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 Kurdish Flag-waving Unnoticed in Syria

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Kurdish Flag-waving Unnoticed in Syria  28.7.2012  
By Abigail Fielding-Smith, FT

Kurdistan flag is raised at the top of governmental buildings and Baath party buildings in all liberated Kurdish cities in Syrian Kurdistan.
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July 28, 2012

BEIRUT,— In the tumult of last week as rebels advanced on Damascus and Aleppo, the hoisting of the Kurdish flag in a handful of Kurdish towns and cities in northern Syria (Syrian Kurdistan, western Kurdistan) was scarcely noticed.

Only Turkey, grappling with a persistent armed insurgency from parts of its own Kurdish community, was paying close attention. An article in the mass-circulation newspaper Hurriyet described the show of strength by Kurdish groups as a "potential nightmare".

According to Barzan Iso, a Turkey-based official for the Peoples Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), one of the two main Syrian Kurdish political groupings, the northern Syrian Kurdish towns of Kobane, Afrin, Derik and Amude have been "liberated" by united Kurdish forces.

Such claims have led to speculation that the leaders of Syria's 2m Kurds, roughly 10 per cent of the population, are finally coming off the sidelines to play a part in the Syrian uprising.

In reality, the picture is more complicated and offers an insight into the tussle of factional and foreign interests which is emerging in areas from which President Bashar al-Assad's regime is retreating.

According to Mr Iso, police and intelligence officers abandoned their posts, often without a fight, after Kurdish forces gave them an ultimatum. Mr Iso says the areas are now administrated by "people's defence" units answerable to the two Kurdish groups -- the PCWK and the Kurdish National Council (KNC).

Relations between these two groups are tense. The KNC, linked to Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, is more opposed to the Syrian regime.

The strongest party in the PCWK is the PYD. Throughout the Syrian uprising the PYD has been accused by Syrian opposition activists of siding with the regime for their own factional interests. It is also linked to an armed Kurdish group that has been fighting the Turkish government for more than 20 years, the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK).

Earlier this month, Mr Barzani brokered an agreement between the two Syrian Kurdish groups, and there is speculation that the PYD has now abandoned its presumed alliance with the Assad regime.

But for all the talk of a unified Syrian Kurdish position, most of the areas in question are PYD strongholds, according to Cale Salih, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, and the "liberation' has been portrayed as a boost for that particular faction in the Turkish press.

Abdulbasit Seyda, the head of the Syrian opposition's main umbrella group, who happens to be a Kurd, even claimed that the Assad regime, which in the past has supported the PKK as a card to play against Turkey, had "handed over" control of certain areas to the PYD.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, acknowledged the growing concern on Thursday, telling a press conference that Ankara would "not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey".

Some observers argue that the idea of a "takeover" by either faction is exaggerated and that the balance of power has not actually changed much in the Kurdish regions, where the Assad regime has had a limited presence for some time except in areas where it has more of a strategic interest, such as the Kurdish city of Qamishli, near the Turkish border which remains under its control.

Whatever has happened on the ground, which restricted media access to Syria makes very difficult to confirm, the recent assertion of Kurdish authority in northern Syria has led to speculation about Kurdish demands in a post-Assad era.

Although they are long-standing opponents of the Assad regime, the Syrian Kurds view the Turkey-backed opposition with suspicion, fearing a new regime may be just as likely to marginalise them. Kurdish representatives walked out of a recent opposition conference.

Rumours are rife that a fighting force of about 600 Kurdish soldiers who defected from the Syrian army to Iraqi Kurdistan and were subsequently trained by Mr Barzani's government are poised to cross the border to help secure the Kurdish areas. In a recent interview with al-Jazeera, the broadcaster, Mr Barzani admitted that defected Syrian Kurds had been trained in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mr Iso denied suggestions that the Syrian Kurds were hankering after the same degree of autonomy established by Iraqi Kurds after the fall of Saddam Hussein, pointing out that the Kurdish areas of Syria are not contiguous.

He sees no reason for the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel group, to establish a presence in Kurdish areas: "Why should the Free Syrian Army be there?" he asks.

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