Syrian Kurds can be considered among the biggest beneficiaries of the conditions that have ensued since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. They have seized some of the rights which they have been denied for decades. Additionally, Kurdish forces have managed to control all the areas where Kurds are a relative majority, and to properly organize their public affairs. It is becoming increasingly difficult for these areas to their former state of subordination to the central state in Damascus.Having reached a milestone on the path to their autonomy dream, the Kurds of Syria seem at the brink of realizing the classical nationalistic dream of an independent state.
With all its peculiarities, however, the Kurdish question cannot be separated from other regional ones. Kurds feel that they have now a unique opportunity to progress farther on the road to Greater Kurdistan, which has been delayed for more than a century. Back then, as per the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, Kurdish leaders were promised an independent state by the British and the French. The two global empires nevertheless failed to fulfill their promises in the wake of WWI, of which the Kurdistan dream was a prominent victim.
Firstly, to better understand the general Kurdish mood, we ought to look at the words of Kurdish leaders. Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, states in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper that “the borders we inherited from the Sykes-Picot Agreement are artificial, and new borders in the region shall be drawn in blood within or between the current states.” Moreover, Salih Muslim, the co-chairman of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), says in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, “we Kurds have always, throughout history, been the footsoldiers of others. Now, in the 21st century, we have decided that we shall not be but our own soldiers.”
The two aforementioned statements clearly indicate a conviction by Kurds in general, and those in Iraq and Syria in particular, that they have to fight for their rights, and that they view regional circumstances as an historic opportunity that they ought to seize and not squander in any way. But how realistic is the Kurdistan dream? To what extent is it feasible?
The analysis of current facts and available data leads to the conclusion that the establishment of a Syrian Kurdish autonomous region is impossible, or at least extremely difficult. It is true that there are many facilitating factors, but grave hindrances exist as well. Although Kurds in Syria base their nationalistic demand upon a set of ethical and legal principles, including the UN-recognized right to self-determination, politics is by no means about principles or covenants.
Kurdish Alliances with Influential States
The Kurdish alliance with the United States is one of their key strengths, as they now constitute a major force in the ongoing war against the Islamic State (Daesh). Given previous fruitful experiences with the Iraqi Peshmerga forces on the one hand, and, from an American point of view, the Kurdish divergence from extremist ideology on the other hand, Kurds have been a natural ally of the international coalition since its inception. This alliance peaked during the battle of Kobanî, as coalition warplanes provided close air support to the Kurdish forces, who in turn proved their competence in combat and managed to expel the terrorist organization from Kobanî – and later from Tall Abyad, Manbej and many other towns. Until this moment, the Americans provide their Kurdish ally with various types of arms and ammunition, as well as funds. Several sources have estimated that the $500 million allocated by the Pentagon to support the Syrian opposition have mostly gone to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.
Moreover, the US political support for their Kurdish ally has been so vital to the Americans that they went as far as abandoning their significant ally in the region, which is Turkey. This former US ally in turn opted to seek a Russian alliance because of said support. The Turks believe that the US is pushing towards a Kurdish entity in northern Syria.
Meanwhile, the Kurds continue to enjoy their good relations with the Russians, which were notably demonstrated by the battles the YPG fought in the northern Aleppo countryside. With Russian air cover, the YPG managed to seize control over large areas, notably Tall Rifaat and Menagh Air Base. It should be noted, however, that Russian-Kurdish relationship soon began to weaken after Russia favored an alliance with Turkey in its struggle for peace in Syria.
Deep-Rooted Kurdish Disputes
Furthermore, infighting has been a main feature of Kurdish political life. The major Kurdish-Kurdish dispute is between the Movement for a Democratic Society TEV-DEM (to which the PYD belongs, the latter being part of the leftist-nationalist Coordinating Committee) and the Kurdish National Council (which is part of the liberal-Islamist National Coalition). One can argue that the schism separates two main currents in Kurdish politics, one that is adherent to the “Öcalanist” school, and the other to the “Barazanist” one. A Kurdish Supreme Committee was established to bring the two parties together, but it does not seem to have had a clear and effective action plan.
Kurdish areas in Syria are currently held by the “Self-Administration” government of the Rojava confederacy, which is composed of three self-governing cantons (Jazira, Kobanî and Afrin) and includes representatives of most Kurdish factions affiliated with the TEV-DEM. Militarily, however, the PYD reigns utterly supreme. Its ranks include the strongest factions: the People's Protection Units, the Women’s Protection Units, and the Asayish police. Along with Al-Sanadid Forces (tribesmen), the Syriac Military Council (Christians), and the Army of Revolutionaries (former Free Syrian Army rebels), in addition to some 30 smaller factions, these units constitute the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. On the other hand, many in the Kurdish National Council attempted to create their own armed forces, but they remained largely marginalized on the ground.
Demographically speaking, Kurds do not in fact constitute an overwhelming majority in the Self-Administration territories, and perhaps their numbers are not considerably higher than the sum of descendants of other ethnicities. Furthermore, the Kurdish territories are far apart and separated by Arab towns and villages, such as Jarablus, Azaz, Manbej and al-Bab. Combined with a nationalist discourse and discriminatory practices, this geographical reality renders permanent control by the PYD highly unlikely.
