Syria's Kurds stand alone after rejecting
rebels and regime
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi - The National UAE
Kurdistan flag is raised at the top of governmental
buildings in West
Kurdistan (Syrian Kurdistan) in northern Syria.
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Developments in Syria and Iraq have led some to
speculate that the birth of an independent Kurdish
state might be at hand. A closer analysis shows that
a united Kurdistan is still unlikely, although a
separate semiautonomous Kurdish community in Syria,
with some parallels to the Kurdish Autonomous Region
in Iraq, is a growing possibility.
In Syria, Kurds are sitting on the sidelines of the
uprising against the Damascus regime. Indeed, the
Free Syrian Army has accused members of the militant
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of hindering its
operations in some areas against the Assad regime,
according to the Kurdish website Rudaw.net. Leaders
of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD),
which is affiliated with the PKK, have made it clear
that they will not tolerate the spread of Syria's
conflict into the Kurdish-dominated areas of Syria.
The PYD stands separate from the Kurdish National
Council, a coalition of 11 Kurdish parties in Syria
that has ties to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional
Government in Iraq. But leaders of the Kurdish
National Council have also indicated to Rudaw that
they are aiming to keep Kurdish areas free from
fighting between the regime and the rebels.
The Kurdish groups are far from united on most
issues - the KNC has in the past clashed with the
PYD, but since Syria's unrest began last year, the
two factions have "signed an agreement sponsored by
the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to prevent
intra-Kurdish tensions", according to Jonathan Spyer,
an analyst at the Israel-based Global Research in
International Affairs Center.
This, Mr Spyer writes in the Jerusalem Post, ensures
"de facto Kurdish control of a large swathe of
Syria's north-east and the placing of this area off
limits to the insurgency against the Assad regime
for the foreseeable future".
Syria's Kurds are not, by and large, supporters of
President Bashar Al Assad, but their scepticism
about the Syrian opposition is understandable. For
one thing, rebel fighters in Syria have the support
of Ankara, which has a bad reputation regarding
Turkish Kurds in matters of civil and cultural
In addition, whenever Kurdish groups have tried to
engage the Syrian opposition about the shape of a
post-Assad Syria, talks have always broken down. The
main issue is that the opposition refuses to drop
the identification of Syria as an Arab nation (as
evinced in the country's official name: "Syrian Arab
Republic") and accept that Kurds are a distinct
people. Thus ended the recent Cairo meeting of anti-Assad
groups, attended by the KNC.
With Syrian Kurds declining to choose between Mr Al
Assad and the opposition, the idea of a de facto
Kurdish autonomous area in the Al Jazira area of
north-east Syria becomes a possibility.
In the event of Mr Al Assad's downfall, Sunni groups
and others in Syria might be too distracted by
infighting to deal with the question of Kurdish
It does not follow, however, that the Syrian Kurds
will join with Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government to
form an independent Kurdish state straddling the
northern part of today's Iraq-Syria border.
Evidently, Iraq's Kurdish leadership would like to
win independence from Baghdad eventually, although
that is rarely stated explicitly. But economic
independence is a prerequisite, and Syria's Kurdish
areas would have little to offer the Iraqi Kurds in
Most of Syria's remaining oil reserves are located
in the Sunni Arab tribal areas around Deir Ezzor.
Nor does Syria's Kurdish region have access to ports
that could allow Iraq's Kurds to set up an
independent pipeline to transport petroleum to the
There was considerable media coverage of an
agreement signed in May between Turkey and the
Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, covering two
pipelines that carry oil and gas from the Kirkuk
area to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
Numerous reports portrayed this deal as incurring
the disapproval of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
The implication was that Turkey and the KRG had
agreed, without Baghdad's permission, to set up
Some commentators saw the deal as part of a Turkish
strategy to deepen economic ties with Iraqi Kurds.
This was seen as a sign that the Turkish government
had warmed to the idea of potential Kurdish
However, as the analyst Joel Wing of the blog
Musings on Iraq noted, this analysis gets the basic
facts wrong. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipelines are under
the control of the oil ministry in Baghdad, and so
the KRG agreement with Turkey must have had central
government approval to some degree. After all,
Baghdad provides 95 per cent of the KRG's annual
Note that the Kurdish areas of Turkey constitute at
least 50 per cent of the dreamed of Kurdistan.
Ankara would not welcome an independent Kurdish
state just south of its border, believing that such
a state would increase the possibility of a Kurdish
revolt in Turkey's south-east. One of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan
pipelines was shut down on Saturday after an
explosion that Ankara blamed on Kurdish rebels. That
fraught relationship does not appear to be improving
any time soon.
As long as Turkey remains opposed to Kurdish
independence and the KRG lacks opportunities to
break its financial reliance on Baghdad, an
independent Kurdistan will remain a remote prospect.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a
student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and
an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Phillip
Smyth is a journalist and researcher specializing in
Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly to the
region. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi's website is
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