As civil war, imperial intervention and sectarianism threaten to undermine the Syrian uprising the Kurds, up until now a lesser actor, appear to be moving towards centre stage, argues Alastair Stephens
Thus far, the Kurdish question has attracted little western media interest for two reasons. The first is that the Kurdish regions have been relatively quiet and have not sent the levels of violence that have marked the struggle elsewhere in the country.
Second, as popular mobilisations have become secondary to armed insurgency and civil war, the Kurdish question does not fit the narrative that is being developed for the uprising, by forces both inside and outside the country. That narrative is one of a struggle which is mainly sectarian and confessional, of “orthodox” Sunnis against the heterodox Alawis (who are mainstay of the Assad regime ) and allied minority religious groups such as the Druze and Christians.
The Kurds are 90% Sunni but 100% non-Arab and have national aspirations that may bring them into conflict with whoever the victor is in in the struggle for power in Damascus.
The Largest Minority
The Kurds are the largest minority group in the country numbering some 2.5 million people, or 10% of the population (all such figures in Syria are estimates). Sometimes referred to as the “forgotten Kurds” they are far less well known than the Kurdish populations in Iraq and Iran or those of Turkey, with whom they share a common Kurmanji language, and have numerous links of kin.
The situation of the Kurdish minority in each of the three countries is unique, yet they share a common history of oppression by, resistance to, and sometimes accommodation with, the local regimes.
It is not necessarily the case in the history of the Middle East that minorities are oppressed. Divide and rule by imperialists mean that sometimes minorities can end up as being privileged elites, as was the case in with the Alawis in Syria. The Kurds of Syria, it must be noted though, are an oppressed minority.
With an Indo-European language and ancient culture, the Kurds have inhabited their mountainous regions as long as any other group in the region. Mostly living in the Ottoman Empire their lives had remained almost unchanged since as long as anyone could remember.
This all dramatically changed at the end of the First World War. As the defeated Ottoman empire broke up Britain and France carved up the remains, or that which they could not rest from the emergent state of Turkey. The Kurds were at first promised a state of their own but were then denied. Instead those lands not held by either Turkey or Iran were turned into the invented states of Iraq and Syria, respectively the colonies, in effect, of Britain and France. The Kurds were divided in four.
After gaining independence from France following the Second World War Syria had a series of weak governments and there was a series of coups which ended with the “Corrective Revolution” of 1970 which brought Hafez al-Assad and his Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party to power. However most of the regimes from the late 1950s onwards shared a common ideology: one form of Arab nationalism or another.
The Kurds simply did not fit into the Syrian nation as imagined by the country’s new rulers. In the early 1960s tens of thousands were deprived of Syrian citizenship and reclassified as “aliens”. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds continued living in the country ever since, yet have been officially “stateless”. (In a recent attempt to woo the Kurds Bashar Assad recently offered them Syrian citizenship. However to claim this prize they have to go to the local police to collect new ID papers. Only some 6,000 have taken up the offer.) Kurdish publishing was banned as was education in the Kurdish language.
The Kurds have no interest in the continuation of the Ba’athist regime and declared themselves in favour of the movement against Assad from the start.
However relations with the rest of the opposition have been strained.
The Kurds’ key demand, and on which all their parties agree, is for a federal Syria in which their region would be self governing. The Syrian National Council, the main umbrella group bringing together exile leaders, has refused to accept this, leading to the Kurds declining to join it. Its current head is a Kurd, but an exile who has few links with the Kurdish parties in the country. Other forces in the struggle have been no more willing to accommodate the Kurds’ central aspiration. Riad al-Asaad, “leader” of the Free Syrian army, has stated that “We will not allow the formation of federal regions in Syria.”
This is unsurprising given the nationalist ideologies of many of the exile opposition groups. Nor is it surprising given the dependence of so many of them on outside powers. The main backer of the SNC is the Turkish government. The Kurds boycotted the initial summit in Turkey which brought the exile groups together and which led to its establishment. “Turkey is against the Kurds… in all parts of the world,” said one Syrian Kurdish party leader, “If Turkey doesn’t give rights to its 25 million Kurds, how can it defend the rights of the Syrian people and the Kurds there?” The Turkish government is dead set against self government for the Kurds, anywhere.
Historically the Kurdish movement has been weaker in Syria than in its neighbours. Hence the main policy of the Kurds in Syria seems to have been to keep their powder dry and not to become tied into alliances with forces which could turn on them later. Nominally in support of the rebellion, the Kurdish areas have in reality been quiet up until recently.
During the summer this has started to change as the Syrian Kurds have started to assert themselves. They have increasingly taken effective control of the majority Kurdish areas in the north east of the country, setting up checkpoints and their own defense force, the People's Protection Groups.
Qamishli is now the only city in Syrian Kurdistan controlled by Syrian government forces following their withdrawal from the rest of the region in July. It is widely believed that this was done in collaboration with the Kurdish parties, who filled the security vacuum left behind, so that the regime could concentrate all its forces to crush the centres of the uprising in the West of the country.
The group to gain most from the withdrawal was the Democratic Union Party, an offshoot of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, the most important Kurdish party (though illegal) in Turkey and which has been fighting an armed insurgency there since 1984.
