Former Enemies Find Common Ground on Kurdish Rebels
Political scientist Chris Zambelis is an author, researcher, and analyst with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, DC area. He specializes in Middle East politics. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Helios Global, Inc.
U.W.: Mr. Zambelis, in your recent article on Syria for the Washington DC-based think tank Jamestown Foundation you write "Unrest in Syria inspires Kurdish activism". How is the Kurdish factor being defined by Syrian unrest?
Based on the course of events since the start of the uprising in Syria, Kurds in Kurdish regions in the northern and northeastern parts of Syria as well as in Kurdish towns and neighbourhoods elsewhere in the country took to the streets along with fellow Syrians to demand greater political rights and democracy. The segment of the uprising led by the Kurds is significant because of the status of Kurds as a non-Arab minority (Syria’s Kurdish population numbers between one and a half to million out of a total of about 22 million Syrians) that is largely underserved and a target of official discrimination by the state. For example, among other things the Kurdish language is banned in official venues in Syria and other expressions of Kurdish identity are heavily suppressed by the state.
The history of Kurdish nationalism in the region is also relevant to the situation in Syria; Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have all taken up arms over the years — and continue to do so — to further various causes ranging from independence to autonomy for their respective communities. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Kurds inhabiting northern Iraq have basically established an independent country (Kurdish Regional Government or KRG) – with the full support of the United States – that includes its own security forces, trade relationships, and the like, all guaranteed under Iraq’s federal structures. This development has served to reignite Kurdish nationalism in the region, especially in Turkey, which has seen a decades-long insurgency led by the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK – Kurdish Workers’ Party), as well as in Iran, where a PKK-offshoot (PJAK – Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) is waging a violent campaign against Tehran.
In this context, the potential for Syrian Kurds to add another layer of complexity to the crisis in Syria – a potential separatist element – is worth a closer look, at least for the Kurds living in al-Hasakah province and other largely Kurdish areas. At the very least, Kurds could also potentially protest primarily as “Kurds first” as opposed to Syrians (regardless of their ethnic or sectarian identity) fighting for democracy, human rights, etc. There is evidence that segments of the Syrian Kurdish community have used Kurdish nationalist slogans and brandished Kurdish flags during protests. This holds especially true for the segment of the Kurdish community – potentially as high as 300,000, according to some estimates – which do not hold citizenship. If the crisis in Syria continues along its violent course, who is to say that Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, or elsewhere will not seek to offer more than just moral and vocal support for their embattled kin in Syria?
U.W.: Syrian President Bashar Assad began to flirt with the Kurds. Did he being making his overtures too late?
On the surface, President’s Assad’s decision to grant citizenship to the segment of the Syrian Kurdish population which lacks the necessary credentials is a positive step. However, the problems in Syria are well beyond the point where a few decisions from the top will quell public anger — this is true for Syrian Kurds or, for that matter, other Syrians. For example, President Assad also lifted the notorious emergency laws that have been on the books for decades, laws that essentially granted the regime the right to detain Syrians without charges and apply other dictatorial measures, all under the auspices of maintaining “stability” and “security.” All of these measures and promises from the top have come too late, in fact, years too late.
Syrians, like Tunisians and Egyptians before them and the millions of other Arabs who are asserting their agency for genuine reform and democracy, are not interested in cosmetic changes and rhetoric. It is worth noting that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also lifted his country’s similarly structured emergency laws in the face of the protests that eventually led to his ouster. Amid the popular uprisings in the region, Moroccan King Muhammed VI also pledged to institute sweeping political reforms. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in an apparent attempt to undercut potential protests in his own country, did the same when he announced his decision to lift Algeria’s emergency laws. Saudi Arabia has also committed itself to implementing political reforms, again, in an apparent move to stave off dissent. The incumbent governments in the region are fearful. A new form of politics is in play, and it does not seem like the Syrian regime (or others in the region, for that matter) are prepared to adjust to the changing times.
