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Wed. February 01, 2023
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Interview with Winston Harris: The Syrian Kurds Situation
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International Affairs Forum: What are the major political groups among the Syrian Kurds and what were the dynamics between the groups pre-Syrian revolution?

Winston Harris: Prior to the Revolution, three factions held the most influence in Syrian Kurdistan: the Traditionalists, the Future Movement, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Traditionalists represent the classic elite-driven Syrian Kurdish leadership, which includes the Progressive Party, Abdulhakim Bashar’s el-Partî, Yekiti, Democratic Yekiti, Azadî, and the Left Party. Together the Traditionalists formed the largest political bloc. The populist Future Movement was the smallest of the three major factions, but most strongly represented the public’s anti-Assad view. Finally, the PYD accounted for the political party with the largest membership in Syrian Kurdistan. The PYD is loyal to Abdullah Öcalan the leader of the outlawed, Turkey-based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK); and the PYD is considered the Syrian Branch of the PKK.

While the Traditionalists were prone to infighting, they typically cooperated to further the interests of the Syrian Kurds. However, both the Future Movement and the PYD were skeptical of close cooperation with the Traditionalists. The Future Movement considered the Traditionalists too out of touch with popular Kurdish sentiment.  The PYD often found the Traditionalists problematic to its efforts to establish autonomy or independence for Syrian and Turkish Kurds. All three factions occasionally cooperated with each other, but this cooperation was always short lived.


IA-Forum: What effect did the outbreak of the Syrian revolution have on those political dynamics?  What complications arose?

Mr. Harris: The primary effect of the revolution on Kurdish political dynamics is that it has enabled the PYD to become the dominant actor in Syrian Kurdistan.

When the revolution began, the Traditionalists and the Future Movement both chose to oppose Bashar al-Assad. The PYD elected to adopt a more neutral, supportive attitude towards the al-Assad regime. Consequently, al-Assad turned a blind eye to the PYD, providing the latter and its PKK ally free reign to dominate the Syrian Kurdish landscape.
As an affiliate of the Turkey-based PKK, the PYD maintains access to experienced fighters, arms, and financing. The al-Assad Regime previously denied the PKK entry and freedom of due to Turkish pressures. However, Turkish support for the Syrian opposition, combined with the PYD-PKK’s lukewarm support for the regime, shifted the al-Assad Regime’s policy towards the PKK.   This allowed the PYD, and their PKK ally, to violently suppress Kurdish opposition to the al-Assad Regime and marginalize by force the Traditionalists and the Future Movement. 

To be clear, the PYD alliance with the al-Assad Regime is only an alliance of convenience. There is no ideological affinity between the regime and the PYD. While there is evidence the two sides do cooperate, there is also evidence that the two sides clashed with each other. If the Syrian Revolutions is resolved in a manner that favors the regime, it is highly doubtful the al-Assad will look favorably upon the PYD’s declaration of democratic autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan.  


IA-Forum: On the eve of peace talks in Geneva, Syrian Kurds declared a provincial government in the area.  Local leaders insist they have no plans for secession but say they are preparing a local constitution and aim to hold elections early this year. This is not independence but "local democratic administration," they say.  What led to this and how has this decision affected Kurdish politics?

Mr. Harris: The decision to declare democratic autonomy in the three Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobani, and Jazeera highlights the dominance of the PYD. The term “democratic autonomy” harkens to present PKK policy towards Turkey, often called democratic confederalism. The PKK long sought independence from Turkey; but in the late 2000s instead of striving for independence, the PKK announced their desire for “democratic autonomy.” The decision by the Syrian Kurds to pursue democratic autonomy suggests a strong ideological affinity towards the PKK.
It is critical to remember that the democratic aspect of “democratic autonomy” is highly questionable. The PYD has achieved its political prominence through intimidation and coercion of its rival political parties and the general population. Elections are great, if the only participants are your supporters and a general public coerced to support your party. The PYD will undoubtedly hold elections for these local administrations. But unless there are dramatic changes, there will be nothing democratic about Syrian Kurdish autonomy.
Democratic autonomy is de facto independence. Under this policy, each autonomous council will control its own foreign and interior ministries as well as command the local pro-PYD militias.  These are functions of states. However, by declaring themselves “autonomous” rather than independent, the PYD and the Syrian Kurds seek to avoid overtly provoking the al-Assad Regime and Syria’s neighbors.

Short of the al-Assad Regime turning against the Syrian Kurds, the democratic autonomy process will continue. This will enable the PYD to become increasingly entrenched within the Syrian Kurds’ shadow governance structure. This is problematic because the predominately anti-Assad Sunni Arab population will be skeptical of the Kurds, and will be less inclined to support Kurdish populations during peace negotiations. PYD dominance will make Turkey increasingly wary of the Kurdish population along its southern border, resulting in Turkish pressure to exclude PYD representatives from peace talks. If the Syrian Kurds find themselves marginalized and isolated, they will be more likely to seek independence.   


