The Kurds in Syria
(Updated 10 February 2014 – click here to reach the update directly) The Kurds in Syria have their own agenda, which will determine their actions. As the other Kurdish communities in the region, their priority is to create a semi-autonomous Kurdistan where they live, notably in the NorthEast of Syria. Kurdish enclaves in Syria can also be found around Jarabulus – North – and Afrin – Northwest, North of Aleppo (Tejel, 2009: xiii). As analyzed by Spyer, their recent history tells the Kurds in Syria that mastering their own destiny is the only way to live decently and according to their own way of life, thus benefiting for once from the bounty of their land, in terms of oil and crops (Spyer, March 9 2013). The Syrian Kurds’ objective was again reasserted by Sipan Hamo, commander-in-chief of the People’s Protection Committees or People’s Defense Units (YPG – the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish political force in Syria, see below), in a statement on 4 April 2013: “We will not bargain with any side at the expense of the Kurdish people.” (van Wilgenburg, April 5 2013, AlMonitor).
The Syrian Kurds have already achieved an important part of their goal as they are largely the de facto main authority in regions of Kurdish settlement, notably in many cities along the northern border (see Wikipedia map below updated 27 April 2013 – yellow dots for Kurd-controlled cities – note that the map shows the latest offensive of the pro-Assad groups notably in the South).
Updated map 12 July 2013
At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Kurds adopted a neutral position and, starting from mid-July 2012, Assad forces began withdrawing from Kurd territories, abandoning many cities to the PYD: “In total, by the end of the month, the Assad regime had withdrawn from fourteen Kurdish cities, including the major towns of al-Ma’abde, Ayn al-Arab, Ras al-Ayn, Dirbasiyeh, as well as the Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyeh districts of the city of Aleppo.” Tanir, van Wilgenburg & Hossino, 2012: 11). Hasakah and Qamishly, however, as documented by Spyer in the case of Qamishly, remain largely under control of the Assad regime (Spyer, 9 March 2013). Spyer underlines that we are there seeing the usual strategy of the Assad regime, operative throughout the country: “Assad’s forces have conceded smaller towns and rural areas, while pushing forces into cities, like Qamishli, and holding them.”
The aim of the Kurds in Syria is now to make sure they will finalize and consolidate their authority and not lose what they have accomplished because of internecine struggles either within Syria or linked to regional Kurdish issues (see mapping of the actors below – updated 4 Nov 2013 – click for a larger image), or through the incursions of other Syrian forces opposing their authorities, their values and thus not guaranteeing their right to a decent life.
The PYD is the main Kurdish political force in Syria and is linked to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) through the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) (Tanir et al.: 9). Besides smaller independent Kurdish groups in Syria, its main opponent is an alliance of four political parties in Syria, funded by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the latter being led by Massoud Barzani, who is also the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) (van Wilgenburg, April 4 2013, AlMonitor). The PYD is, however, much stronger than its opponents, thanks notably to its armed wing, the YPG. Coercive forces are a crucial component of any political authority, whose strength and power depend upon the legitimate monopoly of violence and the ability to extract resources to accomplish its missions (see for further detailed explanations regarding political rule the Chronicles of Everstate).
The KPD trying to unite parties opposed to the PYD formed in October 2011 the Kurdish National Council KNC, a political alliance of 15 groups including Kurdish political parties, youth groups, and independent figures, allegedly with the benediction of Turkey (Tanir et al.: 8-9, 19). It was however unable to assert an armed force on the ground, the KPD peshmergas and the Kurdish Syrian refugees they trained remaining in Iraq (Ibid).
The fear to see Kurdish infighting derail their overarching aim, led to the Erbil Agreement signed on 11 July 2012 between the PYD, the People’s Council of West-Kurdistan (PCWK) (a previous PYD-sponsored failed attempt at uniting Kurdish Syrian groups) and the KNC, with the strong support of Barzani (Tanir et al.: 8-10, 19). Through this accord, the PYD and the KNC created the Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC), where they accept “to jointly govern the Kurdish areas of Syria” (Tanir et al.: 8-10, 19). If each party has five seats within the SKC, the PYD remains the leader through, again, its armed wing, and through alliances with left-leaning members of the KNC (van Wilgenburg, April 4 2013). Yet, some tensions linger and minor clashes between Kurds sometimes erupt, as in March 2013 (van Wilgenburg, April 4 2013).
