Kurdish Minority to Seek Regional Autonomy in post-Assad Syria

Kurds in northern Syria hope to set up an independent region along the lines of Iraqi Kurdistan, a senior figure in the Syrian Kurdish opposition tells Haaretz.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Members of Syria's Kurdish minority are planning to set up an independent region in the country's north, a senior figure in the Syrian Kurdish opposition told Haaretz.

"We cannot depend on the fact that the Syrian National Council will be willing or able to ensure Kurdish rights in Syria after the fall of Assad," said the opposition figure, speaking from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"We will take care of ourselves just as the Kurds in Iraq took care of themselves when they decided to set up an autonomous region, which is independent of the Iraqi government," he said.

The opposition figure confirmed that his forces were being provided with military and weapons training by the Peshmerga, northern Iraq's Kurdish military force.

He added that Syria's Kurdish rebels are now united under a single banner, and that the group, which is based in the city of Al-Hasakah in northern Syria, is not a part of the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups based in Istanbul, Turkey.

A senior figure in the government of Iraqi Kurdistan confirmed to Haaretz that Iraq's Kurds are providing weapons, training and funds to Kurdish rebels in Syria. He added that Iraqi Kurdistan is encouraging Syria's Kurds to follow their example and "set up an independent region and take care of their own interests."

At this stage, he said, the Kurds, whose region falls within the territories of several countries, do not intend to seek their own independent state. However, he added, "At the end of the process, Turkey, Iraq and Syria could find themselves with several Kurdish mini-states, and they will have to come to terms with this reality."

Turkey is particularly concerned about such a scenario. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan even asked U.S. President Barack Obama to apply pressure on the Kurds of Iraq and Syria. While the State Department spokesman did encourage Syria's Kurds to join forces with the country's opposition, his statement did not resonate with Kurdish rebels.

The head of the Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sieda, himself a Kurd who was appointed to the position in June, has sought to convince the Kurdish opposition to unite with the broader Syrian opposition. Sieda has been in Erbil since Sunday conducting talks with opposition representatives and Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdish opposition in Syria is not uniform. Some of its members are identified with the Kurdistan Workers' Party – the PKK, which is banned in Turkey and considered a terrorist organization by numerous states – while others are loyal to Barzani or Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

While each group set up its own armed wing, the various militias were recently combined to create a united Kurdish armed front, which is independent of the Syrian opposition.

On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also visited Erbil, hoping to pressure Barzani into dropping his support for an independent Kurdish region in Syria. Barazani appears to view the Kurdish rebellion in Syria as an opportunity to advance the vision of broader Kurdish independence.

According to this vision, even if an independent Kurdish state is not set up, the Kurdish minority in Syria, based in its own autonomy territory, will become a powerful force capable of influencing the country's future, just as the Iraqi Kurdish region under Barzani is able to exert considerable influence over Iraqi politics.

For example, Barzani has kept the Iraqi army away from his region's border crossings with Syria and allowed for the free movement of refugees and armed fighters between Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. This is part of the important logistical support which Barzani provides the Kurdish rebels in Syria, which angers not only the government of Iraq under Nouri el-Maliki - who Barzani would like to remove from power - but also Iran, which has suddenly found the routes it has used to channel weapons to the Syrian regime closed off.

Israel's name has also found its way into these internal struggles. According to Iraqi media reports, Israeli airline El Al signed a commercial agreement with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan allowing its planes to use the airport in Erbil and export Israeli goods to Kurdistan, and from there to other countries.

The Iraqi government was quick to accuse the Kurdish authorities of making agreements with Israel. Maryam al-Rayyis, one of Maliki's advisers, said that "the government of Iraq objects to any agreement signed without the approval of the central government" and demanded that the Kurdish government – which categorically denied the existence of the agreement – to prove that it did not exist.

When asked about possible future ties between a Kurdish region in Syria and Israel, however, the senior Kurdish opposition figure responded, "We will be happy to have ties with anyone who supports the rights of the Kurds."

Read this article in Hebrew

A Syrian refugee flashes the victory sign at a refugee camp near Zakho, an Iraqi border town near Syria, June 23, 2012.Credit: Reuters



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