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 Kurdish Autonomy in Syria, Political Opportunity or Peril

 The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


Kurdish Autonomy in Syria, Political Opportunity or Peril  2.8.2012 
By Dr Amir Sharifi, California State University

Dr Amir Sharifi is the President of the Kurdish American Education Society.
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August 2, 2012

While terrifying news of Syria hover over the globe and eyes are transfixed on the gruesome news, Kurds have liberated some towns in north east Syria in the void left by the Syrian security forces, but their political jubilance and euphoria remains largely as unknown to the outside world as their plight and cause. Kurds in Syria as a disenfranchised minority have for long been committed to an enduring struggle for defending their distinct cultural and linguistic identity. It is not then surprising that they have risen against pervasive institutionalized racism and marginalization put in place since the French mandate of 1924.

In the post-colonial context, Kurdish political forces have intermittently continued to play an active role in re-framing political developments in Syria. The latest changes in Kurdish areas in Syria reflect their 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 favorable circumstances to re-assert their legitimate historical rights , the regional and international response to proclaiming autonomy would appear to be ambivalent at best and hostile at worst.

Kurdish political organizations were a divided force until July 11 when under the auspices of president Barazani, they were urged to build an inclusive front, composed of Kurdish Democratic Party and Democratic Union of Kurdistan. The front is now in control of some areas, but increasingly it will be in danger of collision with Syrian security forces on the one hand and Syrian Free Army on the other. As ideological clashes and political loyalties widen and Kurds reassert their sense of national identity, they have to prepare for the worst. The Syrian Free Army hypocritically in a symbolic gesture has already threatened to join Turkey if it is called upon to crush the Kurds. It is not clear what machinations and designs the Syrian security forces were pursuing in giving up some of their footholds in Kurdish areas. Turkey caught in its own Kurdish problem, is now questioning the legitimacy of the Kurdish demand for autonomy in Syria, vehemently threating that it will not tolerate a “Kurdish entity” in the region. Moreover, the Kurdish alliance itself is vaguely and loosely defined and has its own internal entanglements. Paradoxically, Kurdish communities in different areas of Kurdistan proper and in diaspora have been curiously following the developments; without being vocal in lending their support to this nationalist uplift that will gradually sweep Kurdish towns and areas in Syria.

I tend to think that the descendants of the ill-fated Khoybun (autonomy movement) and other Kurdish democratic movements in Syria are confronting a complex political landscape as they are now caught between the possibility of a utopian freedom and the dilemmas and political peril of proclaiming an autonomous Kurdistan in Syria. The status quo can be compared and extrapolated with the more distant history to understand the complexity of the situation. Although Syrian Kurds have a long and colorful history of resistance, their history has been marginal to other Kurds and the world as noted by James Boris ( 2011) in his probing review of Tejel’s (2009) socio-political and historical analysis of the Kurdish nationalism “Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics, and society. Alas! History may be repeating itself if Kurdish organizations and intellectuals do not ask and answer some fundamental questions before wallowing in the utopia of autonomy. Some of the emerging questions are: how can history inform the present? To what extent are Kurds in Syria aware of such a history? How can such a knowledge help Kurds shed light on their current reality? What are our specific agendas for the realization of the Kurdish distinctive cultural and ethnic demands? Have political organizations articulated these objectives? What are they? To what extent, have they created the necessary structures to meet the expectations of their people? How are they sketching out national and ethnic boundaries? How do they ensure and authenticate ethnic unity? Kurdish national opposition forces are at such a critical cross road to tackle these and more challenging questions.

Interestingly enough Kurds find themselves in strikingly a similar situation to the post-colonial era in Syria, a situation which James Boris calls a “quadrangular political game between the French Mandate authorities, the national bloc (the Arab nationalists), the notables of the ethno-religious minorities and the Kurds at the margins.” This was the situation from 1924 to1948. Such a political game is now being played out again with slightly different players, the Western World in supporting Turkey is hypocritically continuing the French Mandate policy that denied Kurds any territorial, cultural and linguistic rights thus paving the way for the merciless repression of the Kurds for over 90 years. The Arab nationalism is more entrenched now constituting and constitutive of a major chauvinistic Arab force in the Syrian National Council - SNC. Their pan-Arabism is adamantly insisting on naming the emerging Syria as an Arab state; again cultural, ethnic, and religious differences have become more accentuated than before; moreover, there is now a militant politically defined religious force, the Salafi fundamentalists who are supported by Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iraqi government has sent some troops to the borders in defense of the Syrian oppressive regime. The only difference between the periods of 1924-1946 is that Kurdish society is no longer predominantly tribal and that Kurds, who were divided then, are now at least temporarily united. This sense of control no matter how temporary may heighten the Kurdish collective demand for autonomy and create the ground for greater participation of the Kurdish people in the controlled areas.

Syria may be up for grab politically among contending internal and external forces, but the conditions are far from being ideal for the creation of an autonomous Kurdistan. While the Kurdish united front and its byproduct, the Kurdish Supreme Committee composed of the representatives of Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) have just started to work on developing civic, social, and security structures as a critical precondition for the emerging autonomy to meet “the historical aspiration of the Kurdish people” .there is no way of knowing if these measure are adequate for proclaiming autonomy even in the regions they have under control. Many ideas are critical to the objective orientation as internal and external discourses define their purposes. The Supreme Committee can embark on preparing the ground regionally and internationally. It is important to obtain the Kurdish and non-Kurdish, Christian and other minorities’ consensus for any restructuring to take place.

Recent celebrations in the streets of Kurdish areas in Syria have undoubtedly shown the favorable sentiments of the general public who should also be made aware of the debacle that might ensue. Internally political forces should continue to insist on being constitutionally included in the post Baath period. Internationally the Kurdish historical grievances and territorial claims should be taken up and established with respect to injustices and discrimination they have suffered at the hands of barbaric nationalism of the Baath regime and the threats that the emerging government may be posing if it does not guarantee Kurdish constitutional rights. The popular support of the movement will prevent the sullying of the truth and moral imperative of the Kurdish demands. The Kurdish legitimate grievances are to be established by a more inclusive Kurdish United Front in Syria, Kurdish Regional Government and non-governmental agencies in international law and United Nations. The Western world needs to be convinced that the Kurdish secular movement, to which it is oblivious, is far more progressive and liberal than the emerging retrograde forces in the region. Western democracies cannot be insensitive to Kurdish universal rights and persuasive case. While Kurds in Syria can learn from the experiences of their compatriots in Iraq, it seems that proclaiming autonomy would require more rigorous preparations, critical orientation, and institutions to create realistic opportunities to establish the historical legitimacy of the Kurdish ethno-cultural rights and demands for fundamental freedoms.

Fishman, J. (1972). Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays. New Bury House
James, B. (2011). Syrian Studies Association Newsletter, Vol 16, No 1 (2011)
Tejel, J. (2009). History, Politics, and Society. Routledge. New York

Dr.Amir Sharifi

California State University, Long Beach

Dr Amir Sharifi is the President of the Kurdish American Education Society

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


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