U.W.: Can Kurdish nationalism in Syria become the beginning of new struggle for a Kurdish autonomy or even independence not only in Syria, but also in Turkey, Iran and Iraq?
Kurds in Iraq have, for all intents and purposes, achieved a quasi-independent status. In many ways, the KRG really does function as a sovereign entity within Iraq. The Kurdish nationalist cause in Turkey and Iran is also decades old, and there is significant evidence to indicate that the elevation of Kurds in Iraq has emboldened the Kurdish nationalist causes in Turkey and Iran. That said, it is the Syrian Kurds – the inhabitants of Western Kurdistan – according to Kurdish nationalists, who have not opted for violent resistance like their kin in other parts of the region.
Still, with the world’s attention currently fixated on the crisis in Syria, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Kurds outside of Syria will use the situation there to bolster their own causes. The PKK in Turkey has already made statements in support of the Syrian Kurds. In this sense, I think it is better to think about how the experience of Kurds elsewhere in the region (i.e. Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) will potentially impact the course of action Syrian Kurds take if the security situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, and especially if the country is plunged into a civil war.
U.W.: While Turkey was able to count on Syria to work to prevent its territory from being used by PKK guerillas in operations against Turkey, is the ongoing turmoil gripping Syria preoccupying Damascus with more pressing matters?
It is in Syria’s national interest to maintain friendly ties with Turkey, a former enemy that it now counts as a strategic partner. As international condemnation of Syria’s actions grows in the United States and Europe, Turkey continues to support President Assad, although there are signs that the Turkish position on Syria may be slowly shifting. For instance, while signaling its support for President Assad, Turkey also hosted a meeting of Syrian opposition leaders who are demanding the fall of the regime in Damascus.
A key facet underlying the rapprochement in Syrian-Turkish relations has been Syria’s commitment to preventing the PKK from using Syrian territory to mount attacks or mobilize in other ways against Turkey. Until the late 1990s, Syria was one of the primary supporters of the PKK so, naturally, Syria’s agreement to abandon its support for the group proved critical to the dramatic improvement in bilateral relations. By all accounts, Syria is living up to its commitments to Turkey by arresting and extraditing suspected PKK members operating on its soil. Given the domestic crisis, however, it is unlikely that Syria is overly concerned with dealing with the PKK and related elements within its borders. As reports emerge of desertions within the military, Damascus has surely deployed its most loyal and equipped forces to rooting out dissent within its own borders.
The PKK likely views the growing chaos in Syria as an opportunity to strengthen its position against Turkey. Likewise, it may be in Syria’s interests to appear incapable of rooting out the PKK, thereby raising concerns in Ankara about what ongoing chaos may bring if and when the regime in Damascus falls. In this sense, the Baathist regime can demonstrate to Turkey that it is the best guarantee against PKK infiltration, not to mention regional stability, thus making it in Turkey’s best interest to continue to support it.
U.W.: Can this friendly shift in Syrian-Turkish relations help the Syrian president neutralize the Kurds?
The rapprochement between Syria and Turkey has further complicated the Kurdish question in the region, especially in terms of removing a critical ally of the PKK from the equation (in this case, Syria). This primarily impacts the situation in Turkey. As far as Syria is concerned, if the Kurdish element of the uprising becomes significant, and if actors such as the PKK become involved, Syria can likely count on Turkey for support. At the same time, it is important to note that the Kurdish nationalist face of the unrest (i.e. a scenario in which Kurdish nationalist impulses outweigh popular demands for greater political freedom, etc., that are being advocated by other segments of Syrian society) has not reached the point where it is the overarching factor motivating Syrian Kurds to take to the streets.
U.W.: So, the former enemies can find common ground regarding Kurdish rebels?
At this point, we cannot speak of an armed Kurdish rebellion in Syria, however, the rapprochement between Syria and Turkey has certainly contributed to a common understanding on how both countries view Kurdish rebels in the region. As a former ally of the PKK, Syria is now officially committed to rooting out the group and assisting Turkey in various other capacities in related areas (i.e. other security concerns).
