Syria and the Kurdish Question Revisited

Ammar Abdulhamid
Friday, March 18, 2016, 2:19 PM

While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden decision to withdraw troops from Syria caught many by surprise, it was not the only dramatic development in Syria this week. Syria’s Kurds had a surprise of their own, or to be more specific, it was the Syrian branch of the PKK—known as the Kurdish Democratic Union Party or the PYD—the entity in control of the different Kurdish-majority cantons in northern Syria.

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While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden decision to withdraw troops from Syria caught many by surprise, it was not the only dramatic development in Syria this week. Syria’s Kurds had a surprise of their own, or to be more specific, it was the Syrian branch of the PKK—known as the Kurdish Democratic Union Party or the PYD—the entity in control of the different Kurdish-majority cantons in northern Syria. It is with the military arm of this entity, namely the Kurdish Defense Units, or YPGs, that the United States is currently cooperating in their ongoing showdown with the Islamic State enclaves in territories in northern Syria.

Under the PYD’s surprise move, the party intends to follow a federal system for governing the three Kurdish-majority cantons under its control, which they have now declared as autonomous entities. But neither the regime nor the mainstream Syrian opposition are on board with such an arrangement, which is already causing problems in the ongoing peace talks in Geneva in which the PYD is not represented.

But what is the PYD up to at this stage? Where does it stand in the ongoing conflict between the regime and mainstream rebel group? And what do other Kurdish parties have to say?

The answer is complicated, as the Kurds have not been united in their stands on any of the relevant issues: starting with the anti-regime revolution and including the issue of federal arrangements.

Indeed, the Kurds of Syria belong to a myriad of political parties and political organizations, but the PYD has always been the most organized and has had the greatest public support on the ground, especially among the youth. The PYD’s relations with the Assad regime have always been complicated. After all, their parent entity, the PKK, would not have existed had it not been for the Assad regime support throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. That said, its founder, Abdallah Ocalan, would not be languishing in Turkish prisons today had Hafiz Al-Assad not chosen to deport him from the country to ease growing tensions with the Turks in the summer of 1998, and in the process staving off a possible military confrontation that he had no way of surviving. Moreover, despite its support for the PKK, the Assad regime never recognized Kurdish rights, and adopted instead a series of oppressive tactics vis-à-vis Syria’s Kurdish population, including denying linguistic rights, and depriving many of their citizenships.

Still, when the Revolution took place, the two sides were on friendly terms, resulting in the PYD’s decision to remain above the revolutionary fray remaining neutral and encouraging neutrality among other Kurds. Eventually, in early 2013, the PYD and YPGs took direct control of majority-Kurdish cantons in the country and prevented Kurds from siding with the revolutionaries. The dismissive attitude of the mainstream opposition groups towards the Kurds and their main demands—especially the idea of adopting a federal system for the country or of at least granting Kurds autonomy—created more sympathy among Kurds for the PYD’s political position.

The rise of the Islamic State in the northern parts of the country, however, and the long-suspected manipulation of some of its cells by Turkish intelligence, eventually led to several attacks by IS against Kurdish towns and villages, and to direct clashes with YPGs and some of their Christian and Arab allies. This played a major role in the recent decision made by the PYD leadership to cooperate with the Russians and the Assad regime when it came to wresting control of certain areas in north Aleppo held by rebels. At the same time, the PYD emerged as the leading force cooperating with the Americans in their fight against IS in the Hassakeh and Raqqah provinces.

There is a growing popular support of the PYD, despite continued criticism by other Kurdish parties of the PYD’s authoritarian tactics and the PYD’s decision to deny them fair representation in its system of governance, even as it allows participation by the Assyrians, the Chaldeans and other Christian communities as well as some Arab tribes living in the region under its control. The support is due to the PYD’s ability to protect the region from IS and to drive it away from certain towns. The Kurds—despite the fact that there are still Kurdish divisions fighting with rebels and Kurdish parties affiliated with mainstream opposition groups—are increasingly coming to terms with the idea that Syria as a country is irrevocably broken, and that they need to find a solution that best works for them.

This may not be a popular attitude among Sunni Arabs, as represented by mainstream opposition groups, both political and military. The regime will continue to oppose it in its discourse, while it might ultimately benefit from a federal arrangement, because there are those within the regime, especially Bashar Al-Assad himself, operating under the delusion that they can somehow regain control over the entire country. Still, the development does reflect the reality on the ground.

Considering the Kurds alienation from both the regime and the opposition, and considering that the major threat posed to them at this stage comes from IS and other Islamist groups who continue to disdain the Kurds on account of their pronounced secular tendencies, it is unsurprising that the Kurds are becoming less interested in the fate of Syria as a whole and far more interested in their own fate.

If the PYD is more focused on fighting IS at this stage while avoiding conflict with the few regime units still existing on its territories, this reflects existing realities rather than any serious pro-regime attitude; IS has long declared war against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, rebel groups have not sided with PYD, and regime troops in Kurdish-majority areas continue to keep a low profile there and have in practice accepted the de facto hegemony of PYD. Moreover, no interruption has been reported in the regime’s financial support of these territories.

However problematic, especially in coinciding with the peace talks in Geneva, there is nothing surprising or irrational about the PYD declaration. Following IS declaration of the Caliphate, this move marks the second concrete step towards the dissolution of Syria.

The most problematic aspect of this turn of events, however, is that the PYD declaration seems to include areas that have not traditionally fallen under Kurdish control, at least not in modern times. For example, it includes the town of Shaddadi in the Hasskeh province, recently wrested from IS with U.S. support and the town of Tel Rifaat in Aleppo Province seized from U.S.-backed rebels under Russian air cover.

Indeed, the PYD seems intent on taking control of all territories it might “liberate” at this stage. While the decision could be justified on the need for providing for effective governance structures in these places to prevent their lapse in chaos, some PYD sympathizers are already invoking history to justify the move by claiming that these places were historically Kurdish, denoting the underlying ideological vision.

These are dangerous precedents indeed and tend to put the U.S. in a difficult position as it could be seen as party to an ethnic cleansing campaign targeting Arabs. Despite the rush by the State Department to assert that it would not recognize the PYD move, so long as the U.S. continues to rely on PYD troops in the fight against IS, and so long as its leaders continue to adhere to this new policy, it will be hard for the administration to distance itself from the trend.

As things stand now, the Obama administration, due to its policies in Syria and the region, will be seen as having sided with the Shia against Sunnis and with Kurds against Arabs, and as having instigated the very breakup of Syria. Indeed, it was none other than John Kerry himself who let the cat out of the bag when he raised the possibility of partition and federal arrangement as part of some hypothesized Plan B for Syria. With Russia now pulling out of Syria, the U.S. may find itself blamed for any partition of the country, soft or hard, and even if such partition took the form of a federation. In time—and as Putin himself has hinted—Russian forces can be redeployed to Syria in a matter of hours to take advantage of the fait accompli that Putin himself had created, with the help of pro-Iranian Shiite militias, but for which the United States will be principally blamed.

Oh the tangled web we weave.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian author and pro-democracy activist currently based in Silver Spring, Maryland where he arrived with his family as political refugees in September 2005. His recent book, "The Irreverent Activist," a series of brief reflections written over two decades, is now available through Amazon. He also blogs at and is a regular contributor to Lawfare.

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