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Kurdish sway

Anne Allmeling / gbAugust 16, 2012

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.

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone and provided by Shaam News Network, anti-Syrian President Bashar Assad Kurds-Syrian protesters, wave their Kurdish and Syrian flag at centre as they march during a demonstration against the Syrian regime, at the Kurds-Syrian village of Amouda, in Kamishli province, Syria, on Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. Photo:Shaam News Network/AP/dapd)
Image: AP

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.

Turkish soldiers and tanks wait in front of Gecimli military base where Kurdish rebels attacked near Hakkari, Turkey 05 August 2012 (c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ epa03342821
Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels have frequently clashed along the Iraqi borderImage: picture alliance / dpa

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.

President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Masud Barzani speaks to the press in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. Barzani confirmed the Kurds, the bloc that came in fourth place in the election, will retain the presidency the second highest position in Iraq's political structure. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
Iraqi Kurd autonomy is a model for Kurds in Turkey, Syria and IranImage: dapd

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.

Unclear position

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.

A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, trains on a weapon at their camp in the Qandil mountains near the Turkish border with northern Iraq. (ddp images/AP Photo/Yahya Ahmed)
The PKK has not given up its fight for more rights in TurkeyImage: YAHYA AHMED/AP/dapd

"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.

Turkish soldiers patrol in the province of Sirnak, on the Turkish-Iraqi border, southeastern Turkey, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Usta)
Turkish soldiers patrol the mountainous southeast of the countryImage: AP

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.

A Kurdish village in Iran. Source MEHR
This village in Iran is one of many remote Kurdish communitiesImage: MEHR

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.