Kurds in Syria
For our series of articles related to Kurdish politics, in this article, we shall discuss the politics of the Kurds in Syria. We will examine the current conflict, the role that Kurdish actors are playing in Syria, and the international relations related to Kurdish politics in Syria.
History of the Kurds in Syria
During and following World War I, there were discussions about granting the Kurds their own state. This was further advanced during the Post World War I Treaty of Sevres. However, the idea was short lived. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk fought against this idea in the early 1920s, and Britain also quelled rebellions in Iraq. The Kurds living in Syria were now under the French colonial system, one that used violence to ensure that their notion of order was in place.
The areas that the Kurds lived in during the beginning of the French mandate were those of Jazira, Jarablus, and Kurd Dagh (Tejel, 2009). Overall, France had little control over many of the Kurdish regions throughout the Middle, in part due to the Treaty of Sevres, but also other agreements (with Turkey, for example).
It is also important to note that while Kurdish nationalism was beginning to take hold in the early 1900s, before that, many of the Kurds were under not only various political systems, but there were also various identities that the people had (Tejel, 2009), and the pan-Kurdish one was not the primary focal point for many, at least during these early years. However, as the Kurdish national identity grew, it posed a threat to not only the French (who aimed to challenge any dissent to their rule), but also to the Arab nationalist movements who viewed the Kurdish nationalist identity as potentially politically worrisome (Tejel, 2009) for the survival of Syria after independence. Interestingly, the Kurdish nationalism rose greatly in Syria after the repression of Kurds elsewhere in the region (Tejel, 2009). Groups such as the Koybun League began establishing Kurdish civil society groups in Syria and elsewhere in the region (Tejel, 2009). However, politically, they were much more careful to demand independence from the French, given what France did to the Arab revolt in the late 1920s and early 1930s (1927-1931) (Tejel, 2009). However, this was also a time in increased cultural activities, which included but were not limited to publications in Kurdish, and calls by the Kurdish political leaders for the use of Kurdish in schools (Tejel, 2009).
The Kurds and Syrian Independence
The Kurds have attempted to gain additional rights and representation in the different countries that they live in, and Syria, following independence, has been no exception. In 1945, for example, a new organization, the Kurdish League, replaced the Koybun League (Tejel, 2009). This group continued to advocate Kurdish interests.
There were many however who were concerned about what the Kurdish nationalism calls would do for the Syrian state. Thus, many were unwilling to grant significant concessions to the Kurds (Tejel, 2009). Sadly, along with others, “[t]he Kurds became…[a] major scapegoat of Arab nationalism and became part of the “shu‘ubiyyun” or, in other words, people who would not allow themselves to be “Arabized.” They were considered as hired agents in the service of powerful foreign enemies of Arabism” (Tejel, 2009: 41).
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Syrian government continued to deny the Kurds equal rights within the country. For example, the government–for decades, has not allowed equal language for the Kurds. In 1958, the government at the time banned any publications in the Kurdish language. Furthermore, while public schools offered no support for the Kurdish language, the government also prohibited private school from teaching in Kurdish. The government also added further frustrations to the Kurdish cultural identity by renaming cities to Arabic names (ICG, 2013). And “[i]n 1962, the authorities used census data from the al-Jazeera region (the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers) in the north east to strip approximately 120,000 Kurds of their Syrian citizenship, claiming they were illegal immigrants from Turkey” (ICG, 2013: 6). The situation did not improve very much under Hafiz Al-Assad, or Bashar Al-Assad. Both recognized the value of the land in northeastern Syria, but were unwilling to provide needed cultural and political rights for the Kurds (ICG, 2013).
Kurdish Political Groups in Syria
The most noted Kurdish political group in Syria has been the Democratic Union Party (or the PYD). This group was founded in 2003 following the forcing out of the PKK in 1998 (Gunes & Lowe, 2015). It has been suggested that they have ties to the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey. This group was unable to operate in Syria, and its leader, Salih Muslim, who served some time in Syrian prison, left Syria in 2010, and went to the PKK in Iraq. Before 2011 profess, the Syrian regime imposed a lifetime sentence on Muslim. However, Muslim and the PYD took advantage of the political instability that arose during the protests and civil war outbreak in 2011 and came back to the Kurdish regions in the country (ICG, 2013).
