Syria’s Kurds Follow Their Brothers in Bid for Autonomy

Syrian Kurds are preparing a constitution and gearing up for an election - but that doesn't mean anyone recognizes them.

“This is our country and we’ll fight for it,” a young Kurd holding a Kalashnikov tells a foreign reporter making a documentary on Syria’s autonomous Kurdish province. They chat next to a makeshift checkpoint staffed by young, uniformed women guards, who are also armed with rifles.

The movie shows a female Kurdish fighter checking cars and passengers’ IDs. A patch denotes her unit – the People’s Protection Units – established by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which controls the province. “She will later be killed in a battle with jihadists,” the reporter notes.

When young Kurds in northern Syria talk about “our homeland,” they mean the Kurdish province known as Rojava, which means “west” or “sunset.” “West” is key here – it refers to western Kurdistan, as distinct from northern Kurdistan, the Kurdish area in Turkey; southern Kurdistan, the Kurdish area in Iraq; and eastern Kurdistan, the Kurdish area in Iran.

Together they comprise a would-be Kurdish state. Iraq’s Kurdish province was the first to achieve autonomy; it has been joined by the Syrian Kurdish province, which declared independence on January 21 on the eve of the second Geneva conference.

Syria’s Kurdish province, where most of the country’s 2.2 million Kurds live, is divided into three autonomous regions – Kubani, Afrin and Jazira – each with its own government and legislature. For now the plan is to adopt the Iraqi model, where the autonomous Kurds are part of the federal state and receive a share of the state budget and oil wealth.

The problem is that for the Syrian Kurds to function like their brothers in Iraq, they need to be recognized by the Syrian regime, the Iraqi Kurdish leaders and the international community. No such recognition has been forthcoming.

The Assad regime has not attacked the province, which is blocking the infiltration of Islamists from Turkey. But Assad is still far from letting his country be Balkanized. Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said last week he would neither recognize nor cooperate with the Syrian province.

The reason is political. The Democratic Union Party is very close to the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, a fierce rival of Barzani, who dreams to be president of a future Kurdish state.

But Barzani has run into opposition in his own Iraqi Kurdistan. His rivals – mainly the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by the ailing Jalal Talabani; the Kurdish Movement for Change, which did well in the last election; and the Islamic Party of Kurdistan – have recognized the Syrian province.

These parties are expected to cooperate in the Kurdish government being set up in the Iraqi province. It will be interesting to see how the disunity on the Syria issue will affect this government’s performance.

Turkey, which is jittery about any show of Kurdish independence, is opposed to the new Kurdish autonomy. The United States, meanwhile, has continued to support a united Syria and has even opposed separate Kurdish representation at the recent Geneva summit. Without any outlet via Syria or Iraqi Kurdistan, it’s hard to see how the Syrian Kurdish province could sustain itself economically.

The Syrian Kurdish leaders argue that they control large oil reserves, whose further development could make the province the wealthiest in the country. They cite the history of Iraqi Kurdistan, which began from nothing and now exports oil to Turkey and has American companies drilling around. It’s also the safest region in Iraq.

And the Syrian Kurds aren’t much bothered by the pressure from the Iraqi Kurdish leaders or by the lack of Western recognition. They’re at work on a constitution, special committees will lay the groundwork for an election, and a constitutional court with seven judges is to be established in Jazira.

Hakam Khalo, acting chairman of the judicial committee, told journalists last week the election could only take place where the People’s Protection Units are in control. Meanwhile, the other sub-provinces have also set up governments. Afrin is headed by a woman, Hevi Ibrahim, who has told the Kurdish press that “Kurdish women will lead all the other women in the world.”

The Syrian Kurds’ declaration of autonomy may be politely dismissed, but if they establish a relatively calm and safe province in seething Syria, that will be an accomplishment.