The Kurdish question is manipulated by Syria as it turns to their old PKK allies to undermine an increasingly hostile Turkey and simultaneously divide the potentially decisive Kurds back home.
The Arab Spring may have stormed through a number of countries but for Syria it has not been such a straightforward transition.
Syria is not a clear-cut arithmetic as the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt or even Libya. Syria finds itself at the crux of the complicated and intertwined web that is the Middle East and has a hand in a number of historic tensions that continue to plague the region.
It finds itself inhabited by a disenfranchised Sunni majority under the iron fist of minority-Alawite rule for successive decades. It has a powerful hand in the socio-political equation in Palestine and Lebanon and is a major ally of Tehran. To put the icing on the cake, it houses a significant Kurdish minority that has borne the brunt of government brutality and that makes the unfolding of a post-Assad era all the more sensitive.
Over a year since the uprisings first began and Bashar al-Assad continues to cling on to power. Even though the revolt against Assad enjoys popular support from Sunni Arab countries, most Western powers, the UN and particularly Turkey, the fall of the regime is not yet a forgone conclusion.
The Syrian opposition may receive funding and overlying diplomatic support but the Syrian rebels continue to lack real firepower, cohesion and a long-term ability to capitalise on any gains.
It is easy to forget that it was not Libyan rebels that overcame the rule of Muammar Gaddafi but the sheer might of NATO air power.
The prospect of foreign intervention remains the only real game changer in Syria. This looked unlikely with the stern opposition of both veto-wielding Russia and China at the UN table but this could all change as Turkish-Syrian relations take a nosedive with Turkey becoming increasingly engulfed in the Syrian hostilities.
Turkey already plays host to the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and thousands of Syrian refugees and is embroiled in a bitter conflict with Syria’s new friends, the PKK.
The Kurdish card
Aside from regional proximity and Sunni majorities, both Turkey and Syria share a historic Kurdish problem that has been long been a thorn in the sides of the respective countries. Turkish Syrian relations greatly improved after a deal in 1998 whereby Syria withdrew its key support of the PKK and signed the Adana Agreement to preserve cross-border peace. Now with an ever increasing hard-line rhetoric and opposition from Ankara towards Assad’s ongoing rule, Syria has once again turned to the Kurds as a way of hitting back at Turkey, knowing fully well that this is one of the most emotive and sensitive bullets that Damascus can fire at Ankara.
By providing renewed support and rekindling ties with the PKK, Assad gains a key leverage against Turkey whilst simultaneously weakening the Kurdish voice back home.
One of Assad’s and Baathists key strengths has been the manipulation of sectarian sentiments in Syria to consolidate power both in the midst of the current uprisings and over the past decades. Along the same lines, Assad quickly reached out to the Kurds while the uprising was still in its infancy, knowing fully well that a united Kurdish opposition to his rule and active Kurdish participation in the revolt could easily break the back of the regime.
What the Syrian Kurds have been striving for decades, Assad promised in days as he vowed to resolve the case of stateless Kurds and increase freedoms.
The Kurds in Syria now find themselves at crossroads. The ill-fated treatment of the Kurds under the hands of the Baathists is something that the Kurds will hardly forget. However, at the same time, the Kurds are not convinced on their destiny in what will still be an Arab dominated post-Assad era.
Many Kurds feel that the Syrian National Council (SNC), with strong ties and backing from Ankara, is under pressure from Turkey to curtail Kurdish demands, particularly that of autonomy. The SNC has so far resisted key clauses demanded by the Kurds much to the dismay of Kurdish parties.
At the same time, the Kurds are mindful that they may suffer in the hands of Sunni Arab hardliners in a post-Assad era for a lack of direct support to the opposition.
It appears that under the new Syrian-PKK lease of life, the Democratic Union party (PYD), the PKK offshoot in Syria, has been given a platform by Damascus to operate and enhance its influence.
Meanwhile, a swathe of Kurdish parties united under the Kurdish National Congress (KNC) umbrella which is backed by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but in spite of their agenda to promote their demands and support the overthrow of Assad, action has not gained significant motion on the ground.
A more sincere reach out to the Kurds by Western powers, Arab League members and SNC could easily tip Kurdish scales in the battle to overthrow Assad.
The UN peace plan
The six-point plan that was brokered by the UN-Arab League envoy, Koffi Annan that should have led to a withdrawal of Syrian troops and firepower and a subsequent ceasefire, has been tentative at best.
Even if the UN plan, which has already been violated, was to work in the short-term it is always at risk of collapsing. Regardless of any such peace plans, the respective end goals of Assad or the opposition doesn’t change. The opposition and international powers will not rest until Assad leaves, while Assad will not go down without a fight or succumb to Western pressure.
Furthermore, both sides can easily manipulate the current peace plan and breach the peace. Assad forces will use the smallest of provocations to justify the notion of self-defence, while rebels will hardly want to see their hard work undone and return unarmed to their homes. The opposition know that large-scale demonstrations are the easiest and most sensitive way of testing government appetite for peace.
In truth, this is just the beginning of the conflict in Syria and UN peace plans are nothing more than preludes to justify stronger action in the future.
The current situation that awaits Assad is not too dissimilar to that of Saddam Hussein in 1991. In spite of strong opposition within Iraq and fierce diplomatic pressure at the time, a lack of real practical steps by foreign powers meant that the opposition petered out and Saddam lasted another 12 years. This is a scenario that the West is unlikely to want to repeat and the end-game is the quick downfall of Assad one way or another.
While the UN aims for peace, paradoxically there are attempts to arm the rebels and provide significant funding.
Prospects of a buffer zone
The likely scenario that would tip the scales and shatter the current picture in Syria is direct Turkish intervention. Ankara has threated to take action a number of times but hawkish voices grew as Syrian forces killed a number of civilians in Turkey in a cross-border fire exchange, including Turkish nationals.
The idea of a buffer zone has been touted for a while but owed to regional sensitivities and a number of risks were put on hold. However, it is becoming a more realistic possibility with a current spate of events that have angered Turkey and with Ankara’s lack of conviction that Assad will abide by the current peace-plan.
The creation of a buffer zone inevitably involves military deployment on Syrian soil and thus the possibility of direct confrontation with Syrian forces. Such moves may appear unilateral on paper, but will have the full backing of most neighbouring governments and Western powers with Russia likely to remain neutral.
The purpose of creating a buffer zone may appear humanitarian in nature but is intended to achieve nothing but the overthrow of Assad. How Assad or their PKK allies will react in such an event may lead to intensified hostilities.
Either way, Ankara has go to come to terms with a post-Assad era that invariably means that the Kurds will be granted new freedoms in Syria in one form or another.
With the PKK or Kurdish nationalist question unlikely to disappear in either an Assad or post-Assad era, Turkey may find itself forced to adopt a new long-term hand in Syria.
First Published On: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.