Syrian Kurdish administration – a historic step shrouded in controversy

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.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Syrian Kurdish anguish a burden for all parts of Kurdistan

In the face of deadly battles between Syrian Kurdish forces and Jabat al-Nusra and other Islamist forces in Western Kurdistan, Kurdish civilians have suffered brutal reprisal attacks and murder across a number of Kurdish towns and villages.

The neighbourhoods of Tel-Abeyd, Sere Kaniye, Tel- Aran and Tel- Hasel amongst others across Kurdish populated areas have been the subject of kidnappings, killings, lootings and terror.

The Kurdish areas have been relatively quiet since the Syrian uprising began but the latest developments not only serve to deepen the conflict between al-Qaeda affiliates and Kurds but increasingly pitch an ethnic battle between Kurds and Arabs, opening another theatre and dimension in the already complex conflict.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) and its leader Ahmed Jabra, as a legally recognised body and the supposed flag bearer for freedom, democracy and the fight against tyranny, has to shoulder the responsibility to condemn the attacks, protect Kurds and ensure Kurds are enticed into the political fold and not alienated in the fight against the Syrian regime.

However, the stance of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and elements of the SNC have hardly taking kindly to the Kurds. They have failed to address the general mistrust and anxiety of the Kurds and have looked at Kurdish gains with great suspicion.

With so many players on the Syrian chessboard, the recent conflict between Islamist forces and Kurds has seen a number of foreign powers weigh into the equation.

It was hardly surprising and somewhat ironic that Russia and Iran were quick to highlight the massacre of Kurds to the world, but this is chiefly in their quest to discredit the Syrian revolution and show the world the dark side of the opposition than any for any true affection for the Kurds. Iran and Russia were distinctively quiet whilst Kurds were persecuted for decades in Syria.

By the same token, the U.S. and its E.U. and regional allies have been rather muted and cautious in the face of the atrocities as it seemingly serves as an embarrassment for the pro-opposition camps and specifically for some Arab states and Turkey that have supported such groups to varying degrees.

In the face of Syrian Kurdish isolation and despair, the statement last week by Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani condemning atrocities and vowing to support Syrian Kurds,  was welcome, bold and the just the tonic to stir sentiment and any notion that Kurds will be bystanders amidst the plight of their ethnic brethren.

Barzani had warned that “If the reports are true, showing that citizens, women and the children of innocent Kurds are under threat from murder and terrorism, Iraq’s Kurdistan region will make use of all of its capabilities to defend women and children and innocent citizens.”

For too long, the forcibly divided Kurds have struggled for national rights within the constraints of localised mechanisms than as a national force or coherent ethnic group. It has become too easy and politically correct to label each portion of Kurdistan with a Syrian, Turkish, Iraqi or Iranian prefix.

The lands may be artificially divided but a fence, border post or de-facto delineation of territory doesn’t change the soil composition, geography, nature or heritage of territory. Do the border fences that randomly separate Nusaybin or Qamishli actually mean that the historic land, the people, or the families on either side are any different?

If there is a massacre of Turkmens in Iraq tomorrow, will Turkey remain idle? Sunni states and Gulf countries flocked to support Sunni rebels in Syria while Hezbollah and Iran rushed to support their Shiite brethren.

Why should Kurds across greater Kurdistan remain idle? The crucial step by Barzani was to ensure a delegation was formed by the Kurdish National Conference Preparation Committee from members across greater Kurdistan – this national response demonstrates a common voice and a united stand but almost underscores the seeds for a Kurdish League.

Washington amongst others was quick to warn Barzani against intervention and it is not clear what measures will be taken by the Kurdistan Region if the current delegation visiting Syrian Kurdistan bring back conclusive proof of massacres and atrocities against Syrian Kurds.

No doubt the Kurdistan Region leadership will warn and increase pressure on the West to act and intervene, but if the response is negative then the leadership must match rhetoric with action.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Ankara must embrace new Syrian Kurdish reality

A year after Syrian Kurds took historic control of their territory, proposed plans for an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan region sent fresh shivers down Ankara.

Any anxiety towards the establishment of de facto autonomy for Kurds is amplified all the more by the PKK connections with the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) that exercises the greatest political and military influence in the region.

