US Foreign Policy

Challenges Ahead for the Kurdish Struggle in Syria

in Program

In the northeast corner of Syria, the black and red flags of the Syrian Arab Republic have become a rare sight. Unlike in many other parts of the war stricken country, they have not been replaced with either the flag of the Syrian opposition, adopted by the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, or the black standard commonly used by Jihadist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and al-Nusra Front. Instead, the Kurdish flag flies proudly over municipal buildings and military checkpoints. The region known locally as Rojava, meaning the West in Kurdish, is primarily under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey.

The PYD recently announced plans to create an autonomous state within Syria, organized into three districts each with localized administrative and institutional support. While the PYD says they are not interested in seceding fully from Syria, this could change depending on the course of the civil war. Despite many recent strategic successes, the Kurdish struggle in Syria still faces three long-standing challenges: ongoing conflict with Arabs, internal disputes for power, and wider regional contentions over an independent Kurdistan.

Syrian Kurds, lacking the strategic mountains allowing their brethren in neighboring countries to launch insurgencies, were largely quiescent under the oppressive reigns of Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez. The decision of many Syrian Kurds to abstain from participating in the Syrian Civil War incensed Arab opposition groups who saw it as an act of self-preservation not contributing to the national struggle. Furthermore, some have accused the Syrian Kurds of being in cahoots with al Assad’s regime, a claim the PYD denied saying “we were fighting Assad long before them.”

These disputes morphed into battles that have killed thousands of Arab Islamist fighters and Kurdish militia members. In the closing months of 2013, the PYD made impressive gains and now claim to control over 70% of Rojava, including several villages formerly under the control of al Qaeda factions such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. On October 26, the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) laid siege to Yaroubiya, a town on the Iraqi border, and captured the crossing from al Qaeda affiliated jihadists. The border remains closed, however, highlighting the tension between the Syrian Kurdish factions and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led government of northern Iraq.

While the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, Masoud Barzani, brokered a union between the myriad Syrian-Kurdish groups called the Kurdish National Council, the fragile ties of alliance strained under diverging interests, ensuring the continuation of intra-Kurdish dissension. Notably, Barzani’s alliance recently contributed a delegation of representatives to work with the Syrian National Council as part of the negotiating team in the first round of Geneva II peace negotiations.  The PYD were denied the opportunity to send a separate delegation to Geneva, and subsequently denounced the negotiations as fruitless if they did not include independent Kurdish representation. The Kurdish National Council responded by expelling all member groups affiliated with the PYD, leading to increased tensions in the power struggle between the two blocs. While the PYD recently sent a diplomatic mission to Iraq, they were snubbed by Barzani’s government which said they recognized neither the PYD nor their claims to autonomy.

Such claims have also been rejected by Turkey, which is wary of the rising political strength of the PYD in Syria and concerned about its impact on their own Kurdish population. Any realization of Syrian-Kurdish autonomy might spark renewed calls for independence in other Kurdish communities and unleash instability across the region. Fearing this, Ankara and Baghdad will continue to disparage the PYD and attempt to limit their economic opportunities. The closed border crossing at Yaroubiya prohibits the PYD from exporting the 69 billion barrels of proven reserves and estimated 315 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves in Rojava.  Lacking reliable trading partners and neighboring allies, the Syrian Kurds will remain isolated and unable to attain sovereignty.  

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