Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Dreams of Syria’s Kurds

Last month’s referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan has inspired dreams of secession among Syrian Kurds who may mistakenly think of independence as their best option, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

 

Dreams of Syria’s Kurds
Dreams of Syria’s Kurds

اقرأ باللغة العربية


The referendum on independence held in Iraqi Kurdistan last month deeply impacted on Syria’s Kurds, who have been inspired by visions of secession from the rest of Syria or at least autonomy in the northern areas they have conquered by force over the past two years.

Before the Iraqi Kurdish plebiscite, many Syrian Kurds from across the political spectrum saw secession as their best option, raising the ceiling of their demands and voicing their aversion to their Arab environment.

In parallel to the referendum in northern Iraq, the Syrian Kurds held elections in northern Syria to choose local leaders in a process that will culminate in electing a Syrian Kurdish parliament. The Kurdish region in Syria is on the border with Turkey, which is hostile to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that represents the Syrian Kurds, but that also manipulates them through militias.

The Kurds have tried to meet with the Syrian government in Damascus twice, but the dialogue, mediated by Russia, has resulted in little because it is not only the Syrian opposition that rejects such Kurdish pipedreams.

The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad also objects to autonomy for the Kurds, imposed by their taking advantage of the weakness of all sides distracted by the fighting between the regime and the opposition and against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria.

However, Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Al-Muallem said the government was prepared to talk with the Kurds about autonomy after the war against IS was over. He sent a message through the Russian media to the Syrian Kurds, saying that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria was “open for discussion if created within the framework of the Syrian state”.

Courting Syria’s Kurds is nothing new for the regime, as since the start of the revolution in 2011 it has worked on winning the Kurds to its camp through favourable laws, including reinstating citizenship for Kurds stripped of their nationality, annulling Decree 49 that prevented the sale of real estate in border regions, supplying some Kurdish militias with weapons and cooperating with them in battle, and coordination between the regime and the Kurds on political positions hostile to Turkey.

The Syrian opposition, however, rejects all Kurdish proposals for secession and has said that it will resist these with force if necessary.

The PYD is the Syrian arm of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), listed by Turkey as a terrorist organisation. It controls around one-quarter of Syrian territory, along with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units.

While 60 per cent of these forces are non-Syrian Kurds, the PYD has also tried to recruit Arabs to form Syrian Democratic Forces that are less than ten per cent Arab. This has allowed it to claim that the forces are joint militias and not purely Kurdish in composition.

Three years ago, the PYD said it intended to seek Kurdish autonomy within a non-centralised Syrian state, but its actions thus far indicate that it is in fact preparing for secession from Syria. The Syrian opposition accuses the PYD of displacing Arabs from hundreds of villages in northern Syria, changing the demography and exercising authoritarianism even against other Kurdish parties.

There have been no confrontations between regime forces and the Kurdish militias, but tensions rose when the Kurds struck up an alliance with the US through which they receive weapons and support that have allowed them to expand geographically without coordinating with the Syrian regime.

For five decades, the regime discriminated against the Kurds, denying them their cultural rights, banning their language and their national holidays. It also prevented them from forming associations and parties, enforced compulsory military service, withheld citizenship, denied the Kurds the status of an ethnic group and sought to erase their identity.

The Syrian opposition has not come up with a suitable political approach to resolve the Kurdish issue in Syria. Some opposition circles have denied that there is a Kurdish issue or that there are Kurdish rights. This has heightened the desire for secession among the Kurds.

“Some Kurds and Arabs have dealt with the Kurdish issue based on foreign regional calculations and not as a national Syrian matter relating to the national and democratic transformation in Syria,” said Saeed Moqbel, a member of the Syrian opposition.

“We cannot deny the excessive practices of the Kurdish militias against the Kurds and Arabs in the areas under their control. They dominate, commit crimes and change the demography. These things will result in further ethnic conflict.”

Syrian commentator Saad Fonss said that “the call by the PYD to create a federal state in Syria based on ethnicity will fail, if not tomorrow then in the near future.”

The misreading by the Syrian opposition of the Kurdish issue and the misperception by the Kurds of their own cause, as well the encouragement by the Kurdish political and military leadership to adopt chauvinistic nationalist practices, are due to short-sightedness on both sides about the future political system in Syria.

If the two sides do not correct their mistakes, the future will give rise to further ethnic clashes which the Kurds will lose, especially since they are a minority living in a sea of other ethnicities that are prepared to wage war against those wanting to fragment the region into tiny ethnic states.

The Kurdish issue has been used as a bargaining chip in the past, and the Kurds have been denied their collective rights. The Syrian regime has used them to put pressure on the Iraqi regime; Turkey has used them to pressure Baghdad; and Iran has used them against Ankara. This has helped stoke dreams of secession and hostility towards their environment among the Kurds, even though this is likely to be more accepting than foreign regimes.

“If the Syrian opposition and the Kurds do not change their thinking on how to deal with the Kurdish issue in a different way from the exclusionary policies of the Syrian regime, then Syrian unity will not survive,” Moqbel said. “Meanwhile, the Kurds will be opening the gates of hell, as they are demanding legitimate rights in illegitimate ways.”

 “The Kurdish political leaders have entered false alliances that contradict Kurdish rights. They are counting on their alliance with the US to attain their rights, but they forget that the US strongly opposed the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Fonss said.

“The US only cares about its interests and does not care if the Kurds attain their rights. If the Kurds do not realise this in time, they will become the victims of contemporary history.”

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