Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Battle of the mini-states

Kurdish separatists in northern Syria have been taking advantage of the chaos in the region to expel the Arab population, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The power struggle in northern Syria pitting Kurdish national ambitions against Turkey’s national security concerns, with the Islamic State (IS) group cast in its now well-established role as a bloodthirsty bully, has a sinister aspect that does not crop up often in the news.

Since the Kurds took back the town of Kobani from IS hands a few months ago, things have not been going well for the Arab inhabitants of nearby villages.

Reports have spoken of large-scale expulsions of the Arab populations, as well as assorted war crimes committed by the Kurdish PYD security forces known as Asayesh or the People’s Protection Units against non-Kurdish locals.

Since the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad withdrew its forces from Kurdish areas in the north of the country in July 2012, the PYD has been edging its way towards creating its own mini-state in northern Syria, a place it has christened Rojava, Kurdish for Western Kurdistan.

Wherever the PYD has imposed its rule, the region’s Arab identity has given way to a Kurdish one. License plates have changed, Kurdish courts have been established, flags have been swapped, and the names of villages altered.

Analysts suspect connivance between the PYD and the Syrian regime and say that the PYD has been trying to expand its areas at the expense of Arab and Assyrian residents.

Some have called for local and international fact-finding missions to investigate alleged crimes by the PYD, which is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK.

A few days ago, IS waged a lightening attack on Kobani where it launched a series of suicide bombings. The attacks won the PYD considerable sympathy, even among those Syrians who are sceptical about its intentions.

In the wave of solidarity, even PYD critics who often charge the Kurds of trying to alter the demographics of northern Syria swallowed their tongues.

According to initial reports, IS forces killed more than 150 Kurds, mostly civilians, in the attacks before the Kurds went into action, quickly reasserting their control of Kobani, which is also known as Ein Al-Arab.

Soon afterwards, it transpired that the IS combatants, dressed in Kurdish uniforms, had only numbered some 30 men or so. The casualty figures also turned out to be much less than originally assumed.

Following the attack, the Kurds traded accusations with Turkey, with the PYD accusing Ankara of facilitating the entry of extremists into northern Syria. Denying its involvement, Turkey warned the PYD that it “would not tolerate” a Kurdish mini-state in northern Syria.

Commenting on the recent events in Kobani, Syrian opposition member Said Moqbil advised the PYD to change tactics.

“The return of IS to Ein Al-Arab [Kobani] for revenge purposes should make the Syrian Kurds understand that no part of Syria can be protected without the involvement of all Syrians,” Moqbil said.

 “The cities inhabited by a Kurdish majority cannot be protected by the [PYD] People’s Protection Units, the Iraqi Peshmerga, the Turkish PKK, or the Iranian Kurdish fighters,” he added. “The Kurdish attempt to create a canton in northern Syria is chauvinistic and narrow-sighted.”

Some commentators say that last week’s fighting in Kobani was merely “theatricality” staged by the PYD to regain sympathy and deflect charges that it had committed ethnic cleansing against non-Kurds.

Earlier this year, the PYD was accused of evicting thousands of Arabs and Christians from their homes in the region. PYD fighters also reportedly put 50 Arab and Assyrian villages to the torch and expelled Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters from the areas under its control.

Military analyst Ahmed Rahhal said that the PYD tactics had paid off so far. “The Syrian Kurds have succeeded where the Syrian opposition has failed. They have forged political alliances with the US and the Coalition, earning air support in the battles the Kurdish militias have fought in northern Syria,” he noted.

Meanwhile, the Kurds have not broken off their military alliance with the regime, “while claiming they cannot bear its brutality,” Rahhal added. The eviction of Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen villagers from their homes amounted to “ethnic cleansing,” he said.

In the areas it controls, the PYD monopolises weapons, government, policing and the courts. It has rejected power-sharing with other groups, including other Kurdish parties, and is drawing immense resources from the oil wells it has seized.

The PYD, rival Kurdish groups said, either expels or kills its Kurdish opponents. Kurdish groups including the Kurdish Future Current (KFC) accused the PYD of making deals with both IS and the regime.

The FSA claims it has documents proving that the PYD has collaborated with the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

Abdel-Baset Sida, a Kurdish member of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), blames “the PYD’s duplicitous policies” for “poisoning relations between the Arab and Kurdish communities.”

 “Everyone, and the Kurds most of all, know that the PYD is using the Kurdish community as a bargaining chip to promote its own agenda and regional alliances,” Sida remarked.

But some analysts say that not all the Kurds are opposed to PYD attempts at state-building in the north. Suleiman Youssef, a researcher specialising in minority affairs, said that “all the Kurdish political forces in Syria” are sitting on the fence when it comes to PYD tactics.

 “The Kurdish movement in Syria believes it is better to grab what rights and regional and political gains it can from a weakened and troubled regime,” Youssef said.

For the Kurds this is a better bet than relying on the goodwill of the mix of nationalists and Islamists who may take over after Al-Assad’s fall and “whose position on Kurdish rights remains unclear,” he added.

For now, three aspiring mini-states are fighting for prominence in Syria’s northern reaches: the Kurds, with an agenda of secession; IS, with an agenda of regional – if not global – domination; and the regime, hoping to snatch a rump state from the smouldering ruins of the country it has set on fire.

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