How the Kurds Will Save Syria
As the Russian aircraft began their partial withdrawal from Syria, the Syrian Kurds declared their ambitions for what they call Rojava. Given the deeply fragmented nature of Syria during this five-year war, the Syrian Kurds suggested that the country adopt federalism as its organizational principle. Syria’s partition was off the table, as was the re-creation of a strong central government. Instead, the Syrian Kurds proposed that a unity of relatively autonomous states within Syria would be the model. The Kurds, it was said, have shown in practice what might be part of the post-conflict agreement.
Idris Nassan, who is part of the foreign ministry of the Kurdish canton of Kobane, said that the idea of a federation is not merely for the Kurds. Rojava – which in Kurdish means the west – refers to the Western Kurdistan, with the Eastern parts in Iraq and Iran. It might have a majority Kurdish population in some of the towns, but within Rojava live people of many different ethnicities. In fact, during the meeting to discuss federalism – held in Rmelan, in the northeastern edge of Syria – the delegates came from many different communities. They included Kurds and Arabs, certainly, but also Armenians, Assyrians, Chechens, Circassians, Syriacs, and Turkmen. The federal area of Rojava would not be a Kurdish area per se, but merely a self-administered part of Syria.
What was announced last week was the culmination of a five-year project. When the war began in Syria, its intensity first gathered along the western flank of the country from Dara’a to Aleppo. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad recalled large parts of his armed forces to reinforce Damascus and to fight along that corridor. In moving his troops to the western part of the country, Assad essentially gave the Syrian Kurds a free hand in their northern zone. It was then that the Syrian Kurds began to emerge as a political force.
Emergence of the Syrian Kurds.
For many decades, the Kurdish fighters of Turkish origin who belonged to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had taken refuge in neighboring Iraq and Syria. It was from these bases that the PKK maintained its battle against the Turkish state. Kurdish populations along the border provided safe havens for these fighters, and the governments of Iraq and Syria used their presence as a bargaining chip against Turkey. In 2003, the PKK helped set up a political arm amongst the Syrian Kurds. This formation – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – operated amongst Syrian Kurds to build a political network and to assist the PKK. In 2004, in Qamishli, a conflict at a soccer match led to a riot against the emblems of Syrian government rule. The government then cracked down on the various political outfits, including the PYD. Quiet descended on the region till 2011.
When the Syrian War broke out, the PYD seized the opportunity to emerge from the shadows. Its leader – Salih Muslim – walked out of a Damascus prison and returned to Qamishli, where the PYD began to take charge of administrative functions abandoned by the Syrian government. PKK fighters helped the PYD create an armed force, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). The YPG, assisted by the PKK, then fought off any intruder into what they began to see as their zone. Their main foe – soon enough – became ISIS, whom they have battled with ferocity along their de facto border. When ISIS took one of their cities of Kobane, it was devastating to the Syrian Kurds. It appeared that ISIS was ready to sweep the Syrian Kurdish dreams of Rojava into the dustheap.
Bombing runs from the United States as well as pressure on the Turkish government to allow Iraqi Kurdish reinforcements to enter the battlefield allowed the YPG to push ISIS away from Rojava. The frontline remained secure: east of the Euphrates River and north of the main roadway that connects Syria to Iraq lay the limits of Syrian Kurdish ambitions. They could neither move south nor reconnect with the Syrian Kurdish town of Afrin. That had been cut-off by the emergence of ISIS and other extremists north of Aleppo.
The Russian Intervention.
When the Russians intervened last year, the game changed. Russian aircraft provided close air-support to the Kurdish fighters and the Syrian Army as both moved swiftly to recapture the rural areas north of Aleppo. Here was the path to reconnect Jazira, Kobane and Afrin – the three jewels of the Syrian Kurds. The Syrian Kurds – in order to take advantage of the situation –created the Syrian Democratic Forces, a military front that comprised not only the YPG but also sections of the Free Syrian Army, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and al-Sanadid Forces. A host of different ethnic groups operate under this umbrella. Their emblem has the colors of the YPG – yellow, green and white, but it bears an outline map of Syria with the Euphrates winding its way through the country. The Syrian Democratic Forces provided the YPG with additional fighting power and legitimacy to stake a claim to be more than Kurdish. Its claim to autonomy and later federalism was not made from Kurdish nationalism, but from Syrian patriotism.
The PYD set up an office in Moscow. This is its first international office. The gains its fighters made discomforted the government of Turkey, which has long wanted to prevent another autonomous Kurdish region on its borders. The Iraqi Kurds – under Western protection and with the permission of the Turks – created such an enclave in 1991. Now it appeared as if the Syrian Kurds – under Russian protection – would do the same. It is out of antipathy to the Kurdish project, even though it is cloaked in Syrian nationalism, that the government in Turkey refused to allow the PYD or the YPG have a seat at the peace talks in Geneva. Russia tried to intervene on behalf of the PYD, to no avail. What was the PYD going to do in this situation – blocked from a seat at the table and yet gaining ground in the battlefield? It declared its intentions on its own, namely to create a state within a future Syrian federation.
Neither the Assad government in Damascus nor the opposition in Istanbul likes the idea of a federal Syria. Both are drawn to the habit of strong central rule. But, as the Syrian Center for Policy Research in Damascus showed, the war has fragmented the country seemingly irreversibly. A fragmented Syria is the reality. This fragmentation can go in two directions. It can be used as an excuse to partition the country. Or Syria can be preserved as a federal republic. In Iraq, the US occupation allowed the Kurdish Region to be defined in ethnic terms, leaving the rest of the country to be also –de facto –seen in sectarian terms (Shia and Sunni). The Syrian Kurds have prevented this by suggesting that their region – Rojava – is not an ethnic enclave but a state in a federation that is committed to equality and democracy. They call this the Project for a Democratic Syria. That the participants at the conference that took this position are not only Kurds illustrates their vision. This is not, as Salih Muslim put it, a claim to secessionism. It is a way to save Syria from disintegration.