Kurdish hopes for autonomy in Syria: An uncertain affair

Kurdish hopes for autonomy in Syria: An uncertain affair
Comment: Dr Radwan Ziadeh takes a look back at the timeline of events since 2011 in northern Syria, that shaped the alliances and battles taking place today.
5 min read
07 Sep, 2016
Turkey's intervention to push back IS is also a strong message to the Kurds [Getty]

After the beginning of the Syrian Uprising in 2011, the Kurdish voice divided between the Kurdish National Council, and the Syrian branch of the PKK or what's called the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

With the rise of the militias in Syria, the PYD succeeded in gaining control of most of the Kurdish areas in Syria, and imposing its own agenda. But above all, it got the credit from the international community for its fight against IS, allowing the PYD to declare federalism in Syria.     

The regions inhabited by Kurds were among those that heard the most vociferous demands, when protests against the regime broke out in 2011 during the first phase of the revolution. Additional demands came later, and were considered as original national rights.

The Syrian regime then tried to play the Kurdish card in an attempt to gain their support and prevent them from participating in the revolution, but these efforts were unsuccessful during the first phase of the revolution. It did however, succeed later on, indirectly, through its relationship with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch, the Democratic Alliance Party (PYD). 

As dissent in Syria continued to swell, the protests turned into an armed struggle, and the opposition managed to take control over large areas in Syria, reaching Ras al-Ain city in Hassakeh Province at the end of 2012. At that time, the People's Protection Units - the military wing of the PYD, recently established as a Syrian branch of the PKK in Turkey - fought the Free Syrian Army and the other factions of the opposition in a series of battles. A truce was called that forced most of the Syrian Army factions to withdraw from Ras al-Ain to control al-Shaddadi City in 2012.

The Syrian regime's support for the People's Protection Units escalated, and resulted - according to protection contracts - in them handing over the administration of al-Malikiyah city and Rmeilan oil wells to the Units, then al-Jaadiah and Al-Qahtaniah; in addition to Amoda and al-Derbasiah which were already in their hands.

The appearance of IS at the beginning of Spring 2012, and its spread to many cities and towns such as Deir az-Zour, Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib, led to various separate battles between its fighters and the PYD.

The People's Protection Units, supported by the United Democratic Alliance, were widely accused of ethnic cleansing

These battles never reached a resolution, because IS fighters were busy fighting the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic opposition factions, and taking over the areas which had already been won by others from the Regime. Meanwhile, the Kurdish fighters were focusing on stabilisng their positions and preparing for the period ahead.

The rapid spread of IS, in addition to Ain al-Arab (Kobani) in Aleppo, led to a military intervention by the United States and its western and Arab allies, to support the PYD and declare the beginning of a direct relationship and an overt support of these Units by the Alliance Forces.

It could certainly be said that that the People's Protection Units have benefited from American support and Russian military and logistical support, in order to control essential parts of north-eastern Syria.

Most of the battles were settled in the air, and land forces had little to do but take over the areas from which IS forces had withdrawn. This lead to a reversal in the considerations of Washington, regarding the establishment of a Kurdish continuous strip of land, essential to fighting IS in Syria, even if it led to upsetting Ankara.

The People's Protection Units, supported by the United Democratic Alliance, were widely accused of ethnic cleansing and dislodgement crimes targeting the Arabs, as dozens of Arab inhabited villages were totally wiped from northeast Syria in 2014 and 2015. This was in preparation for autonomous regions that seem unlikely both geographically and demographically.

Most of the opposition forces, for ideological, national, religious or political reasons, refuse the Kurdish autonomy

In summer 2013, and after the People's Protection Units achieved a victory over al-Nusra Front in Ras al-Ain and fought the Free Syrian Army in al-Jawadia, the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Alliance suggested creating a confederal entity representing autonomy in three regions of northern Syria: Qamishli, Ain al-Arab and Afrin.

This suggestion was only approved by some parties and institutions that were included in the Democratic Alliance Party. And even though most Arabs, Christians and Kurds refused the suggestion, autonomy was declared officially on 21 December, 2014, in addition to the formation of a regional government.

In fact, there is a widespread conviction between the parties opposing this project, that it in fact aids the Syrian regime in adding confusion to the situation and, on a strategic level, paves the way to separatist tendencies. This is especially true after the Peoples Protection Unit took over Tal Abyad City and changed its name to "Kri Sabi", combining it with Kobani as a part of the autonomous administration on 21 October, 2015.

Moreover, most of the opposition forces, for ideological, national, religious or political reasons, refuse the Kurdish autonomy, and given Turkey's refusal of this move, the future of the autonomy has become very critical matter.

Now, the PYD has succeed - with the help of the international coalition led by the US - to crush IS in Manbij, leaving the question of who will control Manbij. The Turkish intervention in Syria to push IS out of Jarabulus sent a clear message to the PYD they would not have access to the Syrian Turkish border. As a result, the Turkish government has found itself fighting on two fronts in Syria: against the PYD on one hand, and against IS on the other.

This further complicates the game in Syria, as each party is fighting for its own interests and with conflicting agendas. As a result, the future of the Kurds in Syria remains unclear as the conflict continues to unfold.

Dr Radwan Ziadeh is a Senior Middle East Analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter: @radwanziadeh

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.