Thursday, November 21, 2013

Syrian Kurds’ Declaration of Autonomous “Rojava” Scorned by Turkey, Assad—Even by Iraqi Kurds

The Kurdish people of northern Syria, after declaring an autonomous region last year in liberated pockets and towns near the border with Turkey (as reported at the time in this blog), are finally trying to make their statelet official.  And the plan is meeting with hostility from all sides, even from fellow Kurds in northern Iraq.  But why are Kurds not all on the same page on this—autonomy is supposed to be good, right?—and, moreover, why is this all happening now?

P.Y.D. flags are more common in Syrian Kurdistan lately
than the usual sun-emblazoned Kurdish national ones.
Well, for one thing, the Syrian civil war has reached a strange impasse in recent months.  There has been little change lately in the general boundaries between areas administered by the embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and those under rebel control.  But there have been dramatic changes in the make-up of the rebel opposition.  In particular, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.), which is being armed by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and others, has lost ground since summer to a new organization called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) (as reported recently in this blog).  ISIS seems to be an outgrowth of two pre-existing groups, the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Brigades, who have for some time now been a player in the Syrian civil war, and the Islamic State in Iraq (I.S.I.), a radical Sunni Arab militia which featured prominently in the Iraqi civil war during the United States occupation and which in turn has roots in al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the days of Taliban rule there.  The al-Sham of ISIS’s name is an archaic term for Syria plus Lebanon, i.e. the Levant.  ISIS hopes to link up adjoining Sunni Arab areas of Syria and Iraq—both of them Arab-Shiite-ruled nations currently—to create a new Islamic state.

One international idea of a partitioned Syria—
but nobody puts Kurdistan in a corner!
But one rebel area where ISIS is not gaining influence in the far north of Syria, where Kurds have in recent weeks been able to push back the battle lines of ISIS and other Islamist militias.  This has put the People’s Defense Units (Y.P.G.) of the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or P.Y.D.) in control of a large swath of the Syrian side of the Syrian–Turkish border.  Maybe even all of it, though reliable information is hard to come by.

Kurds celebrating the liberation of Derki, Syria, last year
When the P.Y.D. first started “liberating” parts of this area last summer, their “victories” were mocked by their detractors, like the Turkish government and the F.S.A., for being in reality a bloodless takeover of areas that had been handed to them by a voluntarily retreating Syrian military.  There was probably some truth to this.  Assad had already been courting and handing political favors to Kurdish, Christian, and Druze minorities in Syria in the months before the Syrian civil war really broke out, in an attempt (a vain one, it turned out) to prevent or forestall the kind of Arab Spring uprisings that were already rocking Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.  Assad last year may have withdrawn from the Kurdish areas in an attempt to see how the creation of an autonomous or independent area might turn out, as part of exploring a “Plan B” of partitioning Syria into an Assad-ruled Alawite (Shiite) coastal state and other ethnic fiefdoms inland.  Or perhaps, fearing a Turkish military intervention to aid the rebels, Assad wanted to create a de facto buffer state hostile to Ankara.  (The P.Y.D. is closely allied with southeastern Turkey’s partially-pacified Kurdish rebel army the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or P.K.K.).  In any case, Assad’s forces have totally withdrawn from border areas since then, hesitant to risk a flare-up with Turkish forces and more interested in fighting for Damascus, Aleppo, and other towns in the heartland.

Protesters in Berlin display P.K.K. flags
The new declaration of autonomy by the P.Y.D. speaks not of a West Kurdistan Autonomous Region, which was the preferred phrase last summer (in Kurdish nationalist usage, West Kurdistan is northern Syria, North Kurdistan is southeastern Turkey, East Kurdistan is northwestern Iran, and South Kurdistan is northern Iraq).  Instead, it calls its new autonomous statelet Rojava (rojava being the Kurdish word for “west”), which looks much larger on maps being circulated now than last year’s sliver and which, it is claimed, will include three autonomous-regions-within-the-autonomous-region: one for Kurds, one for Christians, and one for Arabs.  This last part is odd, since Syria’s mostly mountainous Christian minority has tended to keep its head down in the civil war and not demand its own autonomous region the way some Christians in Iraq do.  Plus, Kurds and Arabs have quite famously not been getting along lately.  It could be that the P.Y.D. is trying to reassure the international community that Christians and Arabs in the enlarged autonomous territory will be allowed freedoms and also to signal to the world, perhaps especially Turkey, that this is not just a Kurdish state—i.e., not an extension of the national aspirations of the dreaded P.K.K. as many Turks fear.