IA-Forum: How do you view Syrian autonomy affecting the shape of the Syrian civil war, Bashar Assad’s central government in Damascus, and negotiations for a potential transitional Syrian government?

Mr. Harris: The PYD’s decision to declare autonomy decreased the likelihood of the Syrian Kurds joining the anti-Assad opposition in large numbers. If the Kurds would unite with the Sunni Arab opposition, it would open a new front against the al-Assad Regime. This would have stretched the regime’s military resources thinner and resulted in a wavering of support among the regime loyalists. The autonomy declaration will ensure the Sunni Arab opposition and the bulk of the Syrian Kurds will not align together against the regime. As a result, the impact of Kurdish autonomy on the civil war is that it ensures the status quo will continue and the conflict will remain protracted.

At present, Kurdish autonomy is unlikely to have a major impact on the al-Assad Regime. From the regime’s perspective, Kurdish autonomy is not an immediate threat and it can be dealt with later, so long as it does not support the Sunni Arab opposition. If the Regime “wins,” it will be interesting to see to what extent they will tolerate Kurdish autonomy.

From the opposition standpoint, PYD-led Kurdish autonomy is problematic. In the early days of the revolution, the Syrian Kurds openly protested against the al-Assad Regime. This provided the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds with common ground. However, PYD support for the regime, which allegedly included attacks by pro-PYD militias against the Sunni Arab opposition, shattered this common ground. Consequently, the Sunni Arab opposition is less inclined to actively lobby for Kurdish demands, outside of those needed to satisfy Western demands that the Kurds are protected and included in a post-al-Assad Syria.


IA-Forum: International powers denied the Kurds’ request to send a separate delegation to the recent Geneva peace talks.  And the State Department refuses to talk to them.  What have been the reasons for this?  How will Syrian autonomy change external involvement in the peace process?

Mr. Harris: The problem is the PYD is leading the drive for Kurdish autonomy. The PYD is an affiliate of the PKK, which was is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and many of our NATO partners. Due to the PYD’s affiliation with a group the US designated as a terrorists (and allegations of PKK fighters actively supporting the PYD); the US will refuse to engage with a PYD-led Kurdish delegation.

Even if the US were to overlook the PYD’s affiliation with a designated terrorist entity, there remains the problem of Turkey. US strategy towards Syria requires close cooperation with Turkey. Turkey is close to many of the mainstream Sunni Arab opposition groups (a relationship that has caused friction between the Sunni Arabs and the Syrian Kurds). US cooperation with Turkey provides the US additional leverage over the mainstream Sunni Arab opposition. US-Turkish cooperation is also necessary to limit the freedom of movement and funding of the extremist Islamist fringe in Syria. Outside of Syria, US-Turkish cooperation is vital to American policy towards Iran and other regional issues.

If the US began unilaterally cooperating with the PYD-led Kurds, it would enrage the Turks. Turkey is deeply concerned that an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan will turn into a de facto PKK military base, as it was during the 1990s. Syrian Kurdistan would provide the PKK with a safe haven from which they could train, plan attacks, and retreat to after operations. Consequently, if the US at all legitimizes the PYD and strengthens Syrian Kurdish autonomy, US-Turkish cooperation in the region will be jeopardized.

To be clear, the US and Western powers are not ignoring the Kurds throughout the attempts at peace making. The US openly supports the rights of the Kurdish people; but the US wants the Kurds to participate in the mainstream, pan-Syrian opposition movements like the Syrian National Council (SNC). The Future Movement did join the SNC, and does provide representation for the Kurdish people. Conversely, the PYD rejects the SNC.  So while there is representation for the Syrian Kurds during international conventions, it is not enough to satisfy the divided Kurdish population.

The recent declaration of autonomy by the Syrian Kurds is unlikely to change the situation. PKK leadership in Turkish Kurdistan, the Iranian-based PKK affiliate the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), and the various pro-PKK international media and lobbying groups will recognize and promote Syrian Kurdish autonomy. However, they are unlikely to have any significant impact on how the rest of the international community seeks to impact the Syrian peace process.


IA-Forum: What impact, if any, does the declaration have on other Kurdish groups and their relations with the Syrian Kurds?

Mr. Harris: This declaration is unpopular with the Iraqi Kurds. The traditional Kurdish parties that constitute Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) view the Syrian declaration of autonomy as dangerous to continued Iraqi Kurdish autonomy. This is because the Iraqi Kurds fear Syrian Kurdish autonomy, under PYD-PKK leadership, will undermine Iraqi Kurdish gains.