Turkey has fought a bitter 3 decade war with the PKK and to see PYD flags proudly hosted atop buildings clearly visible from Turkish soil was difficult to stomach. Turkey rushed to kick-start the peace process with the PKK and Ocalan in the full knowledge that they could soon be swamped with PKK forces enjoying not just mountain passes but theoretically an autonomous area.

However, a dose of reality is greatly needed if Turkey is to achieve its strategic and political goals, away from out-dated ethos or phobias. In the same manner that red-lines, ubiquitous threats and harsh rhetoric towards Iraqi Kurds was in the end replaced with a revised policy and ultimately a strong and flourishing political and economic relations with Kurdistan.

Last year, Ankara refused to even engage or acknowledge the PYD. The historic visit to Turkey by Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD, in this regard, was certainly a step in the right direction, but Turkey must start to warm to the Kurds and the new political order rather than antagonise them or even choose sides, as many have claimed of their indirect support of Islamists against the Kurds.

The People’s Defense Units (YPG), widely acknowledged as the armed-wing of the PYD, has been pitched in fierce battles with Jabat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliated groups for months. However, fierce battles in recent weeks saw the Kurds gain control of the strategic border town of Ras al-Ayn amongst others.

Muslim was warned in Ankara against taking “wrong and dangerous” by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and intelligence chiefs.  Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also warned the Kurds against any “fait accompli” declarations that would further destabilise and complicate Syria until an elected Parliament is formed in Syria

Ironically, in the same week Ahmet Davutoğlu denounced radical groups, some whom Turkey has supported, for “betraying” the principles of the Syrian revolution.

In spite of the relative positivity in the aftermath of Muslim’s visit, Turkey should have done much more to reach out and entice the Kurds from the outset and worked to include them as vital components of the Syrian opposition and the drive to oust Assad, rather than the frosty treatment and Syrian opposition’s failure to provide firm guarantees to Kurds in the post Assad era.

Stuck between Arabs they didn’t trust, Islamists intent on setting up a base in Syrian Kurdistan with its vital borders crossings and oil resources and a Turkish government ever-wary of more Kurdish leverage and power on their border, Kurds largely leant towards the devil they knew – Assad.

The reality is that Syrian Kurds, with renewed vigour and standing, are not about to go away, with or without Assad. The resurgence of the Syrian Kurds and potential autonomy should if anything be just the tonic to kick-start the peace process in Turkey.

If Turkey fails to implement the peace process in Turkey, then the PKK leverage would always have been a greater hand in Syrian Kurdistan or even a derailing of Ankara goals in the Syrian revolution.

For the Kurds, it is natural to try and preserve their region from violence and destruction and certainly the population has needs and warrant a system of governance. Any attempts at autonomy, temporary or not, is a logical move, however, the region must be for all Kurdish groups and not specially the PYD.

All Kurdish groups must be represented and the people must ultimately decide on their governance. Any unilateral drive by the PYD to assert control or use force for it its aims will severely diminish the legitimacy of the new Kurdistan Region of Syria.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

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West must act in Syria for sake of humanity or face a history of ignominy

The tables have drastically turned in the Syria conflict in recent months and Western inaction and indecisiveness has played a significant part.

The U.S. and its European allies have failed the Syrian people and to make matters worse, western diplomats are still bickering internally on how they should respond to the Syrian conflict, when they have had 2.5 years to formulate an approach.

Infamous red-lines have long been crossed, dozens of cities lie in rubble, over 100,000 dead and millions displaced with the rate increasing all the time. Yet the West is still plagued by unease and uncertainty on its moral obligations.

As the Syrian civil war has festered and   decayed, more divisive western policy at the outset would have achieved a far quicker political transition, saved thousands of lives, infrastructure and untold suffering.

Now the conflict has become so messy that even the West is startled to respond. A great example is the proposal to arm selected members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Both Great Britain and France petitioned vehemently for months to end the EU arms embargo in May. Now that they have gotten their wish, they have got frosty feet. Likewise the US announced intent to supply weapons in mid-June after acknowledging that Bash al-Assad had crossed a red-line (the same murky red line that Assad had passed long ago), yet there are no signs of supplies.

The conflict has become so complex and cloudy that Western powers do not believe that their “light” weaponry would make any different. Yet ironically, Russia and Iran have been arming Assad to the teeth with no remorse.

