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.