The constitution of a de facto Kurd authority on the ground under SKC leadership with its YPG force was most probably operative in the decision by the Turkish Erdogan government to start peace talks in October 2012 with the PKK and their leader Occalan. A PKK friendly zone at Turkey’s backdoor would have indeed been potentially threatening, while escalating fighting would have been incompatible with the new regional role that Turkey seeks to achieve. The Turkish-Kurdish peace talks, if fraught with specific Turkish domestic difficulties, are progressing favourably to date (Tulin Daloglu, 3 April 2013, AlMonitor).
Meanwhile, this changed configuration favoured, on the Syrian battlefield, tactical cooperation between groups belonging to the FSA nexus and Kurds, whilst clashes beyond the Aleppo region started taking place between pro-Assad groups and Kurds (Natali, January 31 2013; van Wilgenburg, April 5 2013, AlMonitor; Hudson, April 18 2013, reuters). The Kurdish struggle against Global Jihadi groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra or groups supporting the creation of an Islamist state in Syria (forthcoming post) continues, as the objectives of those groups are incompatible with a Syrian Kurdistan (Natali, January 31 2013; Spyer, March 9 2013). Considering the FSA’s need to show a moderate, united and efficient face to increase foreign support (see previous post), we have here another factor for de facto cooperation between Kurdish forces and groups linked to the FSA nexus in the current strategic conditions.
The Iranian perception and consequent actions regarding the ongoing peace talks in Turkey is an element that should not be forgotten: Iran is a full player as it supports the Assad regime, as Kurds are settled on part of its territory and it is a major actor in the region. If, as suggested by Sinkaya (March 20 2013, AlMonitor), Iran fears that PKK armed forces, freed from actions in Turkey, contribute to renew the Kurdish struggle on their own territory, then Iran’s interest would be to see those forces joining with Syrian Kurds to save the Syrian Kurdistan, assuming the YPG accept them. This might imply that Iran would support further offensive by the Assad regime in zones under SKC control. Integrating peacefully and fully future ex-PKK forces within Turkey would be a way to assuage Iran’s fear and to avoid further escalation for this specific issue.
If the strategic environment is changing and is accordingly included into the actors’ decisions, it does not mean that alliances are becoming fixed. The tactical and local situations are also crucial, while the overall conditions remain fluid. As Tejel emphasises regarding the Syrian battlefield, “We cannot state that they are ‘enemies’ or ‘allies.’ It depends on the context, the moment, and local relations. In other words, if cooperation between YPG with the FSA is now a reality, it does not necessarily mean that we are witnessing a complete rupture…. Maybe or maybe not” (van Wilgenburg, April 5 2013).
Update 10 February 2014
We recall that on 10 July 2013, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) declared starting making plans to move towards some degree of autonomy for Rojava or the Syrian part of Kurdistan (see for detail 4 Nov 2013 update, 2.1.). News about Rojava and its “project” can be followed on its own website, created in August 2013.
The PYD moved forward on 11 November 2013 when announcing plans for the formation of an interim government, that would include members of other parties, such as the Kurdish National Council (KNC-ENKS) (see Van Wilgenburg for details), the latter having however not yet decided if it was joining or not (Rojava). The Rojava Constitutive Assembly of the Temporary Administration, the latter becoming the “Democracy Autonomous Administration”, met a first time on 12 November 2013, then a second time on 2 December 2013, when it “decided to establish the regions of Efrîn, Kobanê [Ayn al-Arab] and Cizîrê [(Jazeera), Hasakah province] as three autonomous regions”, each with its own administration, because of the reality of the war , as well as a legislative body – the Legislative and Monitoring Committee (also Legislative Assembly of the Democratic Autonomous Government of Western Kurdistan ?) and a Temporary Administration (Democracy Autonomous Administration) Preparation and Monitoring Committee (Rojava).
On the battlefield, this would also be translated, according to Van Wilgenburg (Al Monitor, 24 Nov 2013), by the YPG’s efforts (the armed branch of the PYD), to take areas between those zones to create a continuous Rojava, even if the population there is mixed. To consider mixed ethnic origin, the YPG created on 1st Nov 2013 an Arab brigade, Ahrar al-Watan, led by Hawas al-Akub (Ibid.).
