Syrian Conflict Puts Hard Choices On Border Kurds in Iraq, Turkey

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As fighting between the Syrian army and rebels hits Kurdish areas close to borders with Turkey and Iraq, Mustafa al-Labbad reports that some Kurdish groups have taken sides while others are hedging their bets, waiting for a winner to emerge.

The popular movements taking place within Syria’s geographical and political boundaries are spilling over into neighboring countries both near and far. It seems that Syria’s unrest is a proxy for the Middle East’s conflicts, between ethnic groups, sects and regional political players.

Given the fact that Syria occupies a pivotal geographical role in the region, it is likely that the balance will be tipped in favor of a certain project or regional power. This is not to mention the ethnic and sectarian role, which will play a significant role in redefining the “mosaic” of the Middle East based on Syrian demography. The Syrian situation — given its geographical and demographic complexities — will have major direct consequences for the regional landscape.

The Kurds are a major player in Syria’s battle, as they constitute an essential component of its social fabric. Moreover, Kurds have strong ties with their peers in neighboring Iraq and Turkey.

With the mounting Turkish pressure on the Syrian regime during recent months, the regime has deliberately withdrawn its troops from the northeastern areas of Syria, creating a security vacuum along the Syrian-Kurdish border, which stretches for 900 kilometers [about 560 miles].

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By the Syrian regime’s calculations, this security vacuum will curb Turkey’s attempts to intervene in the crisis in favor of the Syrian opposition.

Turkey and Syria have similar social fabrics. In both countries, Kurds constitute the majority in areas along the Syrian-Turkish borders. This suggests that the Syrian regime wanted to shift the crisis towards the northern border, after having roused the ambitions of Kurds in Syria and the region, and disrupted their partisan alliances. Hence, the Syrian regime has established a protective shield to prevent Turkey from stepping in militarily.

The majority of northeastern areas in Syria are now under Kurdish control, except for the al-Qamishli region, which is still controlled by the regime’s troops. Since the regime forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are preoccupied with fighting each other in other regions of Syria, the Kurdish areas have — thus far — been relatively calm.

A Kurdish-controlled area is likely to be formed in northern Syria, which will serve as the new stronghold for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in addition to its traditional stronghold in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq.

Ever since its formation in the early 1980s, the PKK has been waging military operations against the Turkish army. Furthermore, what makes matters worse is that the [Kurdish] regions in Syria have an advantage over the Kandil Mountains in terms of climate. The winter in Syria is not as harsh as it is in the Kandil Mountains, which facilitates attacks on Turkish territories.

Thus, the security vacuum on the Syrian-Turkish border and the [geographical] characteristics of Syria’s northeastern regions, all serve as factors which could  — possibly — attract new Syrian Kurdish fighters to the PKK ranks. Today, Syrian Kurds account for about 20% of the PKK’s forces. This number is expected to increase, which is very troubling to Turkey.

Concerns are mounting as the PKK is expected to procure anti-aircraft missiles or even chemical weapons from Syrian arsenals, thus changing the balance of power between the Kurds and Turkey. So far it seems that the Syrian regime will not play this card, pending further deterioration in the relations between Turkey and Syria.

However, Turkey seems well aware of the Syrian regime’s calculations. During the Turkish National Security Council meeting, which was held on July 24, 2012, to discuss Syrian developments, Turkey decided to increase the number of Turkish troops on the border with Syria, including a Turkish battalion specializing in chemical warfare.

Syrian Kurds hope to take advantage of the ongoing fighting between the regime and the armed opposition forces in order to establish an autonomous region, albeit [alongside ongoing] internal differences regarding this proposed region’s constitutional status and regional alliances.

Accordingly, Kurdish forces — including their different factions — have succeeded in keeping the FSA and the regime’s forces outside of the areas that have a large Kurdish population. However, the Syrian government is still stationed in the [predominantly Kurdish] city of al-Qamishli on the border with Iraq.

With the end of the Kurdish ceremonies and demonstrations in the northern areas of Syria following the withdrawal of the Syrian regime’s forces — in particular from the villages of Dirki, Afrin and Shanderisn — disagreements began to emerge and differences in opinion deepened between Syrian Kurdish parties.