In the time that the West has stood idle, Syrian has become the battleground for who’s who of Jihadists and foreign fighters. The war is no longer about ousting Assad and freeing Syria from dictatorship, it is now heavily sectarian and to a certain extent a proxy battle for a new Cold War with Russia, Iran and China.

With Hezbollah arms deep in supporting Assad, al-Qaeda spear-heading the rebel onslaught, even the Taliban looking to enter the fray,  and add Lebanese, Iranian and Iraqi factions into the mix, Syria has become an even more entrenched minefield.

With Assad fighting back, the rebels literally fighting each other, Islamist forces battling Kurdish fighters and Geneva mark 2 becoming an ever distant mirage, the short-term prospects are bleak.

But the world must forget sectarianism, the new Cold war arena or those jockeying for regional power. The Western powers and the United Nations must act for the sake of humanity if nothing else.

When will enough deemed enough? Just how will history look back on the West and particularly the UN which has been an all but paralysed bystander?

By the time sane powers intervene, there will be little to intervene for. What will Syrians do with no economy, destroyed communities, homes in rubble and their currency worthless?


First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Can the Syrian Kurds turn the tide against Assad?

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.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

Turkish fears of Syrian Kurdish autonomy already a reality

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.

Kurdish Autonomy

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.

Erdogan’s warning

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.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources:  Various Misc.

The many regional dimensions of the Syrian war

Syria was always going to be a special exception to the Arab Spring. In contrast to Egypt and Libya, its religious and ethnic framework, political alliances, strategic location and above all else its potential to instigate heat waves across the region was always going to make regional and foreign powers tip-toe that much more carefully.

However, directly or indirectly, the battle in Syria is hardly restricted to Syrians themselves. A deep underlying proxy war is already taking place in Syria that brings together many influential parties with their own interests in the conflict and the eventual outcome in Syria.

Turkish alarm

Relations between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Turkey rapidly faded after the start of the revolution. Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and other pro-rebel foreign powers and Turkey itself, have been supporting the rebels indirectly from Turkish territory.

Regional powers have restrained from direct intervention in Syria, but a Syrian mortar attack that landed in the Turkish border town of Akcakale last week killing 5 Turkish civilians, resulting in retaliatory attacks by Turkey for a number of days, showed just how quickly the fire of civil war can burn across a far reaching forest.

Cross border tensions in the north are hardly new and other stray Syrian bullets and mortars have already fallen across the border in Turkey, and in Jordan and Lebanon for that matter, not forgetting the hotly-disputed downing of a Turkish jet reportedly in international waters fresh in the memory.

But the deaths in Akcakale were a red-line and Turkish parliament was quick to authorise symbolic cross-border operations if the needs arise to serve as a strong warning, even if in reality Turkey is far from jumping in to the drums of war.

Matters were hardly helped as further stray Syrian mortars landed in Turkish fields in the Hatay province on Saturday, just days after Syria had offered a rare apology and vowed not to repeat the incidents.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Syria would pay a “big price” and that Turkey would not shy away from war if provoked, stating “those who attempt to test Turkey’s deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here they are making a fatal mistake.”

Clearly, Turkey and its allies do not have the stomach for direct intervention at the current time, due to the intense regional escalation it would cause. On another day, Turkey may well have had the pretext to strike back with more fire-power or even declare all-out war, but such a solitary move without some allied coalition would be detrimental to Turkey both politically and in terms of its own stability and security.

UN and NATO response

Both the UN and NATO issued a strong rebuke to Syrian actions.

NATO demanded “the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally” and pressed the Syrian regime to “put an end to flagrant violations of international law.”

While the UN Security Council strongly condemned the provocations by the Syria regime in rare agreement after hours of negotiations and stated that the incident  “highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on the security of its neighbours and on regional peace,” and “demanded that such violations of international law stop immediately and are not repeated.”

If it was not for the staunch support of Russia and China, a Western backlash on Assad would have been much more stern and direct. However, the UN text that was issued showed the increasingly difficult predicament of Moscow as it was forced to make concessions over the cross-border crisis whilst trying to maintain calm.

