Kurds flying their national flag in parts of Syria liberated by Kurdish rebels in the past couple days
After more than a year of fighting and waiting and hoping in Syria’s civil war, Kurdish rebels are now governing parts of Syrian Kurdistan and are on the brink of taking over its capital, Qamishli. How will the world respond? Will the Kurds ever let go of this quasi-state now that they have it? And why should they?
[Note: See these earlier articles from this blog on related topics, especially with respect to the Kurds and the Arab Spring: “And Now Civil War ... Could Syria Break Up?” (Nov. 2011), “The Iraq War Is Over, but Is Iraq’s Partition Just Beginning?” (Dec. 2011), “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012” (Dec. 2011); “Get Ready for a Kurdish Spring” (March 28, 2012); “Shifting Alliances in the Kurdish Struggles” (April 1, 2012); “Turkish Delights Hide Ugly History” (April 4, 2012); plus, a more recent article, “Liberation of Syrian Kurdistan Infuriates Turkey, Iraq, and the Free Syrian Army—in Fact, Everyone but Assad” (Aug. 4, 2012), and, on a pretty much weekly basis, installments of my “Week in Separatist News” columns.]
First, the news as it is coming in ... which is changing hourly and may be obsolete by the time you read this (it is the morning of July 23rd) ...
Kurds Bar Arab Rebels from Freed North Syria Towns, Will Govern Alone. The tipping of the military advantage in Syria’s civil war in favor of anti-government forces after a July 18th suicide-bombing gutted the dictator Bashar al-Assad’s cabinet has been a boon, so far, for the Kurds who predominate in the mountainous north of Syria—called “Western Kurdistan” by Kurdish nationalists—along the border with Turkey. Kurdish rebel forces immediately, on the 18th, began securing small parts of northern, Kurdish-dominated towns. On July 19th the town of Kobane, in Aleppo province, was liberated by the Kurds’ “Popular Protection Units,” and the following day the towns of Amude and Efrin fell to rebels with little violence. Derki, a center of Syria’s oil industry, was liberated the following day. Syrian flags were lowered, and the Kurdish national flag, along with the flag of Turkey’s banned separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), were raised on all government buildings in Kobane, Amude, and Efrin after the liberation. The P.K.K. by July 20th had reportedly sent 2,000 troops into Syrian Kurdistan (more on that below).
According to a June 11th agreement between different Kurdish political factions in the war—signed at summits in Arbil, in northern Iraq, presided over by Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.)—the liberated areas will be co-governed by the Kurdish National Council (K.N.C.) and the Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.) (other sources call the P.Y.D. entity in the agreement the National Council of Western Kurdistan)—anti-government groups in Syria which cooperatively run the “Popular Protection Units.” On July 19th, soldiers from the mainstream, Sunni-Arab-dominated Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) were prevented from entering Kobane. An official from the P.Y.D., Hussein Kochar, explained, “The Kurdish forces rejected a request by the F.S.A. and told them that they [Kurds] can control their own areas.”
Kurds marching this week in liberated Amude with photos of those killed in a 2004 Kurdish uprising
In Qamishli, the largest city in, and notional capital of, Syrian Kurdistan, the Kurdish flag was beginning to be raised in some areas on July 20th and the city was expected to fall to Kurdish rebels by the day’s end, though by next day there was still fierce fighting in the city. The People’s Council of West Kurdistan in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, an exile group, said that now “All the Kurds are waiting for the liberation of Qamishli city, since it is the largest Kurdish city in Syria and it is considered as the political and administrative capital of the Kurdish region in Syria. Only then we will be able to breathe freedom in Syria’s Kurdistan.” Meanwhile, in Dayr ez-Zawr, a town just south of the Kurdish region, in eastern Syria, the Arab Local Coordination Committee claimed that it was the F.S.A., not Kurds, who were on the brink of taking Qamishli, which Kurds in Qamishli rejected as false.
Members of the Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.) in liberated Kobane just yesterday
The F.S.A. is not happy. It is accusing Syria’s Kurds of allowing Kurdish fighters from northern Iraq to join the fight in Syrian Kurdistan, and, it is feared, take over. That was the claim made by Kamal al-Labwani of the Syrian National Council (S.N.C.), the F.S.A.’s political arm. But Syrian Kurds rejected the S.N.C.’s claims, calling them Arab propaganda intended to divide. Yilmaz Saeed, a member of Syria’s Kurdish Youth Movement, said that those Kurds flowing into northern Syria from northern Iraq “are Syrian Kurdish soldiers who defected from the Syrian army and resorted to Iraqi Kurdistan where they received military training and got organized.” Saeed also tried to squelch what he called rumors that Kurds were in places doing battle against the F.S.A., adding, “Kurds are a main and institutional part of the ongoing pro-democracy revolution, and they have participated actively since the first day to topple this totalitarian regime, but it seems that the regime could make a deep chauvinistic influence on some pan-Arabism opposition figures.”