The Iraqi Kurds in the KRG fear PYD/PKK-led autonomy in Syria will threaten Turkish-KRG relations. Growing Kurdish autonomy in Syria may increase pressure on Turkey to provide autonomy or independence to Kurds in Turkey; it also risks turning Syria into a staging ground for PKK operations in Turkey. As such, the Turks will apply heavy pressure on the KRG to influence the Syrian Kurds, as the KRG does maintain ties to several Traditionalist parties (Abdulhakim Bashar’s el-Partî and the Progressive Party).

This has the potential to be problematic. Given the dominance of the PYD, it is doubtful the KRG will be able to effectively influence the Syrian Kurds. Frustrated by a perceived lack of progress, the Turks may cease investing in their relationship with the Iraqi Kurds in favor of other groups (e.g. the Gulf Arab states) who can be seen as better influencing the situation in Syria and ultimately improving Turkish security. It is very doubtful that the Turks would sever ties with the KRG, less they push the Iraqi Kurds to demand an independent Greater Kurdistan. However, the threat of worse relations with Turkey will push the KRG to oppose growing PYD dominance in Syria.
Beyond the risks to KRG-Turkish relations; the Iraqi Kurds have another incentive to deeply oppose PYD-led autonomy in Syria. During the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War of the 1990s between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the PKK entered the conflict as a belligerent in support of the PUK. This resulted in heavy fighting between the PKK and the KDP. Following this conflict, the KDP and PUK eventually formed a power sharing government that eventually led to the present-day KRG.

The KDP and PUK now enjoy relatively good relations, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan distanced itself from PKK. Nonetheless, the KDP views the PKK as a threat to Iraqi Kurdish stability. The Iraqi Kurds fear PKK dominance over the Kurds in Turkey, Syria (via the PYD), and Iran (via the PJAK) could lead to a re-emergent PKK threat in Iraq. Just as a PYD-dominated Syrian Kurdistan could serve as a de facto military base for PKK operations against Turkey, it could also serve as a base of operations against the KRG. As such, the Iraqi Kurds oppose any effort that could empower the PKK in Syria.


IA-Forum: The Syrian crisis cannot be resolved without recognizing Kurdish rights, according to Abdulhamid Haji Darwish, who represented the divided Kurds at last month’s Geneva II conference.  Your reaction?

Mr. Harris: A permanent, positive peace in Syria is impossible without recognizing Kurdish equality. It may be possible to establish a ceasefire with recognition of Kurdish equality, but any resulting peace will be temporary. This is true for all of Syria. If the sources of this conflict are not resolved, unrest will simmer and eventually erupt into renewed conflict.
This is of course easier said than done. What is the definition of Kurdish rights? Do they consist of ethnic equality, freedom to use the Kurdish language, the protection of Kurdish culture and identity, economic opportunities, and basic human rights? If so, recognizing these rights is feasible. If Kurdish rights include autonomy, the situation becomes very complex.  

Given that Mr. Darwish is the leader of one of the Traditionalist parties (the Progressive Party), an ally of the Iraqi KRG, and an official participant at the Geneva II conference, he is unlikely to consider autonomy a Kurdish right that must be recognized. Still groups such as the PYD and their supports do consider autonomy as a Kurdish right. While the PYD and their PKK allies allegedly repressed their fellow Kurds and aided the al-Assad Regime, one cannot completely ignore them, for this carries risks as well. If the PYD and their PKK allies maintain their current support levels and feel marginalized by the peace process, they will seek to spoil the peace.   


IA-Forum: What do you foresee for the Syrian Kurds and their political voice?

Mr. Harris: Until there is a dramatic change in the war between the al-Assad Regime and the Sunni Arab opposition, I foresee the status quo for the Syrian Kurds. At present, it is highly doubtful the West, Turkey, and the Sunni Arab opposition will embrace the Kurdish declaration of autonomy. It is equally doubtful the al-Assad Regime will conduct large-scale military operations to restore Regime authority over the autonomous Kurdish territory. The potential for the PYD and their PKK allies losing control over the Syrian Kurds is low. Nor is it likely that the PYD will shift to embrace the mainstream Sunni Arab opposition and abandon its autonomy bid.

Therefore the PYD cantons that declared autonomy will remain autonomous. This declaration of autonomy will continue to be largely condemned and ignored by the West, Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds, and the al-Assad Regime. The Syrian Kurds will remain divided. The PYD and the PKK will dominate Syrian Kurdistan, but will largely be ignored internationally. The remaining elements of the Traditionalists and the Future Movement will have a voice internationally (through the SNC), but will be isolated from the Syrian Kurdish people. Unfortunately this means the political voice of the Syrian Kurds will remain marginalized for the foreseeable future.


Winston Harris is an analyst specializing in Middle East and North African affairs. He holds an MA degree in global politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA degree in international studies and French from West Virginia University.  Mr. Harris is the author of The Syrian Kurds: A House Divided.


This interview presents the opinions of Winston Harris and does not reflect the opinions of any affiliated organization.


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