The peaceful Kurdish takeover of several towns in north and northeast Syria, following the partial withdrawal of the Syrian army and administration in July, has aroused Kurdish hopes and Turkish fears. Many Syrian Kurds welcome their community’s de facto autonomy, while Ankara is alarmed by what it sees as the rise of an independent Kurdish entity controlled by Turkey’s militant, secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkish and Kurdish reactions have been stoked by the power-sharing agreement reached in Erbil on June 11 between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its rival, the Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNC), which was sponsored by the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani. The PYD is, in effect, the Syrian branch of Turkey’s PKK and the strongest Syrian Kurdish faction by a considerable margin. The KNC, meanwhile, is a coalition of sixteen Syrian Kurdish parties. The two groups agreed to establish a Supreme Kurdish Council, and that collaboration was expanded in July to include joint security committees and unarmed people’s defense units designed to fill the political and security vacuum in their region. By early September, there was talk of establishing an outright military force uniting all armed groups in Syrian Kurdistan.
But despite the recent show of unity, the PYD and KNC distrust each other deeply and are proving incapable of genuine cooperation. Without question, the PYD is in a stronger position, politically and militarily, than the KNC, enjoying tacit support from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and it has been actively expanding its advantage since the regime’s pullout from the Kurdish region in Syria. It is therefore more than likely to prevail over the disunited and largely defenseless KNC, and to respond with force to every attempt by the latter to redress the extreme imbalance of power between them. The risk of conflict among the Kurds is high, making the prospects for a unified Kurdish agenda in Syria ever more remote. The KNC should seek out regional and international support now if it hopes to secure the long-term interests of Syrian Kurds.
The PYD Consolidates Its Advantage
In Syrian Kurdistan, the PYD benefits from immense popular support and loyalty, especially in the Kurd Dagh area close to Aleppo where, historically, other Kurdish parties have been weak. Its network stretches into Turkey as well. Kurd Dagh has long been a recruiting ground for the PKK, and many Syrian Kurds have family members who have participated in the PKK struggle. The PYD is, furthermore, the only well-armed Kurdish party in Syria and commands the vast majority of the Kurdish militias that patrol Syrian Kurdistan. Its allegiance to the PKK guarantees it a steady supply of both weapons and manpower; the rival KNC reported that, as of mid-September, 1,000 PKK members had entered the Kurdish region, opening military camps in Qamishli and providing military training to local Kurds.
Since late July, the PYD has raised its flag and established armed checkpoints in the Syrian cities of Afrin, Kobani, and al-Malikiyah, where it is highly organized and proactive on the ground. Indeed, since the departure of the Syrian army and administration, the PYD has effectively maintained law and order, administered justice, and kept most local institutions running in those cities. For example, all electricity and water supplies in Afrin are currently under PYD control, as are service offices, schools, state hospitals, and prisons in al-Malikiyah, though the party officially jointly administers that city with the KNC. And the PYD’s power is increasing; PYD leader Muhammad Salih Muslim denied claims in mid-September that his party was earning the equivalent of $200 million by taxing goods and controlling gas stations, but confirmed that it levies an $8 fee on everyone crossing the border to Iraqi Kurdistan and an extra tax if they are transporting goods.
The PYD’s rise has been viewed skeptically by those who interpret it as part of the Assad regime’s grand strategy. It is quite apparent that the Syrian army withdrew voluntarily from the Kurdish region, leaving the doors wide open for a peaceful takeover by the PYD-PKK. Whether the regime has really left or not is contested; activists claim that the PYD controls many government offices in conjunction with loyalist staff. A strong PYD-PKK base in Syrian Kurdistan benefits the Assad regime in several ways: not only does it threaten Turkey, it also prevents the infiltration of the Free Syrian Army into Kurdish areas.
The PYD’s alliance with the regime is, however, only tactical. The party is interested in neither sharing power with the KNC nor joining the revolution, either for or against Assad. It is firmly committed to its own political and military agenda and its allegiance lies solely with the PKK. Indeed, the Erbil agreement with the KNC was signed by the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, a PYD-PKK front organization, and not by the party itself.
The outcome of the ongoing battle for Aleppo will determine what happens next for relations between the PYD and the regime. Should the military balance tilt toward the Free Syrian Army, the PYD is more likely to negotiate with the KNC; if Assad comes out on top, even temporarily, then the PYD may respond to Kurdish demonstrators and anti-regime dissidents with increased violence of its own.
