Does the move by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to hand over control of six Kurdish-dominated towns in the north to the Kurds set the ground for the eventual creation of an independent Kurdish state in the region?
On the face of it, the Syrian regime has granted “autonomy” to the Kurdish areas and redeployed government forces from there, leaving Kurdish fighters to take over the security responsibility in this area. The move last month was seen as an effort to beef up the regime’s war for control of the northern province of Aleppo.
One thing is clear: Short of another war, the Syrian regime will never be able to reclaim the Kurdish areas to its control.
Turkey, which is fighting a war with Kurdish separatists, is watching the situation closely. It has warned that the main Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has set up presence in the area. Ankara has threatened to retaliate with force if the PKK and its affiliates set up an autonomous Kurdistan in north Syria and staged cross-border attacks in Turkey.
The PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has warned that it would not allow the anti-Assad revolt to spread to the Kurdish-dominated areas of Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has also accused the group of hindering its operations in some areas in the north.
Syria also has the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of 11 Kurdish parties that is linked to the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. They are also opposed to allowing the anti-regime revolt to be waged from the areas under their control.
The 20 million plus Kurds — mostly in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran — have made no secret of their desire to set up an independent state. They have been restrained by their host governments from advancing their cause.
Reports indicate that the PKK has been busy exploiting the chaos in Syria in anticipation of setting up the first phase of what it hopes will be an independent Kurdistan. PKK flags are said to be already flying in the Kurdish areas of Syria, in full view of the Turks across the border.
Kurdish commentators say that Kurds “liberated” the six districts in north Syria. They accuse Damascus of having followed, for the last eight decades, a policy of “pervasive institutionalised racism and marginalisation put in place since the French mandate of 1924.”
The Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq is closely involved in what appears to be preparations for a declaration of Kurdish independence in northern Syria.
Obviously, the Iraqi Kurds see such a move as a litmus test. They want to see how the regional governments will respond if the Kurds move towards independence.
Amir Sharifi, president of Kurdish American Education Society in California, argues that the latest developments in Kurdish areas in Syria reflect the Kurds’ “firm will to put an end to their depravation, despair, and despondency in a pro-democracy and secular movement.”
“The liberated areas offer a new possibility for emancipation and autonomy and yet they could also highlight the political peril that awaits Kurds in Syria.
While it is plainly understandable for Kurds to use the favourable circumstances to reassert their legitimate historical rights, the regional and international response to proclaiming autonomy would appear to be ambivalent at best and hostile at worst,” writes Sharifi.
On the practical side, one of the key considerations is whether the area has the economical potential to survive as an independent entity.
Denise Natali, an expert in Kurdish affairs and author of “The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post Gulf War Iraq”, writes: “Some argue that the increasing presence of major oil companies in the Kurdish north provides the economic leverage needed for independence. Others see the political vacuum in Syria as an impetus for a Syrian Kurdish state or autonomous region, one that could potentially merge into a greater Kurdistan with access to the sea.
“Yet, while stirring nationalist rhetoric and investor confidence, these claims ignore regional geopolitics, security issues and political trends that make statehood highly unlikely. Rising Iraqi nationalism, conflicting aims in Syria and a strengthening PKK problem have intensified divisions not only between Baghdad and Irbil, but also between Kurdish groups inside and across the Kurdistan region. The real concern is not a potential Iraqi Kurdish state, but the extent to which Iraq Kurdish autonomy can be sustained and the compromises needed to advance energy-sector development.”
However, it will be the regional governments that will determine the course of the Kurdish drive for independence. The governments of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran are bitter opponents of Kurdish independence and will not hesitate to unleash their military powers to preempt that possibility.
For the moment, the Syrian move to grant autonomy to Syrian Kurds has led to a sense of unity among the Kurdish groups in the region. It is largely up to them to decide how best to take their struggle further. But they need strong cohesion and excellent political acumen to achieve their goal of independence.
It should be mentioned that the first advocate calling for a unified Kurdish state was a Jordanian intellectual, Ali Seido al-Kurdi, who had earlier served as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. His book about the “Kurdish State” was first published in 1929.
Musa Keilani is a writer for The Jordan Times, where this article was published on August 11, 2012