Syrian Kurds Trade Armed Opposition for Autonomy

While the Syrian Kurds blatantly oppose the regime, they have largely avoided joining the armed struggle against Assad in exchange for autonomy, writes Mohammad Ballout. The top priority for Kurdish parties now is to maintain this self-rule, regardless of the revolution’s outcome.

al-monitor Protester on an power pole holds the Kurdish flag and the Syrian opposition flag.  Photo by REUTERS/Handout ..

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self administration, democratic national union of kurdistan, pkk, kurdistan region, kurdistan, kurdish democratic union party, free syrian army

Jun 23, 2012

The Kurdish region in northern Syria remains impenetrable as it confronts both Turkey and the Free Syrian Army. Thus far, there have been 2 failed attempts to drag the Kurdish opposition into battle against Syrian Army forces and to break the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s [PYD] control over the Kurdish areas. The Kurdish areas under PYD control extend for 848 km from Al-Malikiyah (also known as Dayrik) in northern Iraq to Efrin, which is north of Aleppo. This western Kurdistan region also coincides with the Syrian-Turkish border.

The PYD, headed by Salih Muhammad Muslim from al-Qamishli District, is considered one of the most important parties in the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change. It is also an armed group, which is worth noting given that the committee officially opposes the militarization of the conflict.

It is especially because of this favorable political environment — one that favors both the regime and the opposition — that the PYD is able to show off its armaments without actually having to use them. The first attempt failed after 1,800 Syrian Kurdish soldiers discharged from a training camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, near Irbil, in order to seek livelihood.

The military camp was established three months ago with the support of the Democratic National Union of Kurdistan, which is affiliated with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.

A leading Syrian Kurdish opposition figure told As-Safir that Barzani, who had hosted two conferences for the Kurdish opposition figures in Erbil in December and May of 2011, had urged the National Kurdish Council [NKC] — which is comprised of 11 Kurdish parties and does not include the PYD — to unify their ranks. He also called upon them to establish a military arm to compete with the PYD, which is the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers' Party [PKK] in Turkey.

According to this Kurdish opposition leading figure, the camp was closed down after Barzani realized that harmony did not exist among the divided ranks of the NKC. The components of the NKC have divided their allegiances between Barzani, who used to pay $400 a month for every Syrian Kurdish soldier, and his KRG rival Jalal Talabani. Those affiliated with Barzani are led by Hakim Bashar, the head of the NKC and the Kurdish Democratic Party [KDP] in Syria. Abd-al-Hamid Darwich, the leader of the Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party, leads the faction that is affiliated with Talibani.

Mustafa Juma’a leads a third group that is closely tied with Salah Badr-al-Din from the Kurdish Azadi Party. Badr al-Din supports extending the operations of the Free Syrian Army into the Kurdish area. For example, there was a plan to infiltrate the Kurdish defensive wall at Efrin before heading toward the main target of Aleppo.

90 percent of Efrin’s population is Kurdish. The Kurds, the PYD, and the popular committees control this strategic gateway to Aleppo. Kurdish sources say that over the last year, the PYD has transported around 4,000 to 4,500 Kurdish Syrian fighters from their stronghold in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq to the Syrian north.

The PYD has infused thousands of its supporters into the popular committees. Approximately 220 Kurdish checkpoints are set up on the road that links Efrin to Aleppo. These checkpoints were the reason why the Free Syrian Army failed to infiltrate Aleppo, even though they had been working towards that goal for three months. Two months ago a demonstration was staged by the Muslim Brotherhood in Rifa’at Hill, marching toward Efrin. The demonstration aggravated the checkpoint of the popular committee and led to a clash between the two sides. This led to the committee’s decision to prevent gunmen and outsiders from entering the area. According to Kurdish sources, one week ago the Turks had urged Badr-al-Din’s group to test and divide the popular committees by attempting to drag them into a Kurdish-Kurdish conflict.

A few days ago, a group of Kurdish demonstrators reached the checkpoint of Basoutah village near Efrin and clashed with female forces, who later arrested 11 men.

Also, there have been rumors regarding the arrival of suicide bombers who were planning on carrying out suicide attacks in al-Qamishli District. Simultaneously, the “macho” men of al-Antaziyah neighborhood in al-Qamishli staged a demonstration protesting the PYD’s influence in the area. The National Council of Western Kurdistan and other Kurdish parties had agreed to end the conflicts by halting armed manifestations. This move thwarted all attempts to open the road between Efrin to Aleppo.

The PYD has successfully established a delicate balance between their clear opposition to the Syrian regime and their prevention of the Free Syrian Army from infiltrating into their territory. They joined and preside over the opposition’s coordination committee and regulate military operations, but they also avoid clashes with the Syrian army and the regime’s security forces. Meanwhile, the PYD is able to keep the Free Syrian Army from turning their region into a battlefield to fight the regime’s factions or using the region as a route to transfer Turkish, Qatari and Saudi weapons into Syria.

With the exception of sporadic clashes, Syrian army battalions in the Kurdish area do not hinder the activities of the elected “Popular Council of Western Kurdistan.” Also, the security services did not obstruct the elections for the local administration, in which a quarter million northern Syrian Kurds participated under the supervision of the Kurdish PYD.

The party successfully formed popular committees, some of which are armed, in order to provide security in the Kurdish area. In response, the Syrian regime dealt with this phenomenon pragmatically, allowing them to manage their affairs in return for relative calm in the Kurdish regions. The regime’s army is focused on its operations in other areas and is spared from confrontations with the Kurds. Also, the Syrian regime is no longer concerned with the security agreements that it signed with Turkey. In 2011, the Syrian security apparatus released 640 prisoners that were affiliated with the PYD, and most of them returned to the north to protect the Kurdish region. The local administration and the PYD forces in this region are also protecting the strategic Turkish-Syrian passageways to prevent Turkish infiltration.

The Syrian Kurds have been reluctant to join the revolution after the Arab opposition abandoned them in 2004. At that time, especially during the Al-Qamishli uprising, they staged mass demonstrations and solely confronted the Syrian army and its violent suppression tactics.

Even so, the mostly peaceful Kurdish demonstrations support the Syrian National Council and call for the fall of the regime and the implementation of Kurdish demands.

The title of their Friday demonstrations, except Azadi Friday, allowed them to distance themselves from the Fridays of the Syrian revolution. It is likely that Free Syrian Army leadership’s call for the Kurds to join their ranks will not be echoed among Kurdish circles, because it will threaten their privileges of self-administration.

The Kurds are significantly betting that western Kurdistan will achieve self-administration rights within Syria, regardless of the outcome of the revolution. It is still uncertain if the Syrian regime will regain its full authority as its influence is diminishing amid the security crackdown.

Even if the regime was able to come out of the revolution unscathed, it will not succeed in controlling western Kurdistan. In any case, the region will not be one of the regime’s priorities due to the long list of its enemies that are now present throughout Syria’s cities. It will not be easy for Damascus to impose its authority over the area. It is also is better to maintain the status quo in the Kurdish area, even though the Kurds are rebelling against the regime, in order to confront the common Turkish threat.

On the other hand, if the revolution succeeds and the opposition assumes power in Damascus, it will not be able to swiftly impose its control over western Kurdistan or destroy the self-administration that is already present there. Any new regime requires years to establish its power. The only way that the next authority will be able to destroy the Kurdish wall in northern Syria is if the the revolution accepts Turkey’s blatant interference in Syria and hands the reins over to the Turkish army.

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