The demise of Arab-Kurdish solidarity in Syria

The demise of Arab-Kurdish solidarity in Syria
Comment: Arab-Kurdish solidarity in Syria deteriorated as a result of foreign interests and the regime's war tactics, writes Loubna Mrie.
8 min read
22 Aug, 2017
A funeral for Arab fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units in Qamishli [AFP]

In 2011, the Syrian independence flag - which replaced the Baath flag - flew side-by-side with the Kurdish flag in opposition-held territory throughout the country. 

In Kurdish areas, such as Amude and Qamishli, Kurds chanted in solidarity with their Syrian Arab brethren. Arab activists did the same - Kurdish chants were always repeated in protests in Arab towns and villages.

Many Kurdish activists helped Arabs living under siege with food and medical supplies. These activists even helped find housing for displaced Arab families from Homs and Deraa, especially in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo. For example, the al-Ta'khi I movement, formed by Kurdish students at Aleppo University, was highly active in the city and its suburbs. 

As a result, many of its members were later detained by Assad's intelligence services.

Kurdish participation in the struggle against the regime was not limited to civil society. Kurds also fought regime forces. In early 2012, Kurdish fightes helped the Free Syrian Army seize areas such as East Aleppo - which has a large Kurdish populations in neighbourhoods such as Sheikh Najjar - from the Syrian government. The Kurdish neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsod was also loosely integrated into liberated East Aleppo.

On Kurdish military bases, the Kurdish flag fluttered alongside the Free Syrian Army flag. 

But in the years that followed, Arabs and Kurds turned against each other - as the regime found Kurdish allies willing to do its bidding.  

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which currently controls several Kurdish areas never supported the revolution. In July 2012, it reached an agreement with the regime to consolidate control over its territories in return for Rjecting the opposition. It later physically fought FSA units.

The fracturing

Revolutionary Kurdish forces such as those in East Aleppo also turned on the FSA. By the end of 2016, Kurdish militias were actively helping the Damascus regime reconquer East Aleppo.

Civil society rifts became equally apparent. Arabs and Kurds prioritised their respective ethnic groups rather than continuing to work together. As a result, local Arab newspapers active in Kurdish areas were no longer allowed to cover these regions. Additionally, Arab and Kurdish activists were detained and questioned for crossing into the other's territory.  

Both the Kurdish Internal Security forces and the FSA detained people according to their city of birth, a key indicator of one's ethnicity here.

Turkey was not only supporting the armed opposition, but was also the only country that offered a safe space for the Syrian political opposition to meet

To analyse the changing nature of Arab-Kurdish relations in Syria, we need to look at the role played by the Syrian government, as well as that of Turkey and of militant groups such as the Islamic State group, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front.

We cannot read history backwards and analyse the current fragmentation between Syrian Arabs and Kurds as fixed or static. In fact, the relationship has changed drastically in the context of conflict, as war often has its own logic. The relationship between Syrian Arabs and Kurds deteriorated as a result of transnational and foreign interests and regime tactics in the context of war.

We cannot understand the root causes of such divisions without looking closely at the proxy powers and their funding of Sunni Arab rebel forces. Turkey, which has long backed the FSA, is the chief country through which support has been channelled. Unfortunately, Turkey's suppression of its own Kurds has coloured the way it views Syrian Kurds, and thus has aggravated ethnic divisions in Syria.

Because the Syrian opposition desperately needs Turkey's support, it has been compelled to embrace Anakra's stance - which is sometimes at odds with the greater good of the Syrian people.

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The Kurdish-held provinces of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira make up the self-declared canton of Rojava

One of the Syrian opposition's greatest mistakes was to buckle to Turkish pressure and exclude the Kurdish opposition from the Syrian National Council (SNC). This, in turn, led to the political under-representation of Kurds, even though there was a robust Kurdish political opposition that was eager to join the SNC. 

It is very important to note here that Turkey was not only supporting the armed opposition, but was also the only country that offered a safe space for the Syrian political opposition to meet. This dynamic forced the Syrian opposition to give up on a Kurdish role in the political opposition, or rather, to turn a blind eye to the Kurdish struggle because they did not want to risk their relationship with Turkey.

In effect, Turkey played a major role in widening Arab-Kurd divisions.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, deepened the divide.

The regime's collusion with the PYD led to Damascus avoiding attacks on Kurdish areas.

Qamishli, the largest Kurdish-held city resembles Damascus, in that it has suffered little to no infrastructure damage. Hospitals, schools and shops are still functioning. Even commerce and trade remains relatively normal.

