August 23rd, 2012
12:18 PM ET

A tough liberation for Syria’s Kurds

By Maria Fantappie, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Maria Fantappie is a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. The views expressed are her own.

While the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are determined to hold onto Aleppo, they’ve already reportedly abandoned some of their positions north of the city, in Syria’s Kurdish populated regions. Yet the retreat of Syrian troops may not bring the liberation that Syrian Kurds have long desired. Now more than ever, Syrian Kurds are caught between the ambitions of their fellow Kurdish parties in neighboring Iraq and Turkey, and the strategies of a Syrian regime struggling to survive.

Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) controls most of Syria’s Kurdish populated areas under the mantle of its Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan hold the reins of Syrian Kurdish politics, specifically, 15 Syrian-Kurdish parties under the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council (KNC). While the PKK aims to turn Kurdish Syria into a strategic front to combat Turkey, Iraqi Kurds plan the foundation a Kurdish Syrian region under their sway. But even if the regime falls, Syrian Kurds might have a long road ahead to secure their own freedom.

Last month, the Syrian regime fought some of its most ferocious battles to survive, but their retreat from Kurdish populated areas was surprisingly smooth. Al-Assad’s forces retreated only to leave PYD members in their posts. Kurdish Syrian parties agreed to jointly govern the areas, however, the PYD has largely reneged on power-sharing. The longer the regime clings onto power, the further al-Assad’s forces will retreat and the more the PYD could advance, further stoking Turkish fears. In addition, A PKK expansion might eventually work in favor of Iraqi Kurdish interests – under pressure from the PKK expansion, Iraqi Kurds can compel the Syrian opposition to accept the KNC demands as the regime’s demise draws near, pushing ahead their project of a Kurdish Syrian region in a post-al-Assad Syria.

Regardless, the PYD is expanding into northern Syria at an unprecedented rate. Less than two years ago, it could claim only a few offices in the country. Today, its flag flies throughout the Syrian-Turkish frontier region, from northwest ‘Afrin in Turkey to the north-western corner of Syria, ‘Ayn Diwar, and the Aleppo Kurdish quarters. While the PYD already possessed weapons prior the revolution, the evacuation of Syrian forces from Kurdish Syria has left PYD members with their arms and permission to raise checkpoints inside and outside the cities they have entered. As it has expanded, the PYD has organized local elections, opened cultural centers, and recently held the party’s fifth congress.

Al-Assad has also benefited from the PYD’s expansion. The party has often stood in for the regime to repress pro-revolutionary activities. It has also suppressed other Kurdish parties in its quest to consolidate its own power base. Militarily, being armed and being Kurdish, the PYD acts as an effective buffer against the advancement of the Free Syrian Army into any Kurdish populated areas of the country. Indeed, the Free Syrian Army has no way of entering the Kurdish quarters of Aleppo or advancing into Kurdish regions along Syria’s Turkish borders so long as they remain under the control of a Kurdish force.

Thus, the withdrawal of Syrian forces was in the interest of both the PYD and the regime itself. For regime forces, the decision to retreat was a strategic calculation. Syrian forces withdrew without losing control and saved its forces for struggles elsewhere. And a fractured Syrian regime still clinging to power is ideal for PKK ambitions. The more the al-Assad regime employs its forces aggressively across Syria, the more it’s likely to leave Kurdish areas in the hands of the PYD, enabling the latter to gain exclusive control of the Syrian-Turkish border area. Only Iraqi Kurds can alter this trajectory and challenge the PYD in Syria. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces have reportedly been training Kurdish defectors of the Syrian army near the Iraqi-Syrian borders, just a few kilometers from the PYD’s checkpoints in Syria. Iraqi trained Kurdish divisions are already strategically positioned in Iraq’s Zammar, a strategic gateway into al-Hasakah Syria.

Many fear a confrontation that pits Kurds against each other. But this remains a distant prospect. Despite having competing agendas, the PKK and Iraqi Kurds need each other to fulfill their respective agendas.

