As the Assad regime loses ground in the Syrian civil war, ethnic Kurds are gaining more and more leverage. Kurdish leaders have not been able to unify, but neighboring countries are already alarmed.
For a long time it was relatively quiet in Syria's Kurdish regions. As people in the south and west of the country took to the streets to protest against President Bashar Assad, there were few such demonstrations in northeastern Syria, which is home mostly to ethnic Kurds. Young Kurds soon joined the rebellion against the regime, but most of the rest of the population took a wait-and-see approach.
As an ethnic minority, the Kurds did not want to end up between the front lines. For many years, the Assad regime discriminated against the Kurds and even denied their existence in Syria. But as the pressure on the regime grew, Assad offered them Syrian citizenship, hoping to buy their neutrality. It now appears as though a large portion of the Syrian Kurds have not openly come out against Assad because his government tolerates that they have a considerable degree of autonomy in their region of the country.
Largest ethnic group without a country
The autonomy alarms neighboring Turkey where the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has been fighting a three-decade-old insurrection using ambushes and bomb attacks to gain their own state or at least autonomy.
The Kurds are considered to be the world's largest ethnic minority without their own country. Population estimates range widely from 30 million to 38 million Kurds with most of them living in Turkey (13 million to 16 million), Iran (6 million to 8 million), Iraq (roughly 6 million) and Syria (1.5 million to 2.0 million). The fifth largest population of Kurds lives outside the region in Germany (650,000). Other, traditional, population centers can be found in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The violent struggle between the PKK and Turkey has cost the lives of more than 40,000 people. Following the arrest and imprisonment of its leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, the PKK has lost influence, but the situation of Kurds in Turkey has improved over the years, not least because the government in Ankara has applied to join the European Union. Kurdish hopes for more autonomy, however, have not been fulfilled.
Northern Iraq as a model
That's why for many Turkish Kurds developments in northern Iraq are serving as a model for the future. The majority of people living there are Kurds. Under the protection of the United States, a self-ruling Kurdish administration has evolved since 1991. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds were able to secure broad autonomy in the region. Political stability and income from oil production have ensured that the region has largely prospered. There is also a functioning parliament and government under President Masud Barzani.
For several weeks now, some cities in Syria along the Turkish border have been under Kurdish control. The Syrian army has partially withdrawn to its barracks in the area. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), considered an offshoot of the PKK, is essentially running the show.
What aims the PYD is ultimately pursuing is unclear, said Sonor Cagaptay, a Turkey expert with the Washington Institute. The PYD recently pledged not to fight against Turkey any longer.
"We will see whether the PYD has cut its ties to the PKK when the Assad regime falls," Cagaptay said. "Then, we will see if the PYD continues to spare Turkey or if it goes back to its origins."
The relationship between the PYD and the Assad regime is also not clear, according to the Kurdish Islam expert Kamiran Hudsch. "At the beginning of the revolution, the members of this party were called the 'shabiha' of the Kurds," he said in a reference to the Assad-loyal shabiha militias in Syria. "Whether or not they are loyal to the regime is unclear," he added.
Many observers suspect that the PYD is working with the Assad regime, said Hudsch. At least, both sides appear to be benefitting from the current situation. The PYD can expand its influence in Syria's Kurdish areas and beyond the borders and northern Syria is again a safe haven for Turkish PKK fighters.
Fear of spreading war
Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, is pressuring Syria's Kurds to work together with the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). The rebels fighting in the Free Syrian Army are formally answerable to the SNC. At the same time, Barzani has maintained contacts with the Assad regime in Damascus. So far, Kurdish organizations have not actively participated in the fight against Assad's forces because many fear otherwise the fighting could spill over into the Kurdish areas.
Turkey is annoyed that Assad is leaving the Kurds alone. "The rebellion of the Syrian people has allowed the Kurds to demand what the Iraqi Kurds already have," said Cagaptay from the Washington Institute. "That will lead to Turkish and Iranian Kurds saying they want to be next."
The dream of national sovereignty
Many people in Turkey have voiced concern that the Turkish Kurds want to set up an independent Kurdistan with their ethnic brethren in Syria, Iraq and Iran. And, at the moment, it seems the Kurds are in the strongest position in their history to make the dream of national sovereignty come true.
However, the Kurds also have a long tradition of inner conflict; one example being the long confrontation between the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Masud Barzani. The differences were only put aside in favor of an alliance when it became clear that the end of Saddam Hussein's regime was near.
Many observers, therefore, are skeptical that a Kurdish state could become a reality. But one thing, at least, is clear: Efforts to found their own nation would turn Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran against them.