Meanwhile, every other city lost by the regime has been pummelled with airstrikes and besieged. The fact that Kurdish cities were not targeted points to a wider strategy of dividing the opposition. Before the revolution, Kurds had always experienced systemic discrimination - Kurdish parts of the country were completely forgotten before 2011, and more than 300,000 Kurds lacked citizenship.

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The regime's strategy of selective targeting persuaded the Kurds to embrace the regime narrative - that the revolution was a fig-leaf for a jihadist takeover of the country.

The Islamic State group, Ahrar al-Sham, some FSA groups, the Nusra Front and HTS/al-Qaeda etc all also played an important role in this division. They all attacked liberated Kurdish areas as part of a cynical strategy to gain control of oil fields.

Whenever these groups took control of a Kurdish area, they tried to impose their rules and ideology on Kurdish society. They started asking women to cover their head, targeted Christians, and even burned churches in cities like Ras al-Ayn.

All this was met only by weak condemnation from the leaders of the Turkish and American-backed opposition - who could not outright condemn such acts, lest they lose Turkish support, especially as Turkey is one of the main backers of Ahrar al-Sham.  

This deliberate exclusion is exactly what led the ethno-centric PYD to gain public support in Kurdish areas, as they fought to eject Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra from the Kurdish villages they had seized and terrorised. One can argue that the PYD, an radical ethnic-based group, actually gained public support because of the mistakes that the opposition committed - not because the majority of Kurds wanted autonomy or a divided Syria. 

But like any repressed group, many Kurds welcomed those who would save them - even if the "saviour" was fighting for a different cause. Most of the Kurdish population had to adopt the PYD ideology and agree on the autonomy of Rojava - the Kurdish term for northern Syria - after witnessing how the Syrian Arab opposition treated them by endorsing foreign powers' anti-Kurdish policies. 

For Kurds who witnessed the violations and atrocities committed by Sunni Arab groups, Arabs were suddenly their enemy and they wanted Arab armed groups to stay out of their areas. This understandable distrust also led to discrimination against Sunni Arab civilians living in, or fleeing to, Kurdish-controlled areas.

There has been a great deal of speculation that the Turkish government's "Operation Euphrates Shield" deployment in northern Syria was an attempt to counter-balance Kurdish military strength, as opposed to its stated goal of fighting IS.

While the Syrian government has adopted a strategic policy of not targeting Kurdish areas, state propaganda still denies the existence of Kurdish autonomy

The Turkish-led offensive against IS and PYD positions resulted in thousands of rebels leaving the Aleppo front at a time when the city was on the verge of falling entirely into regime hands. The Turkish government, which has been a major sponsor of opposition fighters, barely reacted when the most crucial rebel-held city was over-run.

While the Syrian government has adopted a strategic policy of not targeting Kurdish areas, state propaganda still denies the existence of Kurdish autonomy and a direct confrontation between the regime and the Kurdish forces is very likely in the future. It is noteworthy that the SDF, which is widely considered a YPG front group, still uses the symbol of the revolutionary flag.

Most commentators, "experts" and journalists have written about all this through the prism of the "fighting IS" lens. This is not completely unjustified, as one must admit that the Kurds have been one, if not the most, effective forces fighting IS. This can largely be attributed to the fact that they have strong ideological commitments, combat experience, and military support from the West.

But there has also been a glorification of the Kurdish forces, and the YPG has largely been absolved of crimes committed in Arab villages under the narrative of "fighting IS". Syria's Kurdish military groups have been studied extensively, lauded for heroic sacrifices, female fighters and, to a lesser degree, the ideology of the PKK's Abdullah Ocalan.

However, this should never whitewash the crimes that have taken place in Arab villages and various other human rights violations, which seem to be largely absent from media coverage.

Hitherto, only Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, The Washington Post, and, most importantly, local Syrian news outlets have covered these abuses. However, they do not look at the issue in historic context or pay attention to wider transnational forces - the most important element in understanding the division between Arabs and Kurds in Syria.

To ignore these elements is to reify ethnic differences; conceptualise Syrian Arab-Kurdish relations as static and ahistorical; and most importantly, to deny a history of shared solidarity.

One cannot deny that Arabs and Kurds have both been victims of state repression, and thus, we are natural allies. It is the cynical games of big, powerful countries that have set Arabs against Kurds and vice versa. 

Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who participated in the initial stages of the revolution. She later became a photojournalist with Reuters where she covered the ongoing conflict. 

She is currently based in New York City where she is a researcher and commentator on Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs and is completing an MA at NYU. Her work has been published in major outlets including the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and New Republic.

Follow her on Twitter: @loubnamrie

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.