Regional ramifications

The war in Syria has already split the West along Cold War lines and polarised the region. The latest escalation in tensions between Syria and Turkey threatened to introduce a whole new dimension to the Syrian conflict but is not a unique danger.

Clashes have already taken place in Lebanon between pro-Assad and pro-rebel groups inside Lebanon and border skirmishes are not rare as the battle has ubiquitously spilled over. Both Iraq and particularly Lebanon have similar sectarian connotations that introduce vested interests in the Syrian conflict.

The influential Shiite group Hezbollah based in Lebanon and closely aligned with Iran, has reportedly assisted Syrian forces but in spite of stirring of old sectarian wounds in Lebanon, the major factions have shown restraint with the bitter 15-year civil war still etched in the memory.

Baghdad, who is closely entangled with Tehran, has come under pressure from its dismayed US ally for its Syrian position and pressed to cease underhand support of the Syrian regime or allow Iran logistical access to send arm shipments to Syria. While Nouri al-Maliki is careful not to alienate foreign partners, they are clearly in favour of the current regime and not the Sunni dominated rebel movement. Some even ascribe the resurgence of Sunni attacks and groups in Iraq to the deepening sectarian conflict in Syria and the rise of Sunni power in Syria.

Israel with its occupation of the Golan Heights on the direct doorstep of the Syrian conflict, and with Iranian supported Hezbollah on the other flank, knows it can also be easily dragged into the battle.

While the Syrian crisis may have split the Arab world largely under sectarian lines, it is perhaps the Kurdish issue that may prove the most destabilising of all.

The Kurdistan Region has provided a natural helping hand to its Syrian Kurdish brethren, with Syrian Kurds using the security and political vacuum to claim de-facto autonomy and break from the shackles of Arab suppression.

On the other hand, Assad’s forces, weary of Turkish intervention or even the creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria, have strategically ceded Kurdish border areas to avoid bloodshed with the Kurds and to delimit the rebel movement and at the same time create their own buffer zone.

Turkey has already suffered to a great extent with the establishment of the Kurdish region and renewed support of the PKK in Damascus, which was a ploy by Syria to only deter a Turkish incursion but was also a tool to punish the Turks for their support of the Sunni rebel movement.

Turkey is acutely aware, that with PKK attacks on a rapid rise in Turkey and Kurdish passions running high across the Syrian-Turkish divide, a unilateral incursion may open up unwanted new fronts.

A Turkish move into Syria could well see Iran ratchet its increased support for Kurdish rebels or embolden the Syrian forces with renewed military assistance.

With Iraq, Iran and to a lesser extent Lebanon on one side, Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries, Jordan and Egypt have promoted and aided the rebel cause through proxy forces while at the same time trying to keep the conflict at arm’s length.

Syrian game changer

No war drives on indefinitely and something will have to give sooner or later. While the West and pro-rebel regional forces have been largely passive, how long can the world view a humanitarian crisis, a growing refugee influx and escalating violence in Syria as an internal issue and without ultimate intervention or the setup of some kind of no-fly zones?

The fall of Assad’s regime in Syria will have far reaching ramifications, may well see the break-up of Syria and drastically alter the political, strategic and sectarian map of the Middle East.

Both within the current crisis and in the aftermath of the war, regional powers will flock to make their stake and influence in the new Syria. Syria is far too important both now and the future to be simply left aside as a distant war.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd.net, Various Misc.

With their time to shine, Syrian Kurds must seize the moment

Many observers often describe the Syrian Kurds as sitting on the fence in the Syrian conflict, waiting on a clear outcome before choosing sides. It may be true that Kurds have not necessarily taken a more natural anti-Assad position but this is more to do with the political climate and strategic ploys than any adoration of the regime.

If Sunni’s feel that they have got a raw deal under the current dictatorship then how must the largely repressed and disenfranchised Kurds feel?

This makes it all the more ironic that Kurds continue to remain divided and are slow in taking measures that necessitate decisiveness to capitalise on the historical opportunities on the table.

It also says much about how the Kurds view the predominantly Sunni Arab nationalist Free Syrian Army (FSA) or Syrian National Council (SNC) when many preside with the mentality of “better the devil you know” due to their lack of conviction for a new Syria.