Given the dynamics of the Kurdish situation and the peculiarity of their history, it is understandable that Kurdish forces, parties and currents in Syria are competing with one another to put their own visions and points of view ahead of others.

It is also known that this competition directly affects both sides of the border with Iraq and Turkey, at least in terms of influencing the choices of the Kurds along the border. On that basis, it seems that the Kurdish political “thermometer” in the Middle East is not in a state of stagnation at present, but is rather experiencing ups and downs coming from northeastern Syria.

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is at the center of the Kurdish political landscape. The PYD alone enjoys the support of about half of Syria’s Kurdish forces. It also has membership ties with the PKK in Turkey. Some observers even believe that the PYD is the political facade of the PKK in Syria.

Murat Karayilan, the current de facto leader of the PKK in Turkey and chief commander of the movement, says that his party will remain neutral in the conflict between the Assad regime and its opponents in order to ensure a place for itself at the side of whoever wins in the end.

While Fahmi Hussein, leader of the most stringent movement among Syrian-Kurdish groups, has cooperated with the Syrian regime more than others, Saleh Muslim, a PYD leader, demands the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria and accuses the Syrian National Council (SNC) of denying Kurds their rights. Here, Muslim's view converges with those of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party in Turkey (the public facade of the Turkish PKK). The demand [for autonomy] has received strong opposition from Turkey.

Muslim believes that Assad’s forces did not withdraw from the entirety of Syrian-Kurdish territories, and that the FSA is fragmented and divided and cannot be negotiated with. Thus, the calculations of the Syrian Kurds are not based on the premise that Assad's days are numbered, but rather on the assumption that the conflict will continue for a while .

On the other hand, other Kurdish groups prefer to see a Kurdish autonomous region within the framework of a new Syrian constitution. While visions on the future of the Kurds in Syria are creating a rift between leaders, opposition to international military intervention (i.e. Turkish intervention) in Syria brings them together.

These developments have prompted action by [President of Iraqi Kurdistan] Massoud Barzani, who had to deal politically with the PYD despite his reservations regarding the party’s proposals and ambitions. He did so in order not to lose his standing as a key figure in the Kurdish nationalist movement.

Barzani [brokered] an agreement in Erbil between the PYD in Syria and other Kurdish groups in what became known as the “Erbil Agreement.” The agreement was signed on July 11, 2012, for the purpose of maintaining coordination and communication between various Kurdish parties in Syria.

Under the agreement, the Supreme Kurdish Council — a political alliance between the Kurdish National Council and the People's Council of Western Kurdistan, which also includes the PYD — was formed.

It seems that this agreement is an attempt to impose a unified Kurdish political decision on Syrian Kurdish parties. However, the agreement’s temporary nature seems to prevail, which means that the agreement is unlikely to last for long. Several reasons stand behind that.

First, Barzani has limited influence on the Syrian Kurds, with the exception of some Kurdish tribes near the Iraqi border.

Secondly, there is a history of conflicting visions among Syrian Kurds, which differ from those of their peers in Iraq and Turkey. As the leader of a region that enjoys almost universal recognition of its geography within Iraq, Barzani does not want to jeopardize Kurdish achievements by entering into a military confrontation against Turkey.

On the contrary, Barzani wants the PKK in Turkey to expand its military confrontation and to push the Kurds towards them, in order to extract political concessions from Turkey in the Kurdish- inhabited regions of Anatolia.

Thirdly, the balance of power between the Syrian, Kurdish and regional forces is changing and altering. This makes the balances set by the Erbil convention unlikely to survive in the coming period.

The Kurds in Syria are facing tough decisions. These are internal decisions regarding the nature of political mobility among each other and the nature of their political alliance with non-Kurdish Syrian political forces. They also have regional choices to make regarding their future relations with the [Iraqi] Kurdistan region, which is geographically linked to them. They must also decide on issues related to their tense ties with Turkey, which are escalating alongside the increased presence of the PKK among them.

Life for Kurds in the Middle East was not easy over the past five centuries. Moreover, it seems that their choices will remain difficult to make, at least under the current transitional phase of the region’s history!

Naria Tanoukhi contributed to this article's translation.

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