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Syrien - syrische Kurden
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Sidelined Kurds

Kersten Knipp / bk
January 17, 2014

Syria's Kurds are locked in conflict with both the Assad regime and Islamist extremists. Their pleas for help have, so far, fallen on deaf ears in the West - and they haven't been invited to the Geneva peace talks.


The Kurds won't be offered a platform in Switzerland. For a while, they had hoped to be able to send a delegation to the "Geneva Two" peace conference on Syria at the end of January. But they were not invited.

The conference had previously raised hopes of making progress on the generations-old Kurdish question. "We won't allow Geneva Two to become another Lausanne," Saleh Muslim, co-chairman of the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), had said at the start of December. He was referring to the conference held in the Swiss city of Lausanne in 1923, in which the international community reneged on the prospect of Kurdish autonomy that had been raised shortly before.

PYD co-chairman Saleh Muslim
Saleh Muslim says there can be no peace in Syria without the KurdsImage: Imago

Ever since Lausanne, the land where the Kurds live has been divided among four countries - Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey - and the Syrian Kurds had hoped that the consequences of that division, and how to overcome them, would be discussed at the conference in Switzerland.

Fear of new borders

Despite the disappointment at not being invited to Geneva, Saleh Muslim, a member of the Kurdish Supreme Committee (the umbrella organization for almost all Kurdish parties in Syria), believes the world will have to engage with the Kurdish question at some point. Muslim told DW that a solution to the Syrian crisis isn't possible without the Kurds: "That's why they will have to talk to us sooner or later."

But various other players harbor reservations about any such dialogue. The prospect of a Kurdish state raises serious concerns in some quarters, explains Guido Steinberg, Middle East analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). That is partly down to nationalist prejudices, but mainly due to a fear that the current borders could be re-drawn.

Muslim says that though the Syrian Kurds want a "democratic federation," they do not want Syria's borders to be moved - exactly what politicians in both Syria and its neighboring states fear. Steinberg argues that the latest developments, like the autonomy won by Iraqi Kurds and the war in Syria itself, certainly do call the borders into question. "If they do last, they will have much less meaning than they had up until now," said Steinberg. For that reason, there is "a distinct fear of a Kurdish state."

Syrian Kurdish fighters
Syrian Kurds have mostly succeeded in keeping jihadists out of their areasImage: Giulio Petrocco

Kurdish regions: an oasis of stability

The wariness of the Kurds is all the greater because they have displayed deft political skills in Syria and Iraq. In both countries, the areas they occupy are bastions of stability. In Iraq, the Kurds have successfully avoided being dragged into tensions between the Shiites and the Sunnis, while in Syria they have managed to largely keep the war out of their areas of control. These achievements could lead some in the region to copy their social models.

But despite - or maybe because of - this success, the Syrian Kurds have failed to garner support from the international community - either politically or militarily. There are ideological reasons for this, says Muslim. The Kurdish opposition to Assad was driven mainly by left-wing, democratic forces. "And states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar don't like those forces," he said.

Don't anger the Arabs

Western countries are equally reluctant. The Kurds are currently locked in heavy fighting with jihadist groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), who are implementing brutal tyrannies in the areas they control, with several hostages being executed. Muslim says he has called on western politicians for help in fighting the jihadists in the past few days, but without success.

Kurdistan map
Ethnic Kurds are scattered across four countries

Steinberg says there are tactical reasons for this reluctance: "The Europeans know well enough that they would make enemies of the Arabs in Syria and maybe in neighboring states if they work more intensively with the PYD."

New alliances

But that could all change with the growing strength of the jihadists. "As the civil war progresses, a situation could arise where the Europeans and the Turks need all the allies they can get," said Steinberg.

In the long-term, that could mean new alliances. The Americans, he says, are already concentrating more and more on fighting the jihadists. "And I wouldn't rule out that they might one day cooperate with Kurdish parties like the PKK and the PYD."

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