It was never really a marriage made to last, and the alliance between Syria’s Arab nationalist and pacifist opposition and its most hardline Kurdish guerrilla movement may now be nearing a divorce.
When the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB), an umbrella movement of nonviolent Syrian opposition groups, was formed in June 2011, it was led by well-known dissidents from the prerevolutionary Arab opposition in Damascus. Many of them, like NCB leader Hassan Abdul Azim, had a background in an underground movement of Nasserites—followers of Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser—while others were former Baathists or members of some minor Marxist group.
And then there was the Democratic Union Party, known by the initials of its name in Kurdish, PYD. This Kurdish nationalist and leftist faction is based in the far north and controlled by Syrian supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group best known for its three decades of armed struggle in Turkey.
Arab and Kurdish Nationalists
For most of their history, Syria’s Arab and Kurdish nationalists have shared only two things: a common commitment to secularism and a fierce mutual antipathy.
Most Arab nationalists in the Syrian opposition, including Abdul Azim’s Nasserite faction, historically supported the Baath Party on Kurdish issues. They have only belatedly come around to the view that Kurds should be equal citizens and not forcibly Arabized. Even after recognizing the Kurds as a people, many remained wary of Kurdish political groups, suspecting every call for decentralization or autonomy of being the first step in a separatist plot to dismember “Arab Syria.”
Despite this troubled history and their incompatible ideologies, the PYD and the Nasserites found other things to unite them in the NCB. Abdul Azim’s allies were suspicious of anything that smelled of American or Saudi influence in Syria, and they were also on friendly terms with Russia and open to a negotiated solution with the regime. The same went for the PYD, which had set itself a redline that was redder than all the rest: there must be no Turkish intervention in Syria. That also meant that the PYD wanted as little influence as possible for Turkish allies like the United States, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, the exiled opposition leaders that make up the Syrian National Council, and the various armed rebel factions operating in the north.
In addition to this, the Arab and Kurdish dissidents needed each other. The PYD wanted to be part of a national network in order to avoid political isolation and to bolster its shaky dissident credentials (although the PYD itself has had many members in prison, its PKK parent group has a history of cooperation with the Assad regime). For their part, the weak and divided Arab dissidents had excellent connections among Syrian and international intellectuals, but they were entirely unable to move the street. They needed the manpower and organizational resources that the PYD could provide, and they must have thought themselves lucky to pick up support from Syria’s most powerful Kurdish group.
Similar Interests but Divergent Roles
The NCB in general and the PYD in particular have been vilified within the larger Arab rebellion, where they are seen as a “loyal opposition” at best and as agents of the Assad regime at worst because of their opposition to armed struggle and to Western and Gulf support. But if anything, this ostracism has brought them closer together, since there has been no one else to turn to.
In practical terms, however, the Arab and Kurdish factions of the NCB have followed very different trajectories. The Arab core of the NCB never managed to spread far outside Damascus, and its message of nonviolent secular protest was rapidly undercut by the outbreak of sectarian war. Today, NCB leaders seem reduced to issuing online statements and going on talk shows to denounce the Islamist insurgency. They remain a part of the diplomatic game mainly because Russia keeps promoting the NCB as a suitable opposition interlocutor.
The PYD, by contrast, has grown tremendously and overpowered all of its Kurdish rivals. It now controls one of the most effective armed groups in Syria, the PKK-backed People’s Protection Units, which has been fighting Islamist rebel groups in northern Syria since 2012. This militia’s territorial gains have also allowed the PYD to launch a project for “self-administration” and move toward real Kurdish autonomy.
What Kurdish Autonomy?
Despite or because of these unequal fortunes, the Arab and Kurdish factions in the NCB have both tried to overlook their differences. The PYD hasn’t paid much attention to the politicking of the elderly Arab dissidents in Damascus. They even negotiated (without success) for their own Kurdish delegation at the Geneva II peace talks, with no apparent concern for the NCB leadership’s (equally unsuccessful) parallel attempts to partake as a national opposition movement.
Meanwhile, Abdul Azim’s allies have persistently pretended not to notice that the NCB’s Kurdish faction has set up a massive guerrilla army. And when the PYD spoke of Kurdish self-rule on the supposedly indivisible Arab soil of Syria, the NCB’s Arab leaders managed to convince themselves that the Kurds’ statement must have meant something else. But the PYD’s recent decision to crown its autonomy project by actually electing a new government for the northeastern Qamishli region seems to have been a step too far for the Nasserites.
The NCB Leadership Criticizes PYD
On January 29, the long-simmering ideological tension suddenly boiled over when the NCB’s Executive Bureau issued a statement that decried the PYD’s plan for self-rule in northern Syria as “unacceptable,” arguing that it contradicts “the political centrality of the state.” The NCB Executive Bureau promised to discuss this matter with “the concerned Kurdish groups and our comrades in the NCB” in order to get them to “amend this document.”
This didn’t go down very well with the PYD. Its leader, Saleh Muslim Mohammed—who is Abdul Azim’s deputy as NCB leader and himself a member of the Executive Bureau—immediately retorted that the statement “betrays a lack of correct understanding” of the self-administration project and said it shows “a lack of discussion and good faith among the members of the NCB,” apparently due to “some groups that care only about distorting every accomplishment by the Kurds and their vanguard.”
Time for a Split?
Clearly, the PYD isn’t going to step back from its autonomy drive only to accommodate a group of graying Arab nationalist intellectuals in Damascus. Its popular constituency is among the Kurds in the north, and its decisions will ultimately be made to suit the PKK rather than the NCB.
Then again, the PYD’s membership in the NCB remains useful to both sides—and the collaboration has held surprisingly well so far. A split is far from certain, and even though the PYD’s autonomy announcement will be seen as a shocking affront to Arab nationalist sensibilities, two years of appeasement and purposeful misunderstandings by both sides show that there’s a fair chance that this dispute, too, will be papered over or postponed to an unspecified later date.