Finally, on 8 December, the Kurdish National Council (KNC-ENKS) decided not to recognize anymore the Supreme Kurdish Council or Kurdish High Council, thus not to support the Rojava project (Van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor, 30 Dec 2013).
On 6 January 2014, the Legislative Assembly of the Democratic Autonomous Government of Western Kurdistan agreed on the “Social Contract” creating the three autonomous regions, and declaring:
“Syria to be a democratic, free and independent country and affirms that all three cantons [regions] remain a part of Syria… it also agreed on a governmental model. A 101-seat assembly will be formed, and the administration of each canton will be aided in part by twenty ministries each. The model is outlined in 51 articles based on four different foundations: the Canton system, the Legislative Assembly, the Administration, and the Justice and High Election Commission.” (ANF via Rojava)
They, thus, move forward in constructing their only way to preserve both their way of life and the land that must sustain them, which is greatly endangered as we saw, while attempting not to frighten any other actor by reasserting their belonging to Syria. By doing so, they enhance their chance of survival, whatever happens in the rest of Syria: if the war lasts, as is most likely, then they will be stronger to fight, defend themselves and to be an ally of choice, all the more so that they will hold the key not only to passage ways but also to oil fields; if peace happens, they will be organised and a political system to reckon with. They would also be stronger were a Kurdish National Congress (across the four countries with a Kurdish population) finally be successfully and lastingly organised (Kamal Chomani, Al-Monitor, 8 Aug 2013, Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 7 February 2014).
As a consequence, and as for the Salafi-Nationalist groups, the mapping for the Syrian Kurds has considerably changed, as presented above in the main text (click to see a large image)
Despite the split with the KNC, the main Kurdish parties reached a ten points agreement regarding Geneva on 23 December (Mohamed Zangeneh, Asharq Al-Awsat, 24 Dec 2014). As reported by Van Wilgenburg (Ibid), UK-based PYD spokesman Alan Semo underlined:
“The participation in Geneva II is solved. If the Kurds are invited as their own delegation they will represent themselves in a joint [PYD-KNC] independent delegation with agreed demands. If Kurds have to go with the opposition, then whoever attends from the [Syrian National] Coalition or the NCB would represent Kurdish demands.” Semo via Van Wilgenburg.
A declaration by Aldar Xelîl, a member of the Kurdish High Council (or Supreme Kurdish Council) on 20 December, also underlines that:
“Kurds must be accepted as an essential element of the Geneva-2 talks and that if Kurdish participation was rejected or relegated to a secondary status Kurds could boycott the talks.” Xelîl by ANF via Rojava
This could thus let us expect potential difficulties regarding the very agenda as well as the ways of the “opposition” delegation in Geneva.
Indeed, and despite efforts and international meetings to make sure their objectives (i.e. seeing the Kurdish question put on the Geneva agenda first, and, eventually, to have a specific representation for the negotiations) would be met, it became increasingly clear that most actors, including both the U.S. and Russia, opposed those goals, as described by Van Wilgenburg (Al Monitor, 18 January 2014). Hence, on 15 January in Paris, Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD stated:
“It [Geneva] will only be for show. We want a resolution of the Kurdish question to be addressed. Otherwise we won’t attend. All the Kurds agree with this position.” Saleh Muslim (ANF via Firatnews.com, 15 january 2014).
The constructed beliefs that contribute to the Kurdish perspective and Kurdish way to analyse the situation, and thus to their decisions, include a history of disappointment with, betrayal by and thus distrust of the International Community.
Initially, and despite potential problems, the never ratified 1920 Treaty of Sèvres between the victorious World War I Allied power and Ottoman Turkey abolishing the Ottoman Empire was also meant to create an autonomous Kurdistan (Section 3 articles 62-64 – Kurdistan is the hatched area at the center of the map (cropped) of the Treaty of Sèvres above, full map here).
However, the new 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, negotiated by a stronger Mustafa Kemal Ataturk for Turkey, sacrificed Kurdistan on the altar of other interests, from great power strategies and rivalries, to wishes for a stable Turkey, to the fear of a rising Bolshevik threat to interest in newly discovered oil, as well as Kurdish erroneous beliefs in gratitude for supporting Muslim interests against “Armenians, Greeks or Russians” (Lokman I. Meho, The Kurds and Kurdistan: A Selective and Annotated Bibliography, 1997. 9, 21 MacDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, I.B. Tauris, 2007  115-150).
