The Kurds have been a third side to the Syrian civil war since the beginning. While the majority of the conflict appears to be turning primarily into a Sunni-Shi’a slugging match, with overtones of proxy war between Iran and Russia on one side and Saudi Arabia and Qatar (with some half-hearted support from the West–SecState Kerry just declared that “Any solution to the Syrian problem had to involve the international community and could not involve Assad.”) on the other, the Kurds have consistently taken all comers, with an attitude that can best be described as, “Leave us the hell alone.”
There are close to 30 million Kurds spread across northern Syria, northern Iraq, southern Turkey, and western Iran. They are the largest ethnic group without a homeland in the world. In the 1990s, the Kurds in northern Iraq, with the aid of the Coalition no-fly zone, began to develop their own autonomy, in what is now known as Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government is functionally now its own country, although it is still officially recognized as part of Iraq.
On Tuesday, Jan 21, the 2.2 million Kurds in northern Syria declared the formation of their own provincial government, moving toward establishing some stability and security for their people in the war-torn country. They insist that they are not seceding, but are developing their own constitution and preparing to hold elections early in the year.
The move has strengthened fears in Turkey. The Turks have fought a Kurdish insurgency under the PKK for decades, and have worked hard to prevent the formation of any independent Kurdish state. There have been Turkish incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan in the past, and while plans for a wall along the Syrian border near the Syrian Kurdish regions sparked protests, they have strengthened security along that border, including outright closing the border there and strengthening the barbed wire fence along the border. While the PKK insurgency had died down for a time, fearing a nationalistic backlash, Prime Minister Erdogan recently rekindled the crackdown on the PKK.
The announcement came after the Syrian Kurds’ request to join the peace talks in Switzerland was denied.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) began taking territory as the war made life harder and harder for the Kurds, who have historically been the poorest and most oppressed minority in northern Syria. Reuters quotes Aldar Xelil, a leading member of the PYD: “We started near the Iraqi border – just one tiny little checkpoint. And from checkpoint to checkpoint we went across the entire region. Now we only have two cities to finish: Qamishli and Hassaka.” Kurdish-held territory now spans 124 miles, from the Iraqi border to Ras al-Ain.
The PYD armed forces have managed to establish some security in the territory; most of the violence is being kept out. However, basic services such as water and electricity are still in short supply. Kurdish start-ups such as the Ronak Electric Company are trying to set up a rudimentary electrical grid with anything they can get their hands on, including components and generators obtained from smugglers. Similarly, the PYD has seized local crude oil supplies to refine into diesel, which they are selling for less than the Assad government. While the Kurds now control the Rumaiyla oil fields, they do not have the capability of refining the oil, and for political reasons have declined to operate the fields until a solution to the war is found and Syria’s future is more solid.
The PYD is not yet solidly established as a regional power. The declaration of autonomy is making a lot of people nervous, both inside Syria and outside. Syria is largely fragmented already, and those with some hope of a future unified country don’t see a lot of hope now that the Kurds are carving off part of the north. Furthermore, Kurdish rivalries are still strong–the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) in Iraqi Kurdistan has already sneered at the declaration of autonomy, given what continued communication and cooperation there still is between the PYD and the Syrian government. Kurdish rivalries are nothing new–shortly after the establishment of the no-fly zone in northern Iraq in the ’90s, which got Saddam off their backs, the KDP and PUK turned on each other in a bloody civil war.
While all the other powers in the region, and a lot of outside powers as well, have been staunchly opposed to an independent Kurdistan, between the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and now the Syrian Kurds’ declaration of autonomy, such a state may be becoming inevitable. Given the Kurds’ steadfast alliance with the US against the Islamist insurgency in Iraq, it may be time to put aside the old fears and stand by the only people who have resolutely stood by us in the region.
Photo courtesy kurdishrights.org.