France and the United States are encouraging a rapprochement between Syria’s two feuding Kurdish political blocs, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council, which is an official part of the Syrian opposition in exile known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.
A Kurdish detente could serve as an early step toward incorporating parts of the opposition into the PYD-led autonomous administration of northeast Syria. In turn, wider opposition participation could help the autonomous administration gain a seat at negotiations to end the civil war, as well as win local and international recognition now that the main reason for the autonomous administration’s foreign support — the territorial fight against the Islamic State (IS) — has ended.
But the prospect of Kurdish rapprochement in Syria faces an uphill battle. Turkey wields influence over the Kurdish National Council and opposes the move; meanwhile, both Kurdish factions have unrealistic demands for a deal. Rather than an agreement at the organizational level, the most likely path forward for Syrian Kurdish cooperation involves disaffected council groups breaking off piecemeal to join the PYD-led autonomous administration, as they have done in the past.
The PYD and the council are at odds over the PYD's nonconfrontational stance toward Damascus, the council's proximity to the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition and each faction’s connection to rival Kurdish regional powers. Negotiations between the two sides to unite failed early in the civil war over power-sharing disputes. Since then, the council’s parties have refused to apply for licenses to participate in the autonomous administration, a fact the PYD has used to repress the council's political activity.
Turkey opposes a Syrian Kurdish detente, as well as any step that might legitimize the presence of the PYD in northeast Syria. Ankara considers the PYD to be a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. Turkey’s peace process with the PKK collapsed in 2015, and despite hopeful indications this spring, it will likely remain that way as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to divert attention from recent political setbacks. In July, Turkey launched a new phase of its military campaign against the PKK in Iraq and once again threatened to invade PYD-led northeast Syria.
Mutlu Civiroglu, a journalist who specializes in Kurdish affairs in Syria and Turkey, told Al-Monitor that following the blow Erdogan received in local elections this year, "he needs something to consolidate, to bring back his support, the morale of his base.” Civiroglu added, “National security is beyond sacred for many Turkish politicians. When the issue is national security, they all keep silent, they all support the government.”
Turkish opposition is not the only hurdle to Syrian Kurdish rapprochement. While both Kurdish parties endorsed the detente proposal, their key demands seem to preclude a deal. Top PYD officials have stipulated that for talks to move forward, the Kurdish National Council must leave the Syrian National Coalition, which would strip the council of its political relevance as the only internationally recognized Syrian Kurdish opposition group, as well as disrupt the lives of council members living in Turkey.
“There’s no talk within this [detente] initiative, nor any direction within this initiative, toward withdrawing from the Syrian National Coalition or dealing negatively with it,” Hawwas Khalil Saadun, a council representative and member of the Syrian National Council, told Al-Monitor.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish National Council has called on the Rojava Peshmerga, its military wing based in Iraqi Kurdistan, to enter northern Syria to ensure the terms of an agreement with the PYD are implemented. The PYD will “never” accept this, Mohammed Abdulsattar Ibrahim, a Syrian Kurdish journalist with Syria Direct, told Al-Monitor. PYD officials maintain that “if there are two Kurdish forces on the ground, they will fight with each other, as happened between [Massoud] Barzani and [Jalal] Talabani from 1994-1998 [in Iraq]. That’s very possible,” Ibrahim said.
While the Kurdish National Council and the PYD are unlikely to strike a deal, wider Kurdish participation in the autonomous administration is possible — via council parties breaking off piecemeal and joining the administration.
Some council members have long disagreed with their organization’s closeness to the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition. One sticking point was Turkey’s resistance to the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum championed by Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq; he helped found the council and enjoys good relations with Ankara. Then came the rebel invasion of the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January 2018. Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups committed widespread human rights violations against Kurds, and resettled Arabs evacuated from the suburbs of Damascus — who survived years of strangling siege imposed by the Syrian government — in houses abandoned by Kurdish residents. The council condemned the assault on Afrin when it occurred, but ultimately remained within the Syrian opposition.
“What happened in Afrin horrified people, including [Kurdish National Council] people in Kobani, Jazeera and other parts. They are very much afraid the ongoing atrocities in Afrin will recur in other Kurdish regions,” said Civiroglu.
Internal tensions caused by the council’s closeness to the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition, in addition to routine conflicts over power and positions, have resulted in several defections over to the autonomous administration. Certain council politicians imply that the defectors are PYD plants.
In 2016, three parties previously expelled from the council formed the Kurdish National Alliance, which went on to participate in formal autonomous administration elections. Two years later, prompted by Turkey’s assault on Afrin, the president of the Kurdish Future Movement in Syria split from the council and established a new party that now works alongside the PYD. Thirty more colleagues from the Kurdish Future Movement followed suit soon after.
The specter of future defections looms large as long as the PYD is the dominant Kurdish power in Syria. Ibrahim said that when the council "used to call for a protest or demonstration, thousands of people came. Now, a few people attend.” He added, “When the [council] parties defect, it’s for their own interests — they want to have a role.”
In June 2019, one of the council’s oldest factions, known as the Yekiti Party in Syria, expelled three leaders primarily because of a power dispute, said Ivan Hassib, a local Kurdish journalist who covers internal council dynamics. These leaders, who went on to form a new party, have not expressed a desire to work under the autonomous administration, as their “popular base is Barzani’s people. … Today, if the party that defected directly joined the PYD, that’s like suicide,” Hassib told Al-Monitor.
Nevertheless, he added that two of the three ousted politicians were accused by former colleagues of connections to the PYD. They might remain independent, or join the autonomous administration sometime in the future.
For its part, the PYD encourages Kurdish (and Arab) opposition parties to participate in the autonomous administration system that it leads, if they register, and provides a degree of freedom to criticize policy while maintaining control over the most important decisions. The more opposition parties join the administration, the more they dilute the presence of leaders connected to the PKK, and the closer the administration appears to its ideological premise as a decentralized, democratic system. Movement in this direction reduces the chance of a Turkish invasion and increases the chance of continued Western support.
“The entire [autonomous] administration wants to unify the Syrian opposition,” said Khabat Shakir, a PYD representative in Germany.
Pending a major shift in northeast Syria — such as US President Donald Trump pulling out US troops in advance of the 2020 presidential elections, and/or a Turkish invasion — piecemeal defections from the Kurdish National Council to the autonomous administration are the most likely form of Kurdish rapprochement currently available.
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