Thus, and logically, Kurds can be expected to be extremely suspicious of international conferences, as well as of support they could give to others. From their point of view, being only part of an overall “opposition” delegation without seeing the Kurdish question set on the agenda, could only mean to increase the risk to see a bitter repetition of history, as indeed often underlined by Kurdish leaders (e.g. Saleh via ANF, Firanews, 15 Jan 2014 – last sentence; ).
Thus, the logic of the inner Kurdish decision should have been that no Kurds went to Geneva. However, on 18 January, the KNC decided nevertheless to join the “Syrian opposition delegation” (Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 18 January 2014). This showed, once more the difference, tension and struggle for power between the PYD and sympathizing groups on the one hand, and the KNC nexus on the other, as well as the pressure put on the KNC (for details Ibid and Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 26 January 2014). However, the KNC also belongs to the same ideational sphere, and sees, as the PYD, dangers in Geneva. As reported by Van Wilgenburg (Ibid.), Welid Sexo, a member of the Kurdish Freedom Party, a KNC member, stated:
“[The] opposition is no better than the regime in dealing with the Kurds…We may be obliged to attend Geneva II to end the violence and killing in Syria, but we are not obliged to obey its decisions if it contradicts the interests of the Kurdish people.” Welid Sexo via Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 18 January 2014.
Starting to implement the political institutions of Democratic Autonomy
Showing the disconnect between an International Community and Syrians that do not pay attention to Kurds and the Kurdish will to take their destiny into their own hands, and moving forward according to plans, on 21 January 2014, “following the Legislative Assembly of the Democratic Autonomous Government of Western Kurdistan meeting in Amûde”, the region of Cizîrê [(Jazeera), Hasakah province] declared its democratic autonomous admnistration (Kurd.net, 22 Jan 2014). The region’s institutions follow the general programme (22 ministries etc. see above), however they also pay attention to be representative of the ethnic diversity of the area, namely Kurds, Arabs and Syriacs. Hence the region will have three official languages, three representatives will be named for each ministry and “Ekrem Heso, who has been elected the President of the Cizîre canton, will be accompanied by Syriac Elizabet Gewriyê and Arab Husen Ezem as vice presidents.” The name of the appointed ministers may be found on here, on Kurd.net.
On 27 January, “the Kobanê (Ayn al-Arab) Canton … declared its own autonomous administration. This canton will be administered by a legislative assembly president [Enwer Mislim], two deputies and 22 ministers” (ANF, Firatnews.com, 27 January 2014).
In Efrin, on 29 January, the autonomous administration with Hêvi İbrahim as President of the Legislative Assembly was declared (Ibid.).
The three regions must conduct elections within 4 months (of the 6 January 2014 agreement on “Social contract”) to replace appointed representatives with elected ones, and thus abide to the objective and hope for democracy. Elections already took place in Efrin and in other towns of the Efrin region (Rojava, 16 Jan 2014). To be able to hold elections everywhere in such a war-torn environment is, however, fraught with difficulties, as rightly underlined by Hakem Xelo, President of the Justice Commission in Cizîre (Rojava, 8 February 2014).
Indeed, fighting continues in Syria, ignorant of the Geneva conference, and involving Kurdish fighting groups. Rojava stresses their involvement in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the latter having, among others, launched an offensive notably attempting to retake ground between Raqqa and Azaz , while “fighting is now occurring along a 270 km stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border” (Rojava, 6 Feb 2014). However, one also finds an instance of reporting of Syrian Kurds fighting with ISIS (Taha Hussain, 3 Feb 2014, Basnews), which could be both true (but the fact of isolated elements) and part of a mobilizing propaganda by ISIS.
The relationships between the Kurdish fighting groups and the other Sunni fighters are more complex as described by Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 16 January 2014), and evolve according to tactical needs but also strategic ones for each actor. For example, there are fundamental differences between Salafi-Nationalists and Kurds, which can hardly be thought about as reconcilable.