Officially, Syria is said to have arrested and extradited at least 125 alleged PKK members from its soil since the improvement in bilateral relations. There is also the issue of intelligence cooperation along the Syrian-Turkish border between both sides that is otherwise not reported. And Syria itself has reaped a great deal of benefits for shifting course on the PKK, including experiencing a significant influx of Turkish investment in its economy and an overall increase in bilateral trade (i.e. both countries have signed a number of Free Trade Agreements), diplomatic support that has proved crucial to Syria’s efforts to circumvent U.S., Israeli, and Saudi-led efforts to isolate it in the region and beyond, and relaxed visa regulations enabling Syrians to travel to Turkey with ease.
The number of Turkish tourists to Syria has also increased dramatically in recent years, an important point considering the significance of tourism to the Syrian economy. Territorial disputes rooted in Syria’s claims on Turkey’s southern Hatay province and Turkey’s management of water resources on which Syria relies have been sidelined in favor of emphasizing bilateral cooperation – the new Syrian-Turkish relations have led to a number of agreements expanding Syria’s access to vital water sources traversing Turkey.
U.W.: Has the democratic process in Syria become a security issue for Turkey?
There are signs indicating that the breakdown in order in Syria is having a negative impact on security in Turkey. Up to 10,000 Syrian refugees who live near the border with Turkey have sought refuge in southern Turkey (Syrian refugees have also fled to Lebanon). If the violence continues, streams of refugees will continue to flee to Turkey. In addition, as Ankara has come to rely on Damascus to rein in PKK rebels using its territory to launch or plan operations against Turkey, the Syrian government is obviously preoccupied with other matters at the moment. In short, the instability inside Syria may provide opportunities for the PKK to expand its operational capacity by using Syrian territory as a logistical and operational hub. A less likely but nevertheless important factor that also must be considered is the potential for al-Qaeda or related militants to exploit the instability in Syria, to target Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Turkey.
U.W.: As the protests persist across Syria, do Kurds appear determined to continue to agitate for greater rights?
This does appear to be the case for the Kurds, but also for other Syrians as well. And while there are signs that Kurds are demanding greater political rights as “Kurds first,” so to speak, it is important to emphasize that, for the most part, at least until now, the Kurdish aspect of the unrest in Syria appears to be part of the larger movement that is calling for political reform, an end to corruption, and related matters. In other words, the Kurdish nationalist impulse in Syria, at this point, is not driving Kurds to dissent.
U.W.: With the PKK having upped the ante in its campaign against Ankara while demonstrating a growing interest in the plight of Kurds in Syria during the current turmoil, could events in Turkey begin to shape the course of events for Kurds in Syria?
Yes, absolutely. At this point, the PKK remains fixed on events in Turkey, and its offshoots operate in other areas, such as Iran. But given the geographic proximity between Syria and Turkey and the PKK’s notable rise in influence and operational capacity in recent years, how the situation in Turkey plays out with respect to the Kurdish question in the near- to medium-term will have a profound impact on Kurds in Syria.
U.W.: Given the harsh crackdowns and greater militancy in neighboring Kurdish communities, how might the Kurds' strategy in Syria change?
While Syrian Kurds have not opted for armed resistance like their counterparts elsewhere in the region, it cannot be ruled out that Kurds in Syria may resort to such tactics if and when the violence there continues to escalate. In a worst case, civil war-type scenario, Syria is likely to see ethno-sectarian, tribal, and regional fault lines emerge as the state looks increasingly weak or unable to assert control.
Such a development will likely see Kurds apply the methods used by their kin in the region to defend themselves and stake their own claims. Moreover, it is likely that the breakdown in order in Syria will prompt Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and elsewhere (including in the sizeable and well-organized Kurdish Diaspora in Europe) to speak out and act on behalf of their kin in Syria. Such a scenario may convince Syrian Kurds to recalibrate their approach to political dissent in Syria.
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