Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1160, (15 - 21 August 2013)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1160, (15 - 21 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The controversial autonomy of Syria’s Kurds

Kurdish groups in north Syria declare self-rule — a move that has angered many, including other Syrian Kurds,
writes Bassel Oudat from Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Kurdish areas in northeast Syria have been simmering with emotion since the West Kurdistan Council and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (DUP) announced plans for self-rule two weeks ago.

The move was widely criticised by other opposition groups, including Kurdish ones, which called it a step towards the partitioning of Syria.

About a month ago, Kurds in the cities of Al-Qamishli, Al-Mayadin and Tall Abyad found themselves in open confrontation with Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters of Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who make no secret of their desire to create an Islamic state in this part of the country.

Reacting to the threat, the Kurds decided to set up an autonomous administration in their areas. The move was met with disapproval across the political spectrum.

The DUP, it was said, was using the current turbulence in the country to promote its own agenda, thus setting the stage for future conflict between Arab and Kurdish Syrians. DUP leader Saleh Muslim responded that self-rule aims at restoring law and order, ensuring regular supplies of food, fuel and medicine, and generally taking better care of the population. It is not a step towards secession, because the DUP believes in a united Syria, he remarked.

But even the Kurds don’t seem to buy it. The Kurdish National Council (KNC), a coalition of 10 other Kurdish parties, rejected the move, saying that the Kurdish problem can best be addressed through the creation of a democratic and pluralistic state that upholds the rights of all its citizens, including Kurds. The KNC criticised the DUP for taking a step “towards secession”.

The Turkish government was even more critical, as it saw the move as a threat to its own national fabric. Ankara has invited the DUP leader for talks, while warning of the consequences of creating an ethnic state on its borders.

Kurdish armed groups also spoke against the move. Faris Mishal Timmo, general coordinator of Syria’s Kurdish Revolutionary Council, said that the actions of the DUP conflicted with Kurdish interests.

Timmo accused DUP leader Muslim of collaborating with the Syrian regime, adding that there is a “suspicious harmony” between his actions and those of Al-Nusra Front.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Timmo said: “The DUP receives military backing from the Syrian regime and it is now trying to impose a Kurdish Workers’ Party [PKK]-style mini-state.”

“We disapprove of the substitution of the totalitarianism of the Baath Party with the totalitarianism of a repressive Kurdish regime,” Timmo added. He threatened to fight the DUP, by military and political means, unless it “quits backing the regime and goes back to the national fold”.

Timmo also accused the DUP of promoting Al-Qaeda’s interests.

Still, Islamist fighters affiliated with Al-Qaeda have recently attacked Kurdish areas in north Syria, assaulting civilians and abducting some. Dozens, on both sides, were killed or injured in the clashes.

The only country that seemed to give unequivocal support to the DUP is Iran. The DUP leader claims that Iranian officials told him that his autonomy plan was “legitimate”. According to Muslim, the Iranians promised to back him in the fight against “common enemies” — presumably a reference to Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters.

For his part, Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, said that he would do everything in his power to defend the Syrian Kurds if they come under threat from Al-Qaeda.

Midas Azizi, spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic National Rally in Syria, described the Kurdish self-rule plans as premature. He told the Weekly that such plans overlook the concerns of other Syrians.

Kurdish Syrians, Azizi said, have no option but to seek a solution through dialogue with other Syrians. “We need a new social contract to come into existence after the overthrow of the dictatorial regime,” he pointed out.

Over the past two years, Syrian opposition have often criticised the DUP’s actions and accused it of coordinating its policies with the regime. In DUP demonstrations, protesters have been known to wave the Kurdish flag alone, not that of the revolution.

Those who believe that self-rule in Kurdish areas is but a conspiracy on the part of the regime argue that Damascus at first encouraged the DUP to forge close ties with Al-Nusra Front. Then, when the moment was right, it told the DUP to fight Al-Nusra and create a mini-state in its areas.

Kurdish political activist Hervin Ose argues that the Kurds have so far had an ambiguous stand on the revolution. Speaking to the Weekly, she said, “the ambiguity of the Kurdish position on the revolution is now posing a threat to the Kurds themselves.”

Some Kurdish parties, such as the PKK, act only in ways that benefit the Syrian regime, Ose said.

“Any talk of self-rule is not in the interests of Syrian Kurds. It can only encourage the establishment of a military dictatorship under false nationalist pretences,” she added.

Syrian Kurds, it is worth noting, have serious grievances.

Over the past 50 years, the Kurds have had no recognition of their rights or culture. They are not allowed to teach their language in their schools. Tens of thousands of them have no identity cards. The regime treats them as second-class citizens, although it has no qualms forcing them to do military service. Kurds are rarely given key posts in government.

For these reasons, some Kurds dream of their own state. But so far this has been a pipedream.

For one thing, ethnic Kurds are divided between four countries: eight million live in Iran, 15 million in Turkey, five million in Iraq, and two million in Syria. These figures are mere estimates, as official census figures are rarely available.

Without international or regional recognition — almost unthinkable at present — the Kurds cannot have their own state.

In Syria, the Kurds are spread out across the country and most have lost touch with their original language and culture.

Turkey, whose opinion matters to its Western allies, has denied statehood — or even self-rule — to its Kurdish inhabitants and cannot possibly tolerate the creation of a Kurdish state across its borders.

Timmo believes that what the Kurds need is not self-rule, but the overthrow of the Damascus regime.

“The problem of the Syrian people in general is the continued presence of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, which depends in its rule on producing and fomenting national and sectarian strife. Only with the overthrow of the regime will the Kurds and the rest of the country be able to live in freedom.”

The answer to Kurdish grievances, most Syrians agree, is not secession, but a constitution that grants ethnic communities and factional sects their rights in full.

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