Furthermore elections are, at least in post-conflict situations, destabilizing, dangerous and difficult moments (e.g. Benjamin Reilly, “Post-Conflict Elections: Uncertain Turning Points of Transition“, 2006). Indeed, the bitter and acrimonious declarations between the KNC side and the pro-Rojava one (Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 7 February 2014) show how much the terrain is ripe for renewed and intense infighting.
Finally, the real success of Democracy is not limited to elections but to what really happens afterwards and this would tend to be dependent upon the strength of the political administration (Lavoix, 2005).
With Rojava, the Kurds in Syria have started a crucial process of state and democracy building, within another state, but they are only starting on a path fraught with many challenges. They are, however, and more than ever, a force that must be reckoned with in Syria, and that should be integrated within any strategic assessment.
Update 4 November 2013
A general call to arms to fight Jihadis
Since first clashes erupted on 12 July, intensifying on 16 July, notably over and in the city of Ras al-Ain, the YPG (The People’s Defence Units – see updated mapping of actors below) has been fighting Jahbat-al Nosra (JAN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS or ISIL) (van Wilgenburg, Al-Monitor, July 16). At the end of July, fighting was raging in the area of the oil fields of Rmeilan “around the main production facility” (Mohammad Ballout, As-Safir, translated by Al Monitor, 30 July 2013). Other groups “from Ahrar al-Sham, Ahrar Ghoweiran, the Free Syrians Brigades and the Umma brigade,” as well as the “Jazeera Free Brigades”, “composed of Arab Shummar clans” are also “participating in the military operations taking place in the triangle formed by the other important oil fields of Suwaidiyah, Rmeilan and the Tel Koujar-Rabihah crossing, adjacent to the Iraqi border.” (Ballout, Ibid).
On 30 July 2013, the struggle became a war within the war in Syria, after the YPG issued, in Hasaka province, “a general call to arms for all persons able to carry a weapon to join their ranks in order to defend the YPG held areas from the attacks of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, al-Nusra Front and allied rebel groups” (SOHR, 30 July).
Various assumptions have been made to explain this call to arms, linking it to the assassination of “Issa Ibrahim Hiso, a prominent member of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) on July 30”, to the visit of Saleh Muslim, the co-leader of the PYD to Turkey, which would have a disruptive potential, notably for the Al-Assad regime, and to ISIS and JAN (van Wilgenburg, Al-Monitor, July 31). However, first, Ballout (Ibid.) sees, as one of the main engines of the war between the Kurds and the Jihadis, control over the oil-rich areas of Hasaka province. Indeed, being able to access and exploits the oil fields means much in terms of resources thus money, crucial to mobilize supporters and soldiers, arm and pay the latter and thus wage the war. Second, ISIS strategy is to expand in Northern Syria, as explained – and foreseen – by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (Syria Comment, 18 July), where ISIS reproduces what it did in both the Aleppo and Idlib regions, “seeking … to consolidate control over outlying towns, particularly those of strategic importance along or near the border with Turkey” such as Tel Abyad, where, among others, oil can be smuggled out (Ballout, Ibid.) Thus, the reasons given by the YPG itself for the call to arms, i.e. attacks by ISIS, JAN and other groups, are probably the most accurate. The YPG would thus act as the last Northeastern stand against ISIS expansion, while trying to preserve the means of its monetary survival, meanwhile denying it to others.
Fighting in Hasaka province is still ongoing and can be followed on the PYD info website, on MESOP, on Wladimir van Wilgenburg’s blog and on the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). It extends to the northern part of the Raqqah province, where, for example, on 2 November 2013 “ISIS raid[ed] the KNC office in Raqqah and arrest[ed] some Kurdish activists” (Wladimir van Wilgenburg’s blog).
The population within Kurdish dominated areas, as in the rest of the country, has also to face the consequences of air raids by the Syrian air force, as the latter shells villages where the presence of ISIS and Jan are reported (e.g. PYD info, 19 Oct 2013).
Meanwhile, in Aleppo province, clashes take place for domination of villages and areas between the YPG on the one hand and various configurations of factions including always ISIS, and sometimes Ahrar al-Sham (van Wilgenburg, MESOP, 30 October 2013).
This war within a war has three major consequences.
First steps towards the end of endemic Kurdish infighting?