In addition to the PYD, there are also other Kurdish groups in Syria. Most of these groups that have no direct ties to the PYD have formed under their own umbrella banner, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which falls under Barzani’s KDP leadership in Iraq. These parties not under the PYD came from the former Kurdish Democratic Party (the Partiya Kurdên Demoqratên Sûrî), which was first established in 1957 (ICG, 2013).
While the KNC is said to speak for these different Syrian Kurdish groups (outside of the PYD), it is important to note that their unity has been questioned. As the International Crisis Group (2013) explains,
“The KNC’s diverse membership has led to manifold internal divisions. Its factions possess different patrons, ideologies and bases of support. Today, the two most in- fluential parties within the coalition enjoy direct links to Iraqi Kurdish parties: the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (Partiya Demokrat a Kurdî li Sûriyê, PDKS), headed by Abdulhakim Bashar, is the Syrian sister party to Barzani’s KDP; and the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party of Syria (Partiya Demokrat a Pêşverû ya Kurdî li Sûriyê, hereafter the Progressive Party), headed by Abdulhamid Darwish, is the sister party to Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Ongoing rivalry between the KDP and PUK historically has translated into a PDKS-Progres- sive Party competition that persists – alongside other divisions – under the some- what loose KNC umbrella” (3).
Barzani and others have tried to bridge the divisions between these two groups. For example, in 2012, Barzani and the PYD formalized what was called the “Erbil Agreement” between the two groups which stated joint military actions to protect and rule the Kurdish controlled regions of Syria, and related to this, also called for the formation of a joint Supreme Kurdish Committee (SKC) (ICG, 2013). Now we should not give too much weight to the notion that these groups have put aside their differences and are working together on military matters. That is not the case. This agreement has helped reduce some tensions, but the PYD is still largely in control of their own territories in Syria (ICG, 2013).
The Kurds and the Syrian Uprising
When the antigovernment protests broke out in Syria in early 2011, the Kurdish population and leaders were somewhat divided on Al-Assad. For some, and especially many of the Kurdish youth–felt that this was a time to join the antigovernment protesters, as it would be an opportunity to demand a system that provided greater rights to the Kurdish minority in the country. However, the Kurdish political leadership was more hesitant to call for Al-Assad’s ouster. In fact, the “traditional Kurdish political parties took a somewhat different view. They feared fierce reprisal against their people if they decisively joined the opposition; nursed resentment at Arab indifference during their own protests – and subsequent regime crackdown – in 2004; saw more to gain by remaining on the sidelines; and worried that newly empowered activists would challenge their role. Meanwhile, hoping to avoid a new battlefront and banking on Arab-Kurdish divisions to further muddy the picture, the regime for the most part left Kurds alone. As a result, most Kurdish parties opted to remain in the shadows of Syria’s broader conflict…” (ICG, 2013: i).
Even more interesting is the specific interests of the PYD. This group recognized that in 2012, Al-Assad already removed some Syrian military forces from Kurdish areas. Seeing this, they quickly moved in to ensure further control of the region, and also to protect it against the Islamic state. Ever since then, they have centered their efforts on protecting territory from the Islamic State. They went so far as to remove Syrian bureaucrats and political leaders from government buildings with their own, and hoisted the Kurdish flag (ICG, 2013). Al Assad, while ideally wanting to keep influence over this part of the country, recognizes that since the PYD are not fighting him (or calling for his overthrow), that he might actually have an interest in keeping them in power, particularly as they fight against the Islamic State. It is for this reason that some believe Al-Assad made a political deal with the PYD (ICG, 2013). In fact, Gunes & Lowe (2015) argue that “[t]he rise of the PYD has been aided by the tacit acquiescence of the Syrian regime, which allowed the PYD to take over without a fight, retains a presence in the majority city of Qamishli and continues to pay the salaries of civil servants in PYD-controlled areas The Assad regime and the PYD are not natural bedfellows, but the experience of war and the fact that both share mutual enemies…have led to an understanding for the time being…” (5).