9,000 Kurdish Refugees from Syria Stream into Iraq’s Kurdish Region. In Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, as many as 9,000 mostly Kurdish refugees from northern Syria had arrived across the border, according to a K.R.G. official on July 21st. The K.R.G. is accepting the refugees unilaterally, despite a statement by Iraq’s Shiite-Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad the day before that Iraq could not accept any refugees from the Syrian war.
Talabani’s Condolences over Cabinet Bombing Irk Kurds. But, even though Syria’s Kurds have reason to be grateful to the K.R.G. and its president, Massoud Barzani, for brokering the agreement that paved the way for Kurdish rule in Syrian Kurdistan, their enmity toward Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, who is also a Kurd, was deepened by Talabani’s letter of condolence to Assad for the death of his brother-in-law, Gen. Asef Shawkat, in the July 18th attack. Shawkat was deputy minister of defense, and thus with near certainty was directly or indirectly responsible for murdering Kurds in the Syrian civil war. One banner held by Kurdish demonstrators in Syria on July 21st read, “We promise you, Talabani, that we will soon free Syria.”
Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, who happens to be Kurdish, is no friend of any Kurdistan
What next? Several questions present themselves. Mostly, what will the international community do in response to a de facto Kurdish state in the northern sliver of Syria?
But, more specifically, what will Turkey do? Turkey has for decades battled, with sickeningly pitiless success, to prevent the fifth of its own population that is Kurdish from making any progress in achieving autonomy or independence in the southeastern portion of Turkey which they dominate—and which the United States president, Woodrow Wilson, and the international community tried to establish as an independent Kurdistan after the First World War, before that dream was crushed by the genocidal mercilessness of Kemal Atatürk’s “Young Turks” regime in the jingoistic Turkish Republic that succeeded the Ottoman Empire. This spring saw an attempt at a “Kurdish Spring” in Turkey in emulation of the ongoing “Arab Spring” revolutions (including Syria’s) (see my blog article on the Kurdish Spring). It lost momentum, but it has not died down. Turkish repression of Kurds continues, as do clashes between Kurdish and Turkish forces in Turkey—always the case when the snow begins melting in the mountainous Kurdish homeland. Turkey—which pulled back from the brink of all-out war with Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad’s Syrian dictatorship in 1998 over the question of Syrian aid to Turkish Kurds—has never been cosy with Syria, but once the Syrian civil war gained momentum Ankara became Assad’s fiercest critic. With one of the world’s largest militaries, just over the border, Turkey is also Assad’s most credible threat, and Turkey has openly contemplated invading northern Syria (i.e., Syrian Kurdistan) to set up a buffer zone—both to prevent Syrian refugees, both Arab and Kurdish, from stampeding in unmanageable numbers into Turkey, and to prevent what is happening right now: the establishment, with the P.K.K.’s apparent cooperation, of a Kurdish quasi-state in northern Syria. Is this the time for Turkey to take a step? Possibly not. Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which means that any action by Turkey that invites a reprisal by the Assad regime (or, indeed, a fiercely anti-Kurdish or anti-Turkish wild-card Arab regime after Assad) against Turkish territory requires, by treaty, that all NATO states, including three nuclear powers (the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France) to respond in defense. No one, on either side, wants that. In fact, all of the diplomacy over the past months has been oriented to preventing that. So, in the short term, Turkey will exercise the restraint that NATO demands of it. But in the long term, Turkey will do everything it can, covertly or overtly, short of all-out war, to prevent a Kurdish state from forming. (Turkey’s increasingly warm economic relationship with the K.R.G. is now in jeopardy too, if it turns out that the K.R.G. is aiding Syria’s Kurds in a way that Ankara feels is destabilizing to Turkey.)