On the importance of military forces on the ground during a civil war
First, as the population increasingly perceives the YPG as its protector, the war against Jihadis further legitimizes the YPG and thus enhances the power of the PYD over its rivals (van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor 25 October 2013 & 13 October 2013). This is all the more important because infighting has not abated among Syrian Kurds. Thus, a rising support for the YPG could be seen as a weak signal announcing the victory of one group – the PYD – over the others, or rather a supremacy that would be sufficient enough on the ground not to potentially mar anymore overall political and military progress.
The PYD would then have to play carefully its hand to assert its position, ending as much as possible the divisions while integrating other factions. It could build on the latest effort at overcoming divisions as can be understood the 10 July PYD announcement of its intention to start working towards the “formation of an interim administration in Western Kurdistan” (ANHA, 10 July 2013) probably after consultation with other Kurdish leaders, including of opposing groups, within and without Syria (van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor, 19 July 2013). This, de facto, emphasized the difficulty to see the Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC) play its full role, as underlined by van Wilgenburg (ibid). The SKC would be replaced by an “interim administration within three months” while, a referendum on a draft constitution and parliamentary elections” would be organised “within six months” (Ibid.). By 13 August, consultations had been held “to form a council comprised of around 100 members that will be in charge of civil administration” (Ibrahim Hemeidi, Al-Hayat, translated in Al Monitor, 14 August 2013). This decision, sometimes criticized by other Kurdish parties afraid it would increase the PYD’s strength, was also not welcomed elsewhere, as it was feared it would start a process of partition within Syria (van Wilgenburg, 19 July). Since then Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD, notably during his trips to Istanbul to meet with Turkish authorities, has repeatedly emphasized that the objective was to set up an administration and not a government, and that no secession was envisioned (e.g. Hemeidi, Al-Hayat).
In this framework of fear for the future, the last stand offered by the YPG against Jihadis may also contribute to quell anxieties to see Arabs excluded and discriminated against within regions dominated by Kurds (Andrea Giloti, Al Monitor, 8 October 2013). Indeed, there has been evidence of Arab villagers being grateful to the YPG for “liberating them” from and “supporting them” against Jihadis and their potentially stringent rule, while protecting them from “mistaken” looting (van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor, 13 October 2013, Giloti, Ibid). The potentiality to see sectarianism sowed needs however to be kept in mind and envisioned..
Unity among Kurds is, however, far from being achieved. Early October, the four parties that had so far funded the alliance called the Democratic Political Union (KDP), which controlled the Kurdish National Council (KNC), merged “into a single party under the banner of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S), currently led by Abdulhakim Bashar” (see updated mapping in body of the post), an attempt by parties supported by Barzani (President of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq) to rejuvenate the old party created in 1957 that had then fragmented (van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor, 19 October 2013). This renovated party seems, however, to be fraught with the same divisions as the overall Kurdish factions. Furthermore, if its leaders claim representing many people on the ground, the YPG and PYD, of course, refute this claim.
Meanwhile, even fighters affiliated initially with the KDP and thus who used to oppose the YPG preeminence have started joining the latter in their fight against jihadis (Van Wilgenburg, 25 October).
Geneva 2 and international support
Kurdish infighting finds its mirror image among international actors (who supports whom), and both express themselves perfectly well in relation to the always more uncertain Geneva 2. According to Van Wilgenburg (19 July 2013), the PYD is “closer to the PKK and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Some claim this front [Qandil or Slemani front] is closer to Iran, Russia and Syria and more critical of Turkey….the second Erbil front led by Barzani is closer to Turkey.”
On 7 September 2013, the KNC decided to join the NC (Ara News, 8 Sept 2013). However, part of the KNC would want to attend Geneva as KNC, some as KNC and, if impossible, be represented by the NC, whilst others want to go as part of the KSC (Van Wilgenburg, 9 October 2013). The U.S. and Turkey would be supportive of the KNC and its representation by the NC (Ibid.).
On the contrary, the PYD wants to attend Geneva “not as part of the Syrian National Coalition but as an independent Kurdish movement”, which is opposed by Turkey, and believes the end solution “must include Assad” not to see all Alawites killed (Taraf, Interview of Muslim, translated by Al Monitor, 26 October 2013). Russia supports the presence of the PYD dominated SKC at Geneva (van Wilgenburg, 9 October 2013). As a result, even politically, part of the KNC finally has an aim similar to the PYD.