Then there is the Turkish connection. Clearly, a lot of Syrian Kurds look at both the SNC and Turkey with suspicion. The PKK has a firm fan base amongst Syrian Kurds and coupled with Turkey’s track record with their own restive Kurdish population, they remain sceptical that the autonomy or rights they demand would be enshrined in a new Syria.

Coming off the fence

Sometimes if you sit on the fence for too long waiting to make your move, the fence may break forcing you to unwillingly land on one side.

The Kurds have been widely acknowledged as the wild card in the struggle against Assad and a force with considerable numbers and sway that can tip the scale of revolution.

However, the Kurds have been too disparate, at times too slow, spending much time quarrelling amongst one another and lacking clear leadership.

There are only 2 million or so Kurds in Syria, yet dozens of political parties. The Erbil agreement in July that brought the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council of Syria (KNCS) together under the stewardship of Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani was more than a welcome step, but it remains brittle, inconsistent, unbalanced in its implementation and lacking a real nationalist feel.

A cloud still remains on the PYD and with its powerful support base and responsibility as the only real armed group, it must work on enhancing the Kurdish cause in Syria and becoming a real nationalist icon. However, it still remains shrouded under the shadow of the PKK and has hardly taking the bulls by the horns against Assad.

It must not be forgotten, that the Kurdish population in Syria is far by the smallest amongst the four major parts of Kurdistan. Nationalism never really had firm roots in terms of a definitive movement, Kurdish inhibited areas are much more geographically spread-out, and more importantly the Kurds do not have international or regional support for their own autonomous entity let alone from Sunni Arabs.

The Kurdish struggle in Syria must for now be disconnected from Kurdish struggles elsewhere. Kurdish groups and the PYD in particular should deviate away from too much focus on Turkey or the PKK struggle that resides there.

This is a historical moment for Syrian Kurds and all energies must be channelled to overcome constraints and within nationalist goals and not narrow minded party politics.

Ousting or working with the regime?

The Kurds made headlines when they took historic control of some Kurdish towns and districts in July, shortly after the Erbil Agreement. However, it was hardly a whirlwind revolution with an all guns blazing legacy but a largely peaceful transition.

No doubt a deal was made between the Assad government and the Kurdish forces for relinquishment of these areas. At the time, there was much talk of the Kurds seizing Qamishli and other Kurdish towns but months later Syrian Kurdistan remains relatively quiet and subdued.

Assad has much to gain by working and seceding territory to the Kurds and the new Kurdish administration is as much to do with a new Kurdish drive as smart manipulation by Assad.

By ceding control of border territories to the Kurds, Damascus seeks to server a double blow to Ankara. Firstly, it creates a buffer against any future Turkish incursion with Kurdish fighters well positioned and secondly it creates a fertile cross-border ground for the PKK to swing the pendulum in their favour against Turkey.

Assad further continues to create cracks in the SNC by splitting Kurdish sentiment and at the same the withdrawal was calculated by the need for Assad forces to focus energies on the battle against Syrian rebels in the key economic hub of Aleppo.

Finally, as a last measure and bare minimum fall back position for Assad, an Alawite region or even state would be established, with the proviso of a Kurdish region aiding division and establishment of future regions.

Now is the time, not the future

A lot of Kurds seem intent to save their firepower and energy for what they deem the real battle – once Assad is overthrown and a new scramble for power in Syrian ensues akin to Iraq. Kurds seem convinced that once the FSA finish pointing their guns at Assad, they will simply reposition the barrel at the Kurds instead.

While some of these fears and concerns have substance, after all Sunni opposition groups well before the Arab Spring began, hardly supported the Kurdish cause or united with Kurdish opposition groups and remained loyal to Arab unity and nationalism than any promotion of the Kurdish struggle.

The time for Kurds to act is now. Waiting for a clear outcome in the battle leads to an uncertain conclusion. If the rebels advance and beat Assad, then the Kurds will be backed in to an uncomfortable corner and diluted bargaining position and if Assad manages to stay in power, then how can the Kurds trust a dynasty that has seen them suffer mercilessly with thousands not even worthy of a citizenship status.

The Kurds in Syria must unite and set aside there differences for the sake of the Kurdish people, Kurdish nationalism and the decades of pain and tears endured under dictatorial rule. The insistence on promoting party based political agenda will see all Kurds fail.