In addition, while the PYD and the Free Syrian Army are not directly opposed to one another per-se (but the FSA is fighting both Al-Assad, the Islamic State, and other jihadists organizations), there have been times where the PYD and the FSA sides have disagreed on ideology (the Kurds have been upset with pro-Arab nationalist rhetoric pushed at times), and also conflicts over territories (ICG, 2013).
While the PYD Kurdish fighting force is active and shaping the politics of Syria, their role in potential peace negotiations is largely controlled by outside international actors. It is no secret that Syria is no longer a civil war, but rather, an international war where some have troops on the ground (i.e. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah), and for others, a proxy war (the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia (although there are discussions about Saudi Arabia sending troops into the country)). Each actor has their own interests, and as a result, the politics of Syria are shaped by these outside influencers. One issue where this is clearly the case is with regards to the Kurdish forces in Syria.
Some of the top powers in the international community are attempting to bring Al-Assad, along with rebel forces to the negotiating table with hopes of ending the Syrian civil war. However, one of the biggest points of contention (there are many) has to do with whether the PYD Kurdish forces will be given a seat at the table. It looks that the PYD will not be invited. The reason is that “Turkey insisted that the PYD not be extended an invitation; the United States, an increasingly grudging ally, acquiesced. Russia, whose military intervention on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad infuriated Turkey, is now also opportunistically cozying up to the Syrian Kurds. It had earlier demanded the PYD be included in the talks” (Tharoor, 2016).
Thus, for Turkey, the stronger and more influential the PYD is in Syria, the more of a concern that they will have with regards to the Kurdish population in Turkey. There is a genuine worry that the Kurds–seeing the success across the border, may try to push harder for their own particular demands in Turkey. And for the Kurds in Syria, being left out of the talks is viewed as an attempt to repress their own power in Syria. They also know that this is coming from Turkey. This not only makes them upset about Turkish interests, but has led to further frustrations among the Kurds in neighboring Turkey.
For the United States, as mentioned above, they are supportive of the Kurds in Syria, but not to the extent that it upsets their ally Turkey. Plus, for them, they are in a difficult position as it relates to the Kurdish forces in Syria. On the one hand, he better the Kurds do against ISIS, the more that this will help most international state actors–including the United States and their Western European allies. On the other hand, the United States leadership also recognizes that the same military actions are also indirectly helping Bashar Al-Assad, which is against the interests of the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others (and clearly in line with Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah interests). However, their primarily objective seems to be to defeat ISIS. And so, at the end of 2014 and early 2015, the northern Syrian city of Kobane was under attack by ISIS forces. It seemed that they were beating the Kurdish forces until support came in the form of the KRG fighters from Iraq, as well as United States airstrikes (Gunes & Lowe, 2015). It is evident that the United States is willing to support the PYD in Syria seeing as they are fighting against the Islamic State.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA)
In April of 2016, and May of 2016, increased fighting broke out between the People’s Protection Units and Free Syrian Army members. For example, according to reports, “Two Syrian Kurds were shot dead by a former member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) last weekend [mid-May, 2016], in what the executioner said was a response to an incident last month [April] in which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) killed around 50 FSA fighters and transported them back to Kurdish territory in an open-top trailer” (Bertrand, 2016).
While countries such as the United States have tried to convince both the FSA and the Kurdish forces that the Islamic State should be the force they are fighting, these two groups have went after one another. There are also fears that this conflict could intensify in northern Syria (Bertrand, 2016). In addition, “The rivalry has put the US in a difficult position. The YPG has proven to be the most effective force fighting ISIS on the ground in northern Syria, but the territorial expansion their victories have afforded them is vehemently opposed by Turkey, an important US ally and member of NATO” (Bertrand, 2016). And while the US has somewhat moved away from the FSA (see our article on the Syrian conflict), this is still an example of two allies fighting against one another at at time when the United States has emphasized the fight against ISIS.
