The Changing Perspective

Kurds in Post-War Syria

Joseph Daher

There is a consensus among all Kurdish political parties, including Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to establish in a future Syria without Assad a form of decentralization, while all emphasizing the full integrity of Syrian territory within a federal system. The way to reach it is however different for numerous reasons. PYD has for example pursued a policy of strengthening its political influence through its own armed forces to control Kurdish majority inhabited areas, even more, and to try to link the 3 "Rojava" cantons geographically, but without any cooperation with Syrian Arab opposition forces, and sometimes even against them. On the other side, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) has argued that a federalist system has to be established following discussions with and explanations to the actors of the Syrian Arab opposition, which for the majority views federalism as a step toward separatism and division.

Regarding alliances, PYD officials actually recognized they have made a strategic decision not to confront military regime forces when they could, yet refusing accusations of collusion, describing themselves as a "third current" between an "oppressive regime and hardline rebel militants". At the same time there is no doubt that the PYD has engaged the regime in a conciliatory rather than confrontational manner and has pursued a modus vivendi that served both actors, at least for the short term. The possibility of the PYD to organize freely in Syria and to bring few thousands of armed fighters to Syria from Qandil enclave in Iraq in the first year of the uprising in 2011 allowed it to reestablish a presence and operate openly in Syria. This was made according to few sources and in exchange for cooperation with regime security forces in order to crush anti-regime protests in majority Kurdish populated areas, which did occur notably in Afrin and some Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo. This did not prevent at the same period confrontations between PYD members and regime forces, while PYD promoting an anti-regime propaganda in its social medias.

The self-governance of majority-Kurdish areas controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) - also known as 'Rojava-Northem Syria' - is a direct result of the mass movement by the people of Syria (Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians together) against the Assad regime. The popular uprising pushed the regime to conclude a deal with the PYD in July 2012, in which they withdrew from several majority-Kurdish regions in the North to redeploy its armed forces to repress the uprising elsewhere, while maintaining small presence in some areas such as Qamichli and Hassaka.

Rather than being an Assad proxy, the PYD has played a mutual beneficial role for itself and the Assad regime, seeking to take advantage of the lack of security and to expand the land it currently controls.

Therefore, there is no stricto senso alliance between the Assad regime and the PYD as some say, but a pragmatic agreement of non-confrontation, with conflicts in some periods, but that can't last for ever. The best proof of this situation is that although a kind of non-aggression pact existed between PYD and the regime, Assad has repeatedly declared that it refuses any kind of autonomy for the Kurds in Syria. In August, the Syrian Regime air force bombed the Kurdish neighbourhoods of the city of Hassaka, while Assad tacitly accepts Turkish military intervention and support to FSA and Islamic fundamentalist movements against the PYD in Northern Syria.

This does not mean in the same time that in the future new tactical and temporary collaboration between the two actors in a particular political context can occur.

In relation to the dominant trend of the opposition in exile, relations are not good, notably because of chauvinism of many groups and personalities within the Syrian Arab opposition, particularly the Syrian National Coalition, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhoods and the rightwing, while being allied to Turkey's AKP government.

The majority of the Syrian Arab opposition believes that Kurds are normal Syrian citizens who have been deprived of some of their rights and that the problem is therefore limited to the single issue of the census in 1962, which resulted in around 120,000 Kurds being denied nationality and declared as foreigners, leaving them, and subsequently their children, denied of basic civil rights and condemned to poverty and discrimination. There were between 250,00 and 300,000 stateless Kurds in the beginning of the revolution in March 2011, roughly 15 percent of the estimated two million total Kurdish population in Syria. The far majority of the opposition political parties have not been ready in any way to recognize the Kurds as a separate "people" or "nation'' and are not ready and willing to listen to demands for federalism and administrative decentralization. As mentioned before, the demand for a federal system in Syria is a demand of the quasi majority of Kurdish parties in the country despite their political differences and rivalries.

The demand for a federal system by the Syrian Kurdish political parties is rooted in decades of state oppression, and this since the independence of the country in 1946, on a national basis (policies of quasi systematic discrimination against Kurds, policies of colonization in the framework of the "Arab Belt" and cultural repressions at all levels), but also has socio-economic consequences: the most impoverished areas of the country were the areas mostly populated by Kurds such as in the north-eastern Jazirah.

In this perspective, the majority of the Syrian Arab opposition did not address or even acknowledge this reality, mirroring the regime's position.

Lately, the great majority of the Syrian Kurdish political movements, including the PYD and Kurdish National Council, were angered by the recent transition plan, proposed by the opposition's High Negotiations Committee for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, as the plan did not envision any form of federalism in post-war Syria. The High Negotiations Committee for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces proposed the principle of administrative decentralization in managing the country's affairs. The Kurdish National Council, which is part of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (known as the Etilaf), but which has failed repetitively to recognize Kurdish rights with this latter or the previous Syrian National Council at the 2011 Tunis Conference and at subsequent conferences in Geneva and Riyadh, stated clearly that "this document is not part of a solution, but rather a danger to a democratic, pluralistic and unified Syria guaranteeing cultural, social and political rights to all its ethnic, religious and linguistic groups". They add "Whoever reads the document notes immediately that point 1 of the "General Principles" exclusively lists the Arab culture and Islam as sources "for intellectual production and social relations". This definition clearly excludes other cultures - be they ethnic, linguistic or religious - and sets the majority culture as the leading one. Syrian Kurds feel repulsed by this narrow perception of the Syrian people. The similarities between this definition and the chauvinist policies under the Assad regime are undeniable. Just as on October 25, 2016, The Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNC) condemned the Turkish bombardment of populated districts in Aleppo Governorate. The council explicitly demanded that the Turkish Army stop killing civilians and demanded that it withdraws its forces from Aleppo countryside.

At the same time PYD policies have also been problematic such as its non-conflict orientation towards the Assad regime, support for Russian intervention in Syria and even benefiting in the beginning of 2016 of Russian bombing in the countryside of Aleppo to conquer new territories against FSA and Islamic opposition forces. According to latest news, new military fights are unfortunately occurring between these actors in the northern region of Aleppo. And there are also some accusations of human rights violations against Arab populations. In addition, it has practiced authoritarian and repressive measures against other Kurdish groups and activists.

In general, no solution for the Kurdish issue and an inclusive Syria can be found without recognizing the Kurds as a proper "people" or "nation" in Syria and providing unconditional support to the self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria and elsewhere; this clearly does not mean being uncritical of the policies of the leadership of the PYD or any other Kurdish political party.

The defeat of the Syrian revolution and of the popular movement would probably mark the end of the Rojava experience and the return to an era of oppression for the Kurds of Syria. The Assad regime and the Islamic reactionary forces would not allow any possible development of a political experience that is out of their authoritarian program.

This is why PYD should not isolate the struggle for self-determination of the Kurdish people from the dynamics of the Syrian revolution.

This is important to understand because among all international and regional powers, there is a near consensus around certain points: to liquidate the revolutionary popular movement initiated in March 2011, stabilize the regime in Damascus and keep at its head the dictator Bashar Al-Assad for the short-to-medium term. Also their objective is to oppose Kurdish autonomy and try to militarily defeat jihadist groups such as Daesh.

Vol. 49, No.24, Dec 18 - 24, 2016