The Kurds do not need to take sides with the SNC or Assad; the real side they should choose are the Kurds themselves.

Now is the time to charge into Qamishli and oust Assad forces, followed by all Kurdish towns and cities in Syria.

The Kurdish forces, both those loyal to the PYD and those consisting of largely Kurdish defectors from the Syrian army under a united front and can easily assume control of Kurdish population in Syrian. Assad can hardly contain one battle front in Syria, let alone two.

The passive Kurdish stance in Aleppo

Much of the Syrian revolution has congregated around Aleppo over the past several weeks. Aleppo is home to a significant Kurdish population but they have remained largely idle. There are contrasting reports of a new battle field opening in the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Sheik Maksoud, with some reports claiming that PKK affiliated militias with leverage in the district had supported regime forces while others stating they had stayed out of the battle.

Whilst, Kurds look at the FSA with suspicion, the Kurdish support is a wildcard that could easily tip the war in favour of the rebels. The Kurds must use this opportunity to drive a hard bargain with the SNC and FSA in return for direct support in ousting Assad.

A continuation of passive Kurdish stance or worse resistance against Syrian rebels in Aleppo gives an undeserving hand to Assad.

Syria is ablaze and will dramatically alter not only the political map of Syria itself but also the whole region. Tip-toeing with peaceful motions, insistence on narrow minded party interest or sitting on the fence is akin to political suicide for the Kurds. Having suffered brutally for decades and waited patiently to rewrite the wrongs of history, the Kurds dare not waste this historical opportunity.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd.net, Various Misc.

As the Middle-East unravels, Kurdistan displays its new leverage

Increasing Turkish dependence on KRG as a factor of peace and stability in the region. Kurdistan Region is no longer a threat but a ticket for Turkish stability, economic prosperity and to maintain their strategic influence in the ever-changing dynamics of conflict-torn Middle East.

Turks and Kurds have always been natural allies. It may have come decades too late and with much suffering for the Kurdish people later, but Ankara has grown to accept a reality, that was always prevalent, but they chose to mask in the pretext of narrow nationalist pursuits.

That reality is that as a major ethnic group of the Middle East both at present and throughout history, Kurds and Kurdistan have always existed as a key component of the region, regardless of constitutional stipulations, policies of repressive governments or a lack of statehood.

Natural Allies

Turkey spent years threatening the Kurdistan Region and making accusations against them. Now in the ever changing Middle Eastern climate, perhaps it is Turkey that is more in need of the Kurds as natural allies.

Ankara has acknowledged that strong ties with the Kurdistan Region are vital to maintaining stability in Turkey, the surrounding region and the Turkish quest for influence in the new Middle East. Turkish analysts mistakenly observe that their border with the Kurdish territories has increased from 800km to 1,200km. They are wrong. The border of the Kurds stretches much further when you include Iranian Kurdistan and remnants of soviet areas of Kurdistan.

Furthermore, the Kurdish border never “increased”, it is and always has been the same length.

In simple terms, Turkey was always engulfed by Kurdistan. While oppressive policies of the previous regimes in respective countries kept the Kurdish segments largely apart, these borders are been slowly eroded.

The Kurdistan Region is now the national hub of the Kurds and their economic, cultural and strategic centre. Movement between the parts of Kurdistan is becoming easier and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) economic boom and newfound prominence, is a gain for all parts of Kurdistan.

There is already an increasing labour, trade and employment benefits for Kurds outside of the KRG. Turkey needs the KRG to keep peace, stability and diplomatic channels in the parts of Kurdistan they commonly border.

Kurds over Iraqi Arabs?

Turkey is increasingly choosing Kurdistan over Baghdad. At the same pace as Ankara-Baghdad relations have deteriorated, Ankara-Erbil ties have accelerated.

Already boasting billions of dollars of trade between them, new energy deals and oil pipelines, in the face of fierce objections from Baghdad, adds new economic dimensions to already flourishing relations.

Just this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu paid a symbolic visit to Kirkuk. The fact this was the first of its kind in 75 years says it all.

This is the same city that for Turkey was a red-line and the city Turkey had threatened many invasions over. Now the visit was conducted, much to the anger of Baghdad, side by side with Kurds. Long-time Turkish aspirations for influence in the old Ottoman Mosul Vilayet that they historically crave, runs through Erbil, much in the same way as Turkey’s quest to promote Turkmen interests can only be achieved through Kurdistan.