Turkey: a key challenging role?
Second, the war between the YPG and Jihadis highlights the potentially murky and certainly challenging role of Turkey in the Syrian conflict. Although Turkey repeatedly denied it, it would have been “supporting al-Nusra and other radical Islamist groups against the Syrian Kurds” and as the strongest force against the Al-Assad regime, but would be now reconsidering or being more cautious in its support (Semih Idiz, Al-Monitor, 13 August 2013). Meanwhile, Saleh Muslim repeatedly asked Turkey to intervene and keep the jihadists in check (Amberin Zaman, Taraf, translated by Al Monitor, 4 August 2013; Taraf, 26 October 2013). What Saleh Muslim asked could be logical but not always that easy to obtain. Indeed, the border between Turkey and Syria is very long and probably impossible to control strictly. One may think, as a comparison, about the difficulty of the U.S. to surveil and control its border with Mexico. The Jihadi strategy to expand towards the border with Turkey means a need to secure logistics and supply but this may also happen without full and active Turkish support.
Warning about the sterilization of Western Kurdistan
Finally, and most importantly for the future, the war between the YPG and jihadis dominated groups draws attention to an ecological catastrophe in the making in Western Kurdistan, and more generally around all Syrian oil fields.
As seen above, one of the main engines of the war between the Kurds and the Jihadis, besides those underlined by Al-Tamimi, is control over oil fields and their exploitation (Ballout, 30 July 2013). When the various groups are not fighting over controlling fields, “militant factions and Kurdish protection units (YPG) take charge of oil extraction, refining and selling on their own account” (Alaa Halabi, As-Safir, translated by Al Monitor, 28 October 2013). They extract crude oil, sell some of it as such and “refine part of it using primitive refining methods, whereby derivatives such as diesel and gasoline are sold to citizens or traders” (Ibid.). Not only are derivatives of poor quality, but the environmental consequences are tragic. It is worth citing Halabi’s article at length:
“The source added … ‘Also, militant factions, local factions and some investors own about 2,000 primitive refineries. …These refineries emit smoke and fumes into the air, which leads to further pollution. This has caused the formation of a black cloud over the eastern region of Syria, which will have disastrous results for the area’s residents, water sources and agricultural land, which will inevitably be deserted.’ … Salah al-Jani, a petrochemical engineer, explained ‘When hydrocarbons go out of their cycle [in the case of primitive refining] — into wells, pipes or tanks — the composition of environmental components will be radically changed. In such a case, it will be a long time before the soil is suitable for agriculture, groundwater will no longer be suitable for use and surface and sea water will be at stake. The air will, in short, be poisonous. The associated water — when produced it must be separated before being transported, and it is also called class water — contains salts that threaten plant life, surface water and groundwater. It also carries natural radioactive compounds called NORM, with a level of concentration that cannot be neglected and of an intensity that lasts for years.”
Diseases related to primitive refining already have been noted, from skin infections and cancers to birth defects.
This ongoing environmental tragedy has the potential to finally terminate all hopes for Kurds to ever be free to live according to their own way of life on their land, whatever the political system and the ruler in power. If they do not succeed in finally asserting control over the land where the oil fields are located and then in imposing proper refining, which would indeed demand the end of infighting and the support of international actors, then their only choice will be to run away from this land for which they fought and suffered so much.
Update 31 May
26 May 2013 – The SLF would have declared war on The Kurds: “a statement signed by no less than twenty-one armed groups declared ”Kurdish defense units, YPG, are traitors because they are against our Jihad.”The goal, according to the statement, is a “pending the completion of comprehensive cleansing process”, liberation from “PKK and Shabiha”. The statement was published by the “Syrian Islamic Liberation Front” – Syria Report, 27 May 2013 – “Insurgents Declare War on Syrian Kurds“
Featured image: PYD supporters at a funeral for a local of a village outside of Afrin, Syria, who had died fighting alongside the PKK in Turkey. 20 August 2012. By Voice of America News: Scott Bobb reporting from Afrin, Syria. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
* Corrects a previously erroneous location of the KDP, which is based in Iraq – Thanks to Wladimir Van Wilgenburg for noticing it and warning me.
Detailed bibliography and list of primary sources here.