QAMISHLI, Syria — The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) approved on Sept. 16 the first agreement to incorporate a major Kurdish bloc, the Kurdish National Council (KNC). Despite reservations on both sides, the two groupings are supposed to meet to announce the alliance officially by the end September.
However, on Sept. 8, the KNC reached a separate deal with the other main Kurdish alliance — the People's Council of West Kurdistan (PCWK) — which is affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to draft the constitution of a transitional Kurdish government to be elected 4 to 6 months later.
The KNC signed the latter agreement as a member of the Kurdish Supreme Committee (KSC), a coalition formed with the PCWK in 2012, even though such an initiative remains completely unrecognized by the SNC. Since the threat of a US military strike on Syria has dwindled, the Russian backing received from the KSC to represent Syrian Kurds at Geneva II rules out any withdrawal of the KNC from this coalition.
Further complicating the picture, the main Kurdish militia — the PYD-controlled Popular Protection Units (YPG) — rejects any agreement with the SNC, as long as they do not condemn the attacks launched by Islamist opposition groups on the Kurdish regions. Despite the concessions obtained from the SNC, the KNC is aware that Arab-Kurdish reconciliation is not compatible with the isolation of the PYD.
Agreement with the SNC
The text of the agreement between the KNC and SNC marked a set of Kurdish gains such as the constitutional recognition of "the national identity of the Kurdish people," the removal of “Arab” from the denomination of the Syrian Republic and the commitment to compensate the property losses caused by Baathist discriminatory policies. Nevertheless, the crucial demands for decentralization fell short of becoming political and were limited to the administrative field.
In its last internal meeting, the KNC advanced two further conditions to be included. “The SNC will need to commit itself to the peaceful nature of the revolution in the Kurdish regions and respect the self-management plan launched by the KSC,” Salman Hasso, member of the Jalal Talabani-backed Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party’s politcal bureau, told Al-Monitor.
Such conditions are utterly rejected even by those SNC members who supported the agreement.
“There are no further conditions, only personal reservations. … The Kurdish self-management plan is not our business,” SNC member and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's Deputy Chairman Mohammad Tayfur told Al-Monitor in a phone interview.
Contrary to what was expected by the KNC, some members of the Arab opposition justify the allegedly defensive nature of the operations launched by the Free Syrian Army and its al-Qaeda allies in the Kurdish regions. “The YPG started launching attacks on Arab villages such as al-Yarubiyyah; therefore, I don’t condemn what I consider a reaction,” the representative of the Hasakeh governorate within the SNC general committee, Yasser al-Farhan, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview.
The SNC’s indifference to Kurdish autonomy is also an outcome of the different degrees of commitment to this initiative shown by Kurdish parties. “Our strategic goal remains federalism, even though we agreed on a transitional government to facilitate administrative issues, as long as Syria is fragmented and the regime is still in power,” Anwar Naso, member of the Yekiti Party’s political bureau, told Al-Monitor. He added, "It is an administrative project conceived to end with the collapse of the regime.”
Differently from the other Kurdish parties, which insist on the temporary nature of this preliminary transitional step, PYD officials rarely refer to the collapse of the Syrian government as a factor affecting their agenda, as they enjoy freedom of movement thanks to a tacit agreement with Damascus.
Even if the killings perpetrated in Amuda on June 27 have further exacerbated tensions between the KNC and PYD, the latter’s political vision remains closer to federalism than the kind of administrative decentralization proposed by the SNC. “Our divergence [with the KNC] is not political, it’s philosophical and methodological on the way society could manage itself. What is important to us is to build institutions capable of managing society; then, their shape might resemble federalism,” Aldar Khalil, leading member of the PCWK, told Al-Monitor.
The main supporter of the self-management project, the PYD, is predictably the staunchest critic of the agreement reached between the KNC and SNC. “This pact is the outcome of joint Turkish-US pressures to divide the Kurds, after we achieved representation based on our Kurdish identity before the international community,” Khalil said. He continued, "It aims at dragging Kurdish forces away from the resistance against the attacks launched against us.”
What is clear to all parties is that any agreement not including the PYD would be totally ineffective on the ground, due to the PYD’s military supremacy. After the US strike became highly unlikely, the PYD has even less interest to join the Arab opposition and antagonize the regime. “We are calling on the SNC to welcome the PYD, but we’re pessimistic about the PYD giving up its ties with the regime in this phase,” Yekiti’s Naso said.
However, the meeting held on Aug. 30 between SNC leader Ahmad Jarba and Salih Muslim, head of the PYD, seems to have opened inroads for a different understanding between the two sides. “I had meetings with SNC delegates in Erbil, and Salih Muslim talked with Ahmad Jarba in Paris. The SNC knows very well it cannot implement anything by reaching an agreement with the KNC,” Khalil said.
If the implicit aim of the agreement with the SNC is to isolate the PYD at the expense of political decentralization, then the KNC should abandon the Kurdish Supreme Committee and join forces with the Arab opposition to eradicate the PYD from the regions it controls. On the other hand, if the KNC wishes to deter Arab-Kurdish and intra-Kurdish strife — as it claims — then it should work to bargain Arab-Kurdish reconciliation in exchange for political decentralization by promoting an agreement between the SNC and PYD.
Andrea Glioti is a freelance journalist who covered the first five months of the Syrian uprising from inside the country. His work has been published by the Associated Press, IRIN News, openDemocracy, The Daily Star (Lebanon), New Internationalist and numerous Italian and German newspapers.