The Iraqi foreign ministry issued a sharp rebuke to Turkey for “violating” its constitution as they claimed that Davutoglu had neither requested nor obtained permission to enter Kirkuk.

Baghdad repeated what Davutoglu already knew. But it’s the Kurds they need in Iraq right now, not Baghdad, hence why Turkey agreed to export Kurdish oil in a historic move, again, against a backdrop of a stern backlash from Baghdad.

The fact that in recent weeks the likes of Chevron, Total and Gazprom joined the rush of oil-giants, on the side-lines for so many years, is also an indicator of Turkish backing of the KRG for such deals.

Oil giants are fed-up of the waiting game with Baghdad and have signed lucrative contracts with the KRG knowing fully well what the Baghdad stance and risks would entail.

They effectively chose Kurdistan over Baghdad.

Syrian Kurdistan

Whilst the public Turkish rhetoric is understandable, if nothing to appease the nationalist hawks and military elite, in reality Turkey can do little to prevent the Kurdish autonomous advancement in Syria.

Much in the same way as it finally warmed to the reality of a Kurdistan government next door in Iraq, Turkey will come to realise that it needs to lure and work with the Syrian Kurds rather than alienate them.

Furthermore, it will be rather ironic, that they promote and support the democratic and freedom struggles of the Sunni Arabs, yet chastise the Kurds, who have suffered a lot worse than Arabs under Baathist rule, for wanting the same.

Too often for Turkey, a nationalistic Kurd has been synonymous with a PKK sympathiser. Most Kurds are nationalists but not all support the PKK.

While there is an undoubted PKK support base in Syria, there is also clearly a multitude of other Kurdish political parties in the mix. It’s not the Kurdistan Democratic Union Party (PYD) that solely rules the roost as many allege.

The PYD may actually serve as an opportunity and not as a threat to Turkey. Not only can it slowly bring the PYD to its sphere of influence with an affective carrot and stick approach, it can also use it as a way to diminish support of the PKK in Syria and indeed Turkey.

If Turkish Kurds can see that nationalist goals can be achieved in Syria without the PKK, it may well swing sentiments.

The root cause for endless circle of violence between the PKK and Turkey has been the failure of Ankara to address the roots of its problems.

Success against the PKK cannot be achieved by shooting them down from their mountains and strongholds, but it is to prevent their ascent in the first place.

Any military incursion by Turkey into Syrian Kurdistan will have dire consequence. It will further antagonise the PYD into a hard-line stance and certainly tip the scale for Kurdish moderates.

Even the PKK have renewed grounds for striking peace, if they can find a political voice in Syria, it may well change the tune of negotiations in Turkey, affording them with a unique opportunity to break from arms and their image.

Syrian Kurdish foster parents

Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani and Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu both warned in a joint statement that “any attempt to exploit the power vacuum by any violent group or organisation will be considered as a common threat.”

Barzani is unlikely to relinquish support and unity with PYD, but the statement serves as a warning to the party, to keep within a political path and uphold the terms of the Erbil Agreement.

Turkey may well accept the PYD as long as the PYD works closely with the Kurdistan Region. Some Turkish circles had expressed surprise at Barzani’s key part in the Erbil agreement that ensured Syrian Kurdish unity, but Ankara will in the background accept and encourage Barzani and the KRG to becoming the foster parents of the Syrian Kurds.

Increasing economic and political Turkish support for the KRG and perhaps even statehood will come under the trade-off that peace and stability can be maintained in Turkish Kurdistan and the surrounding Kurdish areas.

Turkey and Kurdistan may well become a de-facto confederation. It may seem strange and delusional, but how believable was senior Turkish leaders openly referring to the term Kurdistan and giving press conferences under the flags of Kurdistan and Turkey, just a few years ago?

Such strong alliances could well be win-win for Turks and Kurds. Turkey has access to Europe and the possibility of future European Union membership with all the benefits it entails, whilst Kurdistan has access to billions of barrels of oil, are secular Sunni’s like Turkey and form an increasingly important buffer against Shiite influence and in the ever hostile and conflict torn Middle East that is threatening to severely damage Turkish standing in the region.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.