An Economic Look
Economy is a fundamental pillar of nation-building, and Syrian Kurds do possess promising economic foundations. Their areas are indeed rich in various resources, and Kurdish forces control some of the most abundant oil resources, including the fields of Rumeilan, Suwaydiya, Krachouk, Hamza, Ma’shuq, Lilac and Olayyan. Before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, these fields alone accounted for more than 16% of Syria’s total oil revenue. In addition, the territory’s lands are fertile and viable for agriculture, especially with their plentiful access to water.
That said, it is the economy that is the Achilles heel of the Kurdish autonomous region if it ever materializes. Despite its richness in resources, the Kurdish areas are considered isolated, with no access to a seaport or any means of import or export. Consequently, the extent to which a Kurdish entity has economic viability is contingent upon its relationship with neighboring countries. Under a likely siege imposed by Turkey from the north, and continuous battles against Daesh and other factions in the south, Iraqi Kurdistan may be the only port for Rojava. Given the Kurdish-Kurdish disputes mentioned above, a Syrian Kurdish entity would find itself under a state of severe economic dependency.
Complex Regional Calculations
The four regional states to which the Kurds have belonged over the last hundred years (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) have historically been opposed to Kurdish independence. An independent Kurdish entity, they believed, will have consequences for the Kurdish question as a whole, and will initiate further claims for autonomy by the Kurds of the other countries, their endgame being a greater nation-state uniting the Kurds across all four countries.
Fighting the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey will not in any case allow a PKK-leaning group to hold sway in the north of Syria. The Turkish state believes that any Kurdish state will eventually rupture its own, and that a single secession of any component of its modern republic will guarantee the disintegration and destruction of the whole Turkish nation. Turkey considers the Kurdish movement in Syria to fall within the framework of the Greater Kurdistan project, which is not likely to stop at Syria.
Turkey has many stakes in confronting the Kurdistan project, including their support for many Syrian rebel factions which are in opposition to Kurdish secessionists. Indeed, after the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces began to seize control of large areas of northern Syria, and particularly the strategic city of Manbej, Turkey announced operation Euphrates Shield on August 24th, 2016. The declared goal of the operation was to expel Daesh from the city of Jarablus, which is located on the western bank of the Euphrates River close to the Turkish borders, and to secure Turkish border towns from shelling fire by Daesh. In reality, the more crucial objective for Turkey was to expand in the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, in order to prevent Kurdish factions from stretching west of the Euphrates and creating a strip connecting their territories along the Syrian-Turkish border (specifically between the cantons of Kobanî and Afrin). The Turkish intervention has effectively led to hindering the unification of Kurdish-controlled areas. After the recent advancements, connecting these areas requires a comprehensive battle against the Euphrates Shield factions and their Turkish sponsor. Military clashes between the two sides did take place, but have remained limited in scope and did not escalate into all-out battles. They remain likely to further escalate if the Syrian Democratic Forces continue to hold the city of Manbej and refuse to withdraw towards the east bank of the Euphrates.
On the other hand, the functional relationship between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq constitutes another stake, putting the Kurdish nationalists of Syria in a yet weaker position. In coordination with Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey may impose a crippling blockade upon the Syrian Kurdish regions and render their territory an isolated canton with little if any prospect.
Additionally, the Syrian regime does constitute an objection to be reckoned with to a Syrian Kurdistan. Its current pacifist handling of the Kurdish emergence does not necessarily mean its acceptance of the autonomy project. What the regime is currently conducting is but a conniving tactic aimed at temporary containment.
In the face of the Kurdish autonomy demand, the Syrian regime has the most important measure, which is its coordination with, and perhaps its control over, the major armed force in the Kurdish areas, that is the YPG (an offshoot of the PKK). The regime had simply withdrawn from Kurdish areas and turned over their administration to the YPG, while still retaining some pockets here and there (such as security branches, military bases and checkpoints). Considered friendly zones, the YPG-held areas have not suffered from bombardment or ground campaigns by the regime, as have other opposition-held areas.
As for Iran, it has its own rationale for opposing the Kurdish project, in addition to its fears that it might trigger an Iranian Kurdistan project. Iran is famous for its overtly sectarian politics, which will not permit the Kurds, a predominantly Sunni population, to have a state that could threaten its Shiite allies in the region. Iran is therefore working in close coordination with the Assad regime to stand against such a project.
In conclusion, the factors which hinder the fulfilment of the classical dream of Kurdish independence are numerous and noteworthy. Kurdish politicians understand very well how impossible such an independence is at the moment, and are entirely aware that the foundations currently available to them do not compare to the difficulties they might face should they attempt to struggle further. Hence, we do not find in the Syrian Kurdish platforms any reference to a “Greater Kurdistan,” but rather assertions of the rights of the Kurds to autonomy or perhaps confederacy. “Traditionally, Kurds dream of an independent state,” Salih Muslim adds in his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat. That which his party seeks in Syria, as he puts it, is a “democratic, pluralistic and decentralized state,” which is indicative of his full awareness of the infeasibility of Kurdish independence, and of his striving only for a self-governing region in a federal Syrian state.