The 2012 “Kurdish Spring” uprising
Will the international community accept a Syrian Kurdistan? Probably not an independent one; an autonomous one, like the K.R.G., maybe. The West has been very encouraging of as much autonomy for the K.R.G., in Iraq, as is possible, since the K.R.G. is a fiercely pro-American and, increasingly, pro-Turkish and even pro-Israeli regime that is an important staging ground, along with Azerbaijan, for any anticipated cold or hot conflicts with Iran. But too much Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq is not good for Iran’s enemies either, since the more Kurds cut themselves out of, or are cut out from, the Iraqi central government’s political life, the greater the majority the Arab Shiites wield in the rest of Iraq and, thus, the more that Arab Iraq is likely to become an Iranian client state. Don’t think that the West and NATO have figured out yet how to unravel this Gordian knot; they haven’t, hence the skittish and back-and-forth U.S. foreign policy with respect to Iraq’s Kurds. But this crisis may push them toward a firm position, for better or for worse.
Massoud Barzani, president of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government
Keep in mind also that the P.K.K. is listed by almost all Western countries, the European Union (E.U.), etc. as a terrorist organization. This is not because they are particularly terroristic nowadays. They choose military targets almost exclusively, which makes them, technically, less terrorist than countries like the U.S. and the U.K., whose standard war tactics include merciless bombing of civilian infrastructures for the purposes of inspiring “shock and awe.” The P.K.K. are called “terrorists” merely as a diplomatic bone thrown to a country (Turkey) that used to be a rather crucial NATO ally in the cold-war days. Maybe it’s time to de-list the P.K.K., especially if the the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) may now have to work with them in Syria. (Oops, did I just say that the C.I.A. is helping the opposition in Syria? Please disregard that statement; I can neither confirm nor deny.) Otherwise, Syrian (and Iraqi) Kurds will be smart to refrain from being too visibly associated with the P.K.K. or with the cause of Turkey’s Kurds. Perhaps the P.K.K.’s association with Syria’s Kurds right now is only cynical and strategic anyway: earlier this year, the P.K.K. was capturing F.S.A. fighters fleeing into Turkey, including Kurdish ones, and delivering them into the hands of Assad’s torturers—so fearful were they (as I read it) of being perceived by Ankara of upping the ante by forming a military alliance with Syrian Kurds. So the P.K.K.’s long-term goal of a Kurdish superstate is for the moment completely subservient to their short-term goal of survival, and what that means depends on how Turkey responds. Their short-term goals may change day by day, and there may already be different P.K.K. factions taking different approaches and different gambles.
Kurds flying one version of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party flag (on left) in Berlin
What will Iraq do? The Arab-Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has already been fiercely resistant to the increasingly strident steps in the direction of independence that the K.R.G. has been taking. Now it is facing the prospect of an already autonomous K.R.G. that now has a strong ally in a quasi-independent Syrian Kurdistan. They might even try to merge to create a transnational Kurdish state out of northern Iraq plus northern Syria—long a dream for a people spread out over four or five separate countries. (Iran’s Kurds, who can barely move under the ayatollahs’ heel, are not a factor just yet.) Baghdad would hate that as much as Ankara would. But, to be realistic, I think that many in Baghdad have written off the north as lost. They are concerned mainly with keeping oil-rich Kurdish areas that are outside the K.R.G.’s territory, such as Kirkuk, in Iraq. They have reconciled themselves to the fact that the K.R.G. has powerful Western friends and that their hands are tied. Plus, as mentioned above, the loss of the K.R.G. would mean that Iraq’s Shiites would have an even more overwhelming majority over the Sunni Arabs, who have a much less coherent territory that they could secede with.
Iraq’s three major ethnoreligious groups—
but the line between Sunni and Shiite areas is not nearly so clean as this map indicates
What will Israel do? Israel is less concerned with what goes on in northern Syria than with what goes on in the south and in Damascus—whether Baathist and other nationalist Syrian Arabs will ally themselves with Hezbollah in Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon; whether a power-vacuum will inspire an Arab or Druze (or both) retaking of the Golan Heights; and whether some wacko Arab nationalist will succeed Assad, come into possession of his arsenal of chemical weapons, and contemplate using them against Israel. Mostly, Israel has been happy that the fall of Assad means Iran no longer has an ally on Israel’s border—and it robs Hezbollah of a land route to Iran. They mostly want a peaceful transition and a new regime in Damascus that is grateful for Western help and thus a likely, if only grudging, friend of Israel. Israel has, for strategic reasons to do with Iran (mentioned above), been surprisingly tolerant of the K.R.G.’s autonomy; if things go smoothly, they could be fine with an autonomous or independent Syrian Kurdistan as well.
Another version of the P.K.K. flag
[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas. Look for it in spring 2013. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]