As a reader notes below (see comments), this map may seriously underestimate
the number of Kurds in the border areas.
Well, and how is the idea of an autonomous or independent Rojava going over?  Like a lead balloon—in Ankara, predictably; in Damascus and among the F.S.A., almost as predictably; and, a little surprisingly, in Erbil (capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Region).  We’ll take these in turn.  The Turkish government mostly fears that Kurdish separatism is a contagion that can spread to its own Kurds, even though it has decided to make peace with the idea of an autonomous, perhaps even eventually independent, Iraqi Kurdistan.  The implementation of this year’s historic peace deal between Ankara and the P.K.K. is proceeding relatively smoothly, but naturally Turkey worries that the still-armed P.K.K. rebels already retreating over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan—where the regional president, Massoud Barzani, can assure that they will be watched closely—might instead head to the more lawless Syrian Kurdistan, where they have natural allies in the P.Y.D.

Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurds
Assad, for his part, may have liked the idea of a buffer area to keep Syrian and Turkish armies out of firing range of one another, but he is probably nervous about full-blown autonomy or independence.  If successful, the idea could spread rapidly to, say, the Druze.  ISIS already is drawing up its new borders.  And that would be the end of Syria.

(This map is ridiculously generous; Kurds don’t live as far west as the coast.)
President Barzani, the president of the quasi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan, condemns the Rojava declaration as being driven by the P.Y.D. with insufficient input from other Kurdish factions, which had been—nominally and precariously—united through painstaking multilateral diplomacy under Barzani’s auspices over the past couple years.  As Barzani put it, “We only support the steps that have the consensus of all Kurdish parties in Rojava.  We refuse to deal with unilateral actions.”  For the most part, Barzani refers to the Kurdish National Council (K.N.C.), which is closely allied to his own government and approved of by the West but seen by the more hardline P.K.K. and P.Y.D. as Western and Turkish stooges, while Barzani and the K.N.C. regard the P.Y.D. as unruly terrorists who have a working relationship, if not worse, with Assad.

We will be keeping readers informed of how the repercussions of the Rojava declaration play out.

[You can read more about these and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]


  1. If your 'Distribution of Kurdish People' map is correct, then the PYD has taken control of an area where Kurds make up less than 20% of the population. That can't be right.

  2. Good point. Any maps of Kurdish population are going to be something people can argue over. People frequently downplay the Kurdish presence in Syria, which is about 9-10%, so, yes, it can't be as low as that map indicates; there are whole Kurdish towns. That having been said, in areas of Syria where the dust has settled a bit, like the far north, it may be that the same sort of thing is happening as happened in Croatia and Bosnia, where war is causing ethnically mixed communities to dissolve and sort themselves out into "purer" areas, with groups more highly concentrated and fewer mixed areas. Specifically there, it could mean that Sunni Arabs in the northern area may have been pushed out by the Kurds or may have moved south in order to fight the government, and Kurds living elsewhere in Syria may have moved to the border to join the fight there. It will be a while before we have a good idea of how things look on the ground demographically.

  3. Minorities like the Christian Chaldo-Ashuriyun, Yazidis, Turcomans and Circassians, as well as some secular and Christian Arabs have all stated they prefere to create a self governed region they call Rojawa, together with the Kurds. This is the ONLY chanse for all these minorities to survive. They would all perish and be exterminated under a Wahabi Islamist dominated Syria (whether it's called ISIL or something else).


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