After Bashar al-Assad’s promises to the Kurds fell short, Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdish region, gathered the fragmented Syrian Kurdish factions in Erbil. The internal turbulence in Syria heralds a new era for the Syrian Kurds. It was Assad who has been benefiting from the “Kurdish card” thus far; however, it seems that Barzani is now beginning to have more control over Syria’s Kurds.
In the Erbil meeting, the Syrian Kurds decided to take a unified stand against Assad, set up a Supreme Kurdish Council and form "popular defense forces" to control the region.
While the prolonged conflict between the Syrian regime and the opposition continues, Barzani succeeded in reconciling the different Kurdish groups in Syria. The most significant development was the decision of the militarily strong Democratic Union party (PYD) to join this unified Kurdish coalition. The PYD is the Kurdish Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian branch. Until now, the PYD had refused to take part in the “Kurdish National Council” initiative or cooperate with other Syrian Kurdish groups. After the four-day meeting, all of the parties decided to act in unison.
Kava Aziz, a member of the Kurdish National Council, said that “Syrian Kurds are marching toward independence and freedom.”
As Assad deployed all of his military power against the Syrian opposition, he was forced to leave a part along the Turkish border under Kurdish control. In these areas where the Syrian army had to withdraw, certain Kurdish groups such as the PYD established control. In fact, there were clashes between the PYD and the Syrian Kurdish National Council member groups, resulting in losses on both sides.
Assad had promised to grant citizenship rights to the Kurds, including the rights to open businesses, Kurdish education and work permission. However, Assad’s reluctance to implement these reforms exacerbated the concern among Kurdish groups. The Syrian Kurdish National Council then urged Barzani to handle the situation. Accordingly, Barzani gathered the representatives of the Council and Saleh Muslim, the head of the PYD. Barzani gave an ultimatum to both sides, saying that “nobody is allowed to leave the meeting until a consensus is achieved.” Barzani asserted that the Kurdish people will be deprived of their legitimate demands and rights if unity is not secured among them. Under Barzani’s pressure, the formally reluctant PYD agreed to act in harmony with the Syrian Kurdish National Council.
Kava Aziz, a member of the Syrian Kurdish Council, maintained that with Barzani’s initiative, the Kurds overcame their problems and united into one body. According to Aziz, the Kurds are now marching toward independence. He further elaborated: “According to the agreement, two councils will form a supreme body. Three security committees will work under this supreme body. These committees will work on both the domestic and international front. The members of the two councils will work together to prevent any threats that target the Kurdish nation. We, as the Syrian Kurdish National Assembly, will keep our commitment to this agreement. If this agreement is breached, then the Syrian Kurds’ freedom might be endangered.”
Barzani expressed his satisfaction with the agreement: “I congratulate all parties who agreed on this agreement. Kurds should have a common stance regarding all developments in Syria. They should be adamant on the legitimate rights of the Kurdish people. This can only be maintained through unity and solidarity.” From the very inception of the crises in Syria, Barzani has urged Kurds to refrain from getting involved in the demonstrations.
A new mechanism will be formed to implement the Erbil agreement and a common body will be established to deal with political and strategic decision-making. The Supreme Kurdish Council will work for the common benefit of the Kurdish people and a common stance will be adopted against the Assad regime. Three different committees will be established to follow up on this. Polemics and discussions among the groups in the media will be avoided, as will any tension that can lead to confrontation among Kurdish groups. A solid stance to condemn violence will be maintained. Two weeks after signing the agreement, a commission will be formed.
Kurdish groups will organize “popular defense forces” to control the region. These forces will be civilian units, rather than armed groups. Armed groups will be removed from Kurdish cities and villages. The Turkey representative of the Syrian Kurdish National Assembly, Shiwan Hussein, also said that the Kurdish groups will act together against the Assad regime from now on.
The Syrian Kurdish National Assembly employed a strategy to pursue an unarmed opposition against the Assad regime. While it supports the idea of regime change, it also rejected any talks with the regime. The PYD, on the other hand, is a strong actor in Syria and has a significant armed wing. The PYD is also against Assad on the discourse level, yet it also claims that the crises can be solved through dialogue with the regime.