Vicken Cheterian

Syria’s Kurds, and Middle East’s Democracy

The Kurdish de facto authorities in northeast Syria organized from June 4-6 the “International Forum on ISIS” inviting some 200 international guests to Qamishli. More than the fate of the defeat Islamic State, it is the future of the Kurdish autonomy that is the real challenge.

The Kurdish de facto autonomy in the northeast Syria is both a risk and a chance. It is a major risk of confrontation, not only between the Turkish state and the Syrian-Kurdish self-declared autonomy, but also with a resurgent Damascus. Sooner or later, the question of northeast Syria, which the Kurds call it “Rojava”, will be posed. Yet Syria’s Kurds could also offer a chance, at least a possibility, for a different type of political culture: based on negotiations and compromises negotiations, instead of threats and wars. 

The Kurdish autonomy in Syria is the result of the long failure and the sudden collapse of the modern nation-state in the Middle East. This autonomy emerged in mid-2012, as the state framework in Syria was rapidly collapsing. The 2011 popular demonstrations in Syria, but also elsewhere in the Arab World, led to state repression, and later to violent confrontations, that undermined the Syrian state institutions as they had emerged after the withdrawal of the French troops in 1946. The on-going violence in Syria has claimed between 370’000– that is the lowest estimate - and 570’000 dead. The UN talks about an approximate 400’000 killed. If one considers that Syria had 22 million inhabitants in 2011, it means that 2% of the total population was killed in the last 8 years of conflict. Plus, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country, and another 6.2 million were internally displaced. The magnitude of violence, in its vast majority being Syrian against Syrian, makes the idea of the nation – whether Arab or Syrian – emptied from meaning. 

Yet, this state had failed the Kurds for generations. To put it mildly, the Kurds were not well treated in nationalist Syria. They constituted some 10% of the total population, but the Syrian Baathist state rejected citizenship to 300’000 of them. Kurdish (Kurmanji) language teaching was forbidden, as well as celebration of Nowruz (the beginning of Spring, Persian as well as Kurdish new year). Kurds revolted against their conditions in Syria in 2004, and in 2011, when Kurdish activist Mashaal Tammo was assassinated, government forces did not hesitate to open fire on the thousands of people who took part in his funeral. While repressing them back home, the Syrian Baathist regime to manipulate Kurdish resistance against Turkey, by providing the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) with military bases, and material support. Kurds were a “card” to be played against Turkey, not allies. By mid-2012, Syrian military forces that remained loyal to Bashar al-Asad were over-stretched. They abandoned large parts of northern Syria, facilitating Kurdish military take-over. At the time, Damascus saw the Kurds as possible allies, a barrier against Islamist opposition, and against threats of direct Turkish intervention. 

Since 2012, Syria’s Kurdish areas went through major changes: while Kurdish forces, regrouped under the banner of “People’s Protection Units” the YPG, tried to unify the three Kurdish inhabited regions in Qamishli, Kobane, and Afrin. They came under attack by Islamist forces in 2013, and a year later major onslaught from the Islamic State – or Daesh, which advanced very rapidly (DATE) overrunning some 300 Kurdish villages before encircling and attacking Kobane itself. Kurdish resistance, supported by US aviation, broke the back of the jihadi blitzkrieg. Being the foot-soldiers in the fight against Daesh, YPG paid a high price: 11’000 of its fighters died in the fight. Its alliance with the US protected the Syrian Kurds from other threats. According to one account, the US has provided the Syrian Kurds with massive military aid. Now, YPG holds several thousand ISIS prisoners, including 2’000 foreign fighters, not to mention some 70’000 Daesh families – women, children and elderly, in al-Hol camp. It will try to exchange them for further international recognition.

For the moment, there is no direct threat against the Syrian Kurds. Trumps tweet to withdraw of some 2’000 US Special Forces from northeast Syria was reversed by the military. The game of influence between the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran over means of communication and Syrian oilfields still continues. Another factor that postpones the case of northeastern Syria is the on-going fighting in Idlib. Turkey had guaranteed to disarm radical groups linked to al-Qaeda in this region but failed. The Syrian army with its Russian allies launched a major attack on Idlib on April 30, but failed to advance and suffered heavy casualties. This was partly because of Turkish support to Syrian opposition formations with arms and ammunition, including with TOW anti-tank missiles. Idlib question, with 3 million civilians trapped between the warring parties, and often coming under direct fire, remains the most urgent question in Syria at the moment.

Once the Idlib issue is settled, there could be a temporary alliance between Ankara and Damascus against the Kurds. The Turkish authorities were initially hesitant what position to take – remember the 2013 cease-fire between Turkey and PKK – but by 2014 Ankara started regarding the Syrian Kurds through “terrorism” lenses, and continually threatened by military intervention. Damascus initially preferred to have the Kurds control the northern borders, than to see opposition forces, pro-Turkish militias, or Daesh. Yet, since the Syrian regime eliminated a number of its enemies, it has hardened its stand with the Kurds. Damascus rejects any talk about “autonomy” or about “federalism”. The only offer it has to the Kurds is a return to status quo ante, back to centralized, authoritarian state, and subjugation to the Kurds.

Yet, there is another way out: to accept that Kurds do exist in the Middle East, and they are a political factor. By giving autonomy to the Kurds in Syria and recognizing their political will, the Middle East would see emerging a different political model than that of the unitary nation-state, the source of so much tragedy and suffering. It would be a first step to moderate the all-powerful centralizing states and their presidents, and create some pluralism and diversity, through power sharing. With international support to the idea of autonomy and federalism, this idea could become more than just utopian. Remember, how Ankara opposed any autonomy for the Kurds in Iraq, but now it is the major economic and political partner of the rulers in Erbil.