Leaders of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main political force of Syrian (Western) Kurdistan, have signed a declaration that proclaims its autonomy in northern Syria. At the same time, Kurdish fighting units established control over the ethnic territory, keeping it at bay from both the governmental troops and the Islamists. Incidentally, Assad’s troops have withdrawn from most of the Kurdish territories on their own.
The delicate balance was upset by Islamists from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. They carried out a real massacre in some Kurdish villages, killing about 400 people, mostly women and children. Isa Huso, a leader of the Supreme Kurdish Council of Syria, was killed in the city of Qamishli. Following this, People’s Defense Units (Yekineyen Parastina Gel – YPG – in Kurdish) launched active hostilities against the Islamists. The front line of clashes between the Kurds and the jihadists is 900 km long from Afrin and Quban in the west to the frontier towns of Ras el-Ayn and Qamishli in the east. By October, the Islamists had been ousted from the greater part of Western Kurdistan.
The aggravation of tension in north-eastern Syria has speeded up the creation of a Kurdish autonomy, including the establishment of public administration bodies.
According to Kurdish, Arab, and Christian leaders, it is proposed to divide Syrian Kurdistan (Rojavaye) into three provincial districts as part of a Kurdish autonomy, with local administration in each of them. The Committee of Autonomous Government, which the Syrian Kurds have set up in Qamishli, consists of 55 people. Within 40 days, it is supposed to elect a constitution drafting committee and hold elections to the autonomy’s parliament. The Circassians and Assyrians are also represented in the administrative bodies.
PYD leaders have begun to form the leadership of an autonomous Kurdistan. The main contender for the office of autonomy leader is Salih Muslim, the chairman of this party. But PYD is not the only political organization that intends to struggle for power. The Kurdish National Council (KNC) maintains close links with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF).
According to Kurdish, Arab, and Christian leaders, it is proposed to divide Syrian Kurdistan into three provincial districts as part of a Kurdish autonomy, with local administration in each of them. The Committee of Autonomous Government, which the Syrian Kurds have set up in Qamishli, consists of 55 people. Within 40 days, it is supposed to elect a constitution drafting committee and hold elections to the autonomy’s parliament. The Circassians and Assyrians are also represented in the administrative bodies.
There is every indication that the autonomous administration will continue to exist even after the war, no matter which side will win. According to experts, the Kurds, who have been oppressed for a long time by President Bashar al-Assad and his father, view the Syria conflict as an opportunity to broaden their autonomy and approach the status that the Iraqi Kurds have achieved. As a PYD statement stresses, “the Kurdish people will rule themselves democratically together with others ethnic minorities in the region. They will not be influenced by Damascus, whoever is in power there. Assad can no longer penetrate into our sphere. We are defending our sphere. We are attacking nobody.”
Quite expectedly, the Kurdish autonomy in Western Kurdistan is opposed by not only the Syrian opposition, but also by Turkey. At the same time, official Damascus is keeping total silence.
PYD leader Salih Muslim has visited Turkey several times in the past few months to negotiate with the Turkish government the status of Kurds in a future Syria. In July 2013, when PYD made an attempt to proclaim autonomy, suggested drawing up a constitution, and hold elections within six months, Turkey rejected this step.
Ankara believes that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad supports the Syrian Kurds’ autonomy in order to provoke differences inside the Syrian opposition and thwart Ankara’s efforts to cement the latter. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that “it is impossible to accept any factual declarations of autonomous entities in Syria, for this can only stir up a further crisis.”
An attempt to somewhat quell the aspiration of Syrian Kurds for autonomy was made during the meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in Diyarbakir, the center of Turkish Kurds. The newspaper Today’s Zaman quotes the Turkish head of government as particularly stressing at an Ankara press conference with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan that “the Diyarbakir negotiations will be a historic day for us.”
Ankara believes that a certain distancing between the leaders of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds will make it possible to curb the separatist tendencies of the latter and thus foil the plans of autonomy. Today’s Zaman says that Turkey would like to use Barzani’s influence on Syrian Kurds in order to upstage PYD and gain an impact on Syrian Kurds in post-Assad Syria. According to the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, the stake was that Barzani would put under his control two units – KNC and PYD – at the same time and bring them into agreement with the National Council of the Syrian Opposition in the period after Assad.
The immediate future will show the extent to which this policy is successful for Ankara. Besides, it is quite possible that the regional Kurdish government in northern Iraq and a similar government in northern Syria will forge a new strategic alliance to force Ankara to move towards granting autonomy to its own Kurds. Naturally, this situation is an object of serious concern for the Erdogan government. In spite of conciliatory rhetoric and demonstrative pro-Kurdish actions, he considers granting autonomy to the Turkish Kurds a remote and rather vague prospect.
The developments in northern Syria can also change the tactics of Kurdish political forces in Turkey. According to Today’s Zaman, Erdogan is unlikely to prevent ward off this scenario “by means of strong rhetoric.”
There is another important external side of the matter. A question will arise about representation of Syrian Kurds at the Geneva-2 conference. The point is that the so-called provisional government of Syria, formed by the Syrian opposition, is not juridically legitimate, for it was not elected but set up without prior arrangement. Instead, Syrian Kurds may hold the necessary democratic procedures, including elections, on the territory they control well before the conference begins. The conference organizers, above all, Russia and the US, will not be able to ignore this fact. On the other hand, this may be tantamount to recognizing the fact that a territorial fragment has broken away from Damascus in spite of the pacifying statements of Syrian Kurds’ leaders. Anyway, Western Kurdistan will acquire a status similar to that of Iraqi Kurdistan and become independent de facto.
As the Syria conflict is dragging on, this leads to an essential regrouping in the Middle East. Should the Syrian Kurds manage to retain their autonomy, which is very likely, this will have a serious impact on Iran. With due account of this, Tehran continues to render and even increase aid to the Assad regime in spite of domestic difficulties. But this will hardly help – at least in the Kurdish problem. These long-suffering people seem to have taken a step to achieve a centuries-old dream about a state of their own.