The PKK has a history of collaboration with the Syrian regime, despite the oppression of that country’s own Kurds and it was the main foreign backer of the PKK. This is a street that runs both ways, and nearly all regimes in the region (with the exception of Turkey) have, at one time or another, backed armed Kurdish groups in neighbouring and rival states, whilst oppressing their own Kurdish populations at home. Syria also provided the main base for operations into the mainly Kurdish south west of the Turkey until 1998.
It was at this point that Turkey, having almost lost control of south east of the country in a war that saw nearly 40,000 killed in a decade and a half of fighting, threatened Syria with invasion unless it ceased support for the PKK. Syria relented and the PKK was left high and dry. The PKK’s rebellion, as a serious military threat to the Turkish state, ended and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was forced to flee Syria, eventually being captured and imprisoned by Turkey.
The PKK, and its local affiliate the PYD, though, maintained a presence in the country, and according opponents, since then has sometimes acted as the Syrian regime's enforcer in the Kurdish community.
Certainly it has been the only Syrian Kurdish party to maintain an armed infrastructure, something which enabled it to fill the vacuum left by the Ba’athist security withdrawal so quickly, and so exclusively. The PKK has never liked to share power with other parties and in Turkish Kurdistan achieved hegemony by, amongst other means, strong arming its rivals. An agreement between the various Syrian Kurdish parties brokered in the summer by Massoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi Kurdish region, quickly broke down. So in July a second agreement was made in which the PYD and KNC agreed to share control of liberated towns 50/50.
There are reports of this being kept as the security forces withdrew and the Kurdish forces have filled the vacuum. One PYD leader describes the situation thus: "There is a de facto truce between the Kurds and the government. The security forces are overstretched over Syria's Arab provinces to face demonstrators, and cannot afford the opening of a second front in Syrian Kurdistan. On our side, we need the army to stay away. Our party is busy establishing organizations, committees, able to take over from the Baath administration the moment the regime collapses." They probably hope the withdrawal will be permanent.
Past False Dawns
However the history of the Kurds in the 20th century is littered with such periods of self-government, usually followed by disaster. Crises caused by war and revolution have at one time or another caused the central state to weaken and for Kurdish populations to assert themselves. Often this has been done in collaboration with a regional rival.
This happened in Iraq in 1947, in the early 1960s, in 1975, and in 1991 following the first Iraq war. Though the revolt against Saddam’s regime on this last occasion was crushed, Western protection meant a Kurdish statelet was able to emerge, effectively as a US protectorate. Even then the two main Kurdish parties there fought an on-off civil war in the 1990s, each at one time or another allying themselves with other regional powers, including Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi Kurds continue to play their own complicated game. Their autonomous region came out of the second Iraq war much strengthened, but landlocked and surrounded by hostile powers in Iran and Turkey, and with a difficult relationship with the government in Baghdad. The US alliance is the only thing that maintains their relative freedom.
They have come to a certain accommodation with the Turks, who would of course wish the Kurdish statelet didn't exist at all. But as it does, and is protected by the Americans, they have had to deal with it. The Kurdish leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan agreed to prevent the PKK from restarting the war in turkey from there. They of course tolerate their presence to a certain degree though as they are an important bargaining chip with Turkey.
Turkey is determined that no Kurdish self-governing region will emerge in Syria as it has done in Iraq. So Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, recently visited Irbil and a rare joint statement by Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish officials was issued, the two sides saying that they would tackle any threat from a violent group or organization that tries to exploit the power vacuum in Syria – an apparent reference to the PYD/PKK. They did this just as the Turkish military launched exercises on the border near Qamishli.
The Kurdish Syrians are in the position of not having any great interest in the continuation of the Ba’athist regime. But nor do they have anything to gain from large scale western intervention as the most likely source, and a major component of any on the ground force, would be Turkey. It has the second largest, and one of the most battle hardened armies in Nato. It is also a state that feels its vital national interests are threatened by the Kurdish question.
Of course the Turkish position is not necessarily monolithic, and the Kurdish question is much contested there. Nor is the country’s mildly Islamist AK party government necessarily going react in an easy to predict fashion, locked in an on-going power struggle with the country’s formerly all powerful military establishment.
Equally, however much the Turks may wish to prevent the formation of a Kurdish mini-state, or a chaotic and uncontrolled region out of which the PKK could operate, the latter may be the lesser evil if controlled by Irbil. Outright occupation would only add millions more Kurds to an already restive population.
US backing for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq is a result of their repeated failure to install a friendly government in Baghdad, and is utterly contingent. They have no essential interest in Kurdish self-rule in Syria. It would further strain relations with Turkey, a key ally. It could also reignite the question of an independent Kurdistan.
None of the options offered by alliances with outside powers are looking good at the moment for the Syrian Kurds, for none have any real interest in the rights of Kurds in Syria, or anywhere else. But there are roads to freedom other than collaboration with the imperial powers and their local allies. A generation ago the Kurds of Iran freed themselves in the process of revolution as part of a joint struggle against the Shah. The reversal of those gains and the re-imposition of central control was the first sign of the defeat of those struggles by the new regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. The re-imposition of central control in the country’s minority areas was the beginning of the end of the revolution. Their repression the herald of counter revolution.
The fate of the Kurds will be decided by the course of the struggle within Syria, but the attitude of any new regime that emerges to their aspirations could well become the litmus test by which the democratic credentials of the movement may be judged.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.