Iraqi Kurds can capitalize on the threat of a PKK expansion to extract concessions in a post-Assad Syria. Confronted with the PKK’s expansion, the KNC could exert pressure on Turkey and the Syrian opposition to resolve Syria’s Kurdish issue under terms similar to the Iraqi Kurdish model of decentralization or even federalism. Only when these terms are accepted would Iraqi Kurdish leaders send armed and trained Kurdish Syrian divisions to join the Free Syrian Army, which could then enter Kurdish Syria as liberators and compel the PYD to rescind its monopoly.

The PYD needs the KNC as the sole body representing Kurds in the negotiations with Syria's opposition. As the fall of the regime draws near, the PYD might increasingly compromise with the KNC if it wishes to survive in a future Syria. The party can temporarily gain popularity providing Syrian Kurds with services, but it has no chance of consolidating its power base because it lacks the recognition it needs to represent and negotiate Syrian Kurdish demands. More importantly, the PYD has gambled its future on concessions from the Syrian regime and in this sense, may have already lost. The PYD may strive to build an aura of Kurdish “liberator,” after having expanded through regime concessions, and conducted several operations against Syrian Kurdish.

Only those who carry the banners of the revolution will become the future rulers of Syria’s Kurds.

In an eventual post-al-Assad Syria, the PYD may be compelled to alter its plan and negotiate to pull out from most of the Kurdish areas in exchange for maintaining some armed presence along Syria’s Turkish borders. On the other hand, Iraqi Kurds may determine the fate of Syria’s Kurds as Iraqi-trained Syrian Kurdish forces attempt to bear the flag of liberation and the KNC negotiates over the status of Kurds.

Ultimately, even if the collapse of the Syrian regime does come soon, full political representation for Syria’s Kurds still remains a distant prospect.

Post by:
Topics: Middle East • Turkey

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    It's about time that the Kurds acquired a homeland. The Turks need to negotiate a timetable with the Kurdish PKK to join these Kurds and have Iraq grant a plebiscite to their own Kurds to see if they too wish to join in. No one disputes the the right of the Jews to have a homestate and now let's extend to the Kurds the same right!

    August 23, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      They already have a homeland. It's called the autonomous region of 'Northern Kurdistan', but apparently, that's not good enough for them, they want to spill more blood and continue their terrorist campaign.

      August 23, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
      • Mamo

        oops .stop there.Kurdistan is Occupied still. the fight will continue until Diarbaker is
        free ,like Arbil.

        September 8, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  2. gamersliverfang

    O

    August 23, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  3. gamersliverfang

    Sorry for the incomplete post, once again the propaganda and one sided narrative is still going at it.

    "While the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are determined to hold onto Aleppo, they’ve already reportedly abandoned some of their positions north of the city, in Syria’s Kurdish populated regions. Yet the retreat of Syrian troops may not bring the liberation that Syrian Kurds have long desired. Now more than ever, Syrian Kurds are caught between the ambitions of their fellow Kurdish parties in neighboring Iraq and Turkey, and the strategies of a Syrian regime struggling to survive."

    From the AFP article.

    "after heavy fighting with rebels, leaving streets desolated and deserted apart from local youths on patrol, residents said on Thursday."

    Local Youth Rebels? meaning aka Child Soldiers?

    " they’ve already reportedly abandoned some of their positions north of the city, in Syria’s Kurdish populated regions. Yet the retreat of Syrian troops may not bring the liberation that Syrian Kurds have long desired."

    Really so CNN claims that the Syrian troops have reportedly abandoned some parts of Aleppo? i haven't heard such claims.

    And as noted in the article.

    "Ultimately, even if the collapse of the Syrian regime does come soon, full political representation for Syria’s Kurds still remains a distant prospect."

    Even if the Assad collapse does come soon?? how many times has CNN stated this now? why wont CNN report how the rebels withdraw from Aleppo? oh thats right they cant it would be bad for there agenda.

    CNN just cant wait till another Muslim Brotherhood goverment takes over.

