Between Assad and Erdogan, Syria’s Kurds Take Steps Toward Autonomy

Fearing radical rebel groups as well as Assad’s troops, Syria’s Kurds set up militias and try to take control of their own fate.

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

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s so-called “victory” at home this week - the conviction of 275 officers, journalists and intellectuals in the Ergenekon case – still awaits to be translated into the political realm. But while embroiled in a domestic political turmoil, Turkey’s foreign policy suffered numerous setbacks.

After befriending Egypt under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan was shocked when the army ousted Mohammed Morsi. Some are trying to turn Turkey into Egypt, he accused, demanding that Morsi be reinstated. But what has outraged millions of Egyptians was Erdogan’s insistence on calling the army’s takeover a “coup,” rather than a “revolution.”

In Syria, too, he has hit an impasse: This week, Erdogan once again asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to pressure the Bashar Assad regime. Syria’s ongoing civil war, Erdogan explained, has flooded Turkey with refugees who are burdening its economy and society, while also producing spillover violence that has killed and wounded Turkish citizens. Putin listened attentively for some 30 minutes, but refused.

But it seems the greatest threat to Turkey lies in Syria’s Kurdish region, located in the country’s northeast, where most of Syria’s 2.5 million Kurds live. Under Assad, the Kurds were deprived of most civil rights. But when the rebellion erupted, they were largely excluded; the rebels preferred to recruit Sunni Arab fighters from central Syrian cities.

The Kurds therefore set up their own militias, which now control an area adjacent to the Kurdish regions of both Iraq and Turkey. This naturally created an opportunity for political and military cooperation among these regions: Syrian Kurds currently receive military training, weapons and funding from Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Assad regime’s troops haven’t bothered the Syrian Kurds much; thus for now, the Kurds are more worried by radical Sunni groups among the rebels. This week, the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra faction, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida, reportedly killed more than 400 Kurds, mostly women and children. Al-Nusra has also fought several battles with Kurdish forces. In the longer run, they fear that if Syrian President Bashar Assad falls, radical Sunnis will take over the country and Kurds will resume being second-class citizens.

Both Syrian and Iraqi Kurds suspect Turkey of assisting the radical Sunni groups, though Turkey denies this. Turkey, in turn, is worried by the prospect of Syria’s Kurdish region being dominated by the Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PYD. This party has close ties with the PKK, a Kurdish group that Turkey still defines as a terrorist organization, even though Erdogan’s government is now holding peace talks with it. This week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that Turkey would do everything in its power “to prevent the creation of a terrorist entity” on its border.

While having either the PKK or Jabhat al-Nusra on its border would be reason enough to worry, Turkey is even more concerned by Syrian Kurdish leaders’ statements that they plan to set up a Kurdish autonomous region similar to Iraqi Kurdistan. On August 19, Kurdish representatives from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Europe are slated to attend a grand conference in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to discuss the future of the region’s Kurds in light of developments in Syria and Iraq.

Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, tried last week to reassure Davutoglu about their intentions. Turkish sources said he promised that the conference wouldn’t proclaim the establishment of either a Kurdish state or a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria. But the sources also told Haaretz that this didn’t allay Turkey’s concerns.

Ostensibly, Turkey has enormous leverage with which to prevent the establishment of either a Kurdish state or Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Its agreement to build an oil pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan, its supply of electricity to parts of that region, the hundreds of Turkish companies operating there, and the vital land routes that Turkey provides for commerce with the Kurdish regions of both Iraq and Syria have in the past proved a powerful barrier to any Kurdish thought of declaring statehood, and will in the future as well.

Yet at the same time, the failure of its anti-Assad policy in Syria, and now the opening of its new front against Egypt, are eroding Turkey’s status in the Middle East. Thus if it wants to retain the ability to influence events in Iraq and Syria, it will have to take the Kurds’ demands into account. It already learned this lesson in Iraq, where it refused for years to maintain formal ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, but succeeded only in creating an opening for Iran to move in.

A hint of this understanding could be seen in Davutoglu’s statement to journalists that Turkey won’t object to the establishment of a Kurdish district in Syria as long as Syria’s citizens consent – or in other words, only after Assad is toppled, elections are held and a new constitution is drafted. But since nobody knows if and when any of that will happen, Turkey can meanwhile demonstrate goodwill toward the Kurds. Ankara knows that if the Kurds do decide to establish an autonomous region in Syria, it would not be able to do much about it if it still wants to maintain some influence in Syria. Turkey had already learned that lesson, after it lost Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran.

Female Kurdish fighters in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, close to the Turkish border.Credit: AFP

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