The KNC: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Historically, the parties of the KNC have boasted greater popular support in the peripheral Jazirah region close to Iraq than in Aleppo and northwestern Syria. But the present advance of the PYD has left the KNC in an inherently weaker position. While the KNC has placed its agents in the cities of Kobani and al-Malikiyah, it lacks the leadership, popularity, and military muscle to assert its presence on the ground and make its voice heard. Mustafa Juma, the KNC’s vice president, is blunt: “The parties [of the KNC] are not equally strong. There are parties that don’t even have fifty members in all of Syria,” adding that “coordination is rather weak. Since the leadership of the Kurdish National Council has different political leanings, everyone does his own thing and doesn't worry much about the others.”
The KNC is hobbled by friction between its sixteen member parties over its political agenda, strategy, and relations with the Syrian National Council. The divisions have surfaced repeatedly, prompting the KNC to storm out of conferences convened by the Syrian National Council in Istanbul in March and again in Cairo in July, after accusing the organizers of ignoring Kurdish constitutional rights. The KNC and the Syrian National Council agreed in August to form a special committee to discuss Kurdish issues, but the KNC subsequently reiterated its complete independence from the Syrian National Council.
Politically weak, the KNC also complains that the PYD actively seeks to marginalize it, by assaulting its supporters and occasionally kidnapping and torturing its members. KNC leader Abdul Hakim Bashar has voiced his frustration with the PYD and openly aired his fears of its military hegemony, accusing the party of cooperating with the Assad regime and placing its own interests above those of the Kurdish people.
The KNC is seeking decentralization and a federal system in Syria to guarantee Kurds a greater degree of autonomy, but it is held back by its inability to extract meaningful concessions for Syria’s Kurds from the Syrian National Council, although the two share an anti-regime platform. Most of its leaders live in exile, impeding their ability to coordinate common political and logistical responses to developments on the ground. Without credible gains, the KNC is hard put to build strong support on the Kurdish street. But unless it dilutes its demands for full political autonomy, it runs the risk of losing leverage with the rest of the non-Kurdish Syrian opposition, thus deepening its own isolation.
The Regional Dimension of Local Politics
As power dynamics shift along the Syrian-Turkish border, local Kurdish issues are converging with broader regional interests—a situation the KNC may be able to capitalize on. The Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria, the leading party within the KNC, is the Syrian affiliate of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is headed by President Massoud Barzani. In fact, Barzani has strong connections to the KNC as a whole, which he helped establish in October 2011. In sponsoring the Erbil agreement, Barzani’s objective was to protect his investment in the KNC and extend his political and military influence in Syrian Kurdistan.
In addition to supervising the establishment of a Supreme Kurdish Council under his auspices, he has provided military training to roughly 2,000 Kurdish defectors from the Syrian army. His official motivation for doing so has been to protect the Syrian Kurdish region; unofficially, these fighters also serve to counterbalance the PYD-PKK forces.
While Barzani remains a hero to many Kurds in Syria, his efforts to bridge differences between the PYD and the KNC have so far served only to widen the gap between the two factions, while placing the KNC in a difficult position. Creating a 50-50 power-sharing arrangement between one party and a coalition of sixteen, the Erbil agreement gave an effective advantage to the PYD. This, in turn, places the KNC on a precarious footing both toward its own Kurdish public as well as the Syrian Arab opposition and Turkey. Moreover, Barzani’s military support could further destabilize Syrian Kurdistan and lead to fighting among the Kurds.
Kurdish actions have provoked alarm in Ankara. Against a backdrop of intensified PKK attacks on Turkish territory, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to intervene militarily against PYD bases in Syria, and the Turkish military has held exercises near the common border. Direct Turkish military action appears unlikely in the near future; but should it take place, Kurdish grassroots support would sway in favor of the militarized PYD-PKK—further weakening the KNC.
In the long term, however, the PYD’s greatest strength may yet prove its greatest weakness. Its relationships with the PKK and the Assad regime provide it the military-logistical capacity to control Syrian Kurdistan, but those ties could also seriously undermine the party’s future political credibility as a representative and administrator of the region. Should Turkey, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and a potential post-Assad government in Damascus align on the Kurdish issue, the PYD will come under immense pressure to prioritize domestic concerns and integrate within the framework of a new Syrian state.
The KNC therefore has an opportunity to empower itself and integrate into the rest of the Syrian opposition. This requires political engagement with Turkey and the Friends of Syria, with the support of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq acting as mediator. Only such an alignment can offer strong guarantees that core Kurdish rights and demands will be safeguarded in a post-Assad Syria. Without it, not only will the KNC find itself increasingly on the defensive domestically, but the de facto control currently exercised by the Kurdish parties—including the PYD—inside Syria will not be translated into lasting de jure political autonomy.