    August 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  4. Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/Joe Collins/J.Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark

    I am the same guy. I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because I am a good Moslem. I have stolen Patrick’s moniker because I am so ashamed of myself and I post the most stupid comments because I am an imbecile. When people get angry with me, I claim they are the stupid ones. If I am not careful, my brain will explode because it is so full of hate.

    August 23, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  5. Ferhat Balkan

    These PKK and PYD terrorists claim they want liberty and freedom, yet they engage in unlawful actions such as hiring underage teenagers between the age of 16 and 17 to wage their indiscriminate war, smuggle drugs to Europe to fund their weapons, blow up shops, busses and engage in suicide bombing. Let's even say that they establish independency, their very ideology is rooted in Communist beliefs (the Bible that they read each day is a book copied from Mao’s “Little Red Book” by Abdullah Ocalan), so we'll have a communist based Kurdish government right in the middle of an already unstable region which will only fuel more conflict and chaos. It's no big surprise that some countries support their cause, because it suits their agenda of creating a destabilizing ingredient in the region. At least the EU and US had sense enough to label them as terrorists and not ‘Rebels’ or ‘Freedom Fighters’ as some Leftist media would suggest.

    August 23, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Reply
    • Quigley

      Are you sure your post is true Ferhat, or is this just more propaganda coming out of both Washington and Ankara? The leaders of both these countries want us to believe that. Let's just let the Kurds set up their own home state!

      August 23, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        All you have to do Quigley is look up "victims of PKK terror" on YouTube and that's just the fraction of it.

        August 23, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    With regime forces focused on the fighting in the big cities, they have pulled out of much of the quiet corner of Syria.
    The country's Kurds say they now control half of their region in the north-east. Kurdish flags have replaced Syrian ones. Kurdish language schools have opened. Many are already looking forward to autonomy in a post-Assad Syria. Some even yearn for Greater Kurdistan – an independent state for all the Kurds. No doubt this doesn't bode well for Turkey's stability, as over 10% of its population are Kurds.

    August 24, 2012 at 7:27 am | Reply
  7. deniz boro

    I once commented "let them steam in their own juice/ it brings out the flavour"...And in time, it realy did start to give out its true essence. I realy do not wish to comment on this anymore since I cannot be impartial on the subject. I find all these acts disgraceful and disgusting. We have a saying in Turkish: "The black fly is small but it upsets the stomach. Well, I realy do not wish to spend even one minute on even considering the issue. PKK just did one massacre too much. One more atrocity too much. And ...well ... The world seems to be taking another election break since the premature SPRING. Almost a BANK HOLIDAY

    August 24, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
    • Serkan

      If you want to know who are the most disgusting nation and master lying about their crimes. I would say they are turks. They trained and educated and constructed to lying about their genocide and and massacres which whole world are aware, however they still insist to make propaganda to cheat themselves and lying about their crimes against humanity, They never say, apology and regret about their crimes in history even in actual, they are in power but always blame minorities under their management. They live in delusional and quite interesting they believe they are superior and always innocent but all minorities they persecuted and vanished are guilty. We call them turks

      September 21, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  8. Mamo

    The US and Eu shouLd end this disgraceful game against Kurdish people in Turkey. These people are fighting for the same rights that Kurds in Iraq,Iran and Syria are fighting for.A population of 40 million should have the right to decide about their future. the issue of kurdish people in Turkey is not ideolgical at all. Kurds are fighting for rights that they have been born with.They want to speak their own language, practice their own culture and be behaved not as a second citizine in Turkey.For years, they have not been able to speak their own language, and if so they would end up in prisons. crazy? isnt it? Turkey is the country of contrast. simple comparison of west(Turks) and east(Kurds) of turkey shows how unfair the wealth have been distributed in this country. Thanks to the Internet,now western public and journalists are able to see these discrimination and massacare of Kurds in Turkey.Hopefully, this people will stop western politicians to shop Kurdish people for their political ambitions , and also stop turkish governments to add another massacre to their colorful CV.On top of that Kurds are decisive more than ever to gain their rights and there is no way to stop them, since they hve noyhing to loose in this dirty game.

    September 8, 2012 at 8:30 am | Reply

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