In fact, US leaders are becoming even more open about their support for the Kurds in Syria. For example, during the second 2016 US Presidential debate, Secretary Clinton spoke about her plan for Syria, in which she stressed providing weapons and support to the Kurds as they fought the Islamic State in the country. However, this plan was quickly criticized by Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who, after hearing her comments, was quoted as saying ““Isn’t America our ally? Isn’t it our NATO ally? Isn’t it our ally in the region? What does it mean to support weapons with weapons?” (CBS, 2016). Yildirim went on to say that “Where in the world have you ever seen this? How moral is it, how ethical is it, how right is it to fight a terrorist organization with another terrorist organization, to defeat a terrorist organization with another terrorist organization?”” (CBS, 2016). Again, Turkey views Kurdish forces as terror groups, whereas the US sees them as a reliable ally in the fight against ISIS.
Trump and the Kurds in Syria
As mentioned above, the United States government (under the Obama administration) increased their level of support to Kurdish forces in Syria. This commitment was extended during the Trump administration. For example, in May of 2017, Trump maintained support for the Kurdish forces as they prepared for a move onto Raqqa. Both Obama and Trump have openly been willing to provide support to the Kurdish forces in the terms of weapons and also training (Foreign Policy, 2017). However, this has greatly angered Erdogan, who continues to view the YPG and other Kurdish forces as terrorist groups.
For the Kurds in Syria, with outside airstrike support, and local acceptance by the Al-Assad regime, they are able to control Kurdish majority territories in Syria. Victories like Kobane against ISIS forces are also building up Kurdish nationalism and pride in the country and elsewhere. As events unfold in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, one can understand that there will be implications and effects elsewhere in the region. But while the Kurds in Syria continue to get support from countries like the United States, they are also seen as an enemy to others such as Turkey, who, for example, carried out a large scale attack on Kurdish fighters in mid-October of 2016, killing upwards of 200 fighters (Reuters, 2016). Thus, it is also imperative to monitor the ongoing conflict between the Kurdish fighters and the Turkish AKP government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan (for more on Erdogan and the Kurds, see our article on the Kurds in Turkey).
Bertrand, N. (2016). There’s a ‘secondary conflict’ brewing in northern Syria that ‘could easily spin out of control.’ The Business Insider. Yahoo Finance. May 21st, 2016. Available Online: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/theres-secondary-conflict-brewing-northern-140914647.html
CBS (2016). Turkey Prime Minister Binali Yildirim blasts Hillary Clinton idea to arm Syria Kurdish fighters. CBS News. October 11, 2016. Available Online: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/turkey-hillary-clinton-arming-syria-syrian-kurdish-militia-pkk-terrorists/
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) (2015). The Time of the Kurds: A CFR InfoGuide Presentation. Available Online: http://www.cfr.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/time-kurds/p36547#!/p36547
Foreign Policy (2017). The United States and Turkey are on a Collision Course in Turkey. Foreign Policy. May 12th, 2017. Available Online: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/12/the-united-states-and-turkey-are-on-a-collision-course-in-syria-trump/amp/
Gunes, C. & Lowe, R. (2015). The Impact of the Syrian War on Kurdish Politics Across the Middle East. Chatham House. July 2015. Available Online: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150723SyriaKurdsGunesLowe.pdf
International Crisis Group (2013). Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle. Middle East Report N°136, 22 January 2013. Available Online: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/136-syrias-kurds-a-struggle-within-a-struggle.pdf
Reuters (2016). Turkey kills 160 to 200 Syrian Kurdish militants in airstrikes. Reuters. October 19, 2016. Available Online: http://news.trust.org/item/20161020052047-kxrqz
Tejel, J. (2009). Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics, and Society. Oxon, England and New York, New York. Routledge Press.
Tharoor, I. (2016). As Syria burns, Turkey’s Kurdish problem is getting worse. The Washington Post. February 3rd, 2016. Available Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/02/03/as-syria-burns-turkeys-kurdish-problem-is-getting-worse/