Kurds in Syrian Kurdistan sense freedom, power struggle awaits:
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Kurds in Syrian Kurdistan sense freedom,
power struggle awaits: Analysis
September 1, 2012
QAMISHLI, Syrian Kurdistan, — Some Kurdish
towns in northeastern Syria [Western Kurdistan] are
flying yellow, green and red Kurdish flags as
long-oppressed Kurds exploit an uneasy vacuum left
by President Bashar al-Assad's retreating forces.
Syrian Kurds may be enjoying a breath of freedom
after Assad appears to have ceded control of some
areas to focus on the battle against mainly Sunni
Muslim Arab rebels fighting in Damascus and Aleppo.
But their aspirations for autonomy could crumble
into a complex power struggle involving rival
Kurdish groups, Syrian opposition factions and
nervous neighbors Turkey and Iraq.
In the last few weeks, Assad's forces have withdrawn
from Kurdish towns or left only a token presence,
opposition activists, security experts and diplomats
say. The rebel Free Syrian Army is also absent,
leaving Kurds to their own devices.
Or perhaps not quite.
Ankara has accused Assad of arming a Syrian Kurdish
party closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party
(PKK), which has been fighting for autonomy in
southeast Turkey for the past 28 years in a struggle
in which 40,000 people have been killed.
Turkey has threatened to intervene militarily to
counter any threat from the PKK in northeastern
Syria, where the pro-PKK Democratic Union Party (PYD)
is observing a delicate agreement with its weaker
rival, the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
The two Kurdish groups are divided over what goals
to pursue if Assad falls and they distrust Syria's
mainly Arab opposition.
The Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad is also
looking on with alarm after Iraq's autonomous
Kurdistan hosted a Turkish minister and sought
influence in Kurdish parts of Syria, brokering the
fragile unity agreement between the PYD and KNC.
Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is also training
Syrian refugees to "protect" Kurdish areas when they
"The Kurdish parts of Syria will undoubtedly become
the focus of the power struggle that is emerging in
the region over Syria," said Joshua Landis, a Syria
expert at the Center for Middle East Studies at
"Sunni Arabs and Turks will line up against it.
Shi'ite forces will be inclined to encourage Kurdish
independence if only to hurt the Sunni Arabs," he
said, even though this seems at odds with Baghdad's
own distaste for Kurdish aspirations.
Syrian Kurds have long faced discrimination, a lack
of full citizenship rights and forced displacements.
But Assad sought to dissuade them from joining the
uprising against him that erupted elsewhere in March
2011 by promising citizenship.
Now the PYD says it has taken over Syrian towns such
as Kobani, Derik and Efrin without a fight.
This, security analysts say, may be a ploy by Assad
to allow PKK influence to expand, taking revenge on
Turkey for hosting the rebel Free Syrian Army on its
For years Assad's late father sheltered Abdullah
Ocalan, leader of the PKK, branded a terrorist group
by Turkey and its Western allies. A detente between
Damascus and Ankara later forced PKK fighters in
Syria to move to northern Iraq.
For now the situation in Syria's Kurdish areas,
enjoying de facto autonomy, seems "relatively
stable, but fragile", said one diplomat, who
suggested that Turkish reactions and events
elsewhere in Syria might determine how long this
Kurdish autonomy is a sensitive topic not just for
Turkey, but also for Assad's foes in the Syrian
National Council (SNC), dominated by Arab groups
such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Kurds believe the SNC has Arab nationalist
instincts, hostile to Kurdish aspirations, even
though its new leader is himself a Kurd.
In 2004, Syrian Kurds clashed with security forces
after an incident in the Kurdish city of Qamishli.
Then, they said, Kurds received no help from those
now leading the anti-Assad revolt.
"The Kurds can no longer live like they did in the
past," said PYD representative in Iraqi Kurdistan,
"The Free Syrian Army could not get into our areas
because our defense groups keep them out."
Iraqi Kurdistan's President Massoud Barzani helped
forge the deal under which the PYD and the KNC
formed a joint committee to promote Kurdish
interests in Syria, pending Assad's fall.
KNC officials envisage elections after that, but do
not deny political differences with their PYD
"We have a deal to work together, share ideas, but
we are not united in one body," KNC representative
Abdul Hakim Bashar said. "Let's be clear, we have
our party and they have theirs."
Turkish leaders are upset about the PYD wielding
power in north Syria, warning of military action if
the PKK starts to threaten Turkey from there. They
stress Syrian national unity and want other Kurdish
groups to assert themselves, not the PYD.
"Turkey faces a dilemma: it wants the (Assad) regime
to go, but not to the benefit of the Kurds, and
especially not the PYD/PKK," said Joost Hiltermann
at International Crisis Group. "Turkey is now
working with Barzani to contain the PKK."
Turkey's foreign minister met Syrian Kurdish
leaders, but not the PYD, and the Syrian National
Council in Arbil in August.
The crisis in Syria and how to handle Syrian Kurds
are also causing friction between Baghdad and Arbil,
which already feud over disputed land and oilfields
on their own internal border.
The Iraqi government, close to Assad's main ally
Iran, has resisted pressure from Saudi Arabia and
Qatar for a tougher line on Assad, fearing hardline
Sunnis might take power in Syria.
Kurdistan's regional government is closer to Turkey
and has quietly begun helping Syria's Kurds.
"We are in favor of people getting their rights,"
Arbil's foreign relations chief, Falah Mustafa Bakir,
"We do not interfere in their affairs, the future of
Syria has to be determined by the Syrians... but for
us, the Kurds have to be respected and have to be
Kurdistan Peshmerga troops have given basic military
training to a "few thousand" Kurdish refugees from
Syria in anticipation of a chaotic aftermath should
Bakir said they could be sent back to Syria to
protect Kurdish areas under the control of the
All this worries Baghdad which already sees
Kurdistan grabbing at more autonomy from central
government by signing deals with oil majors such as
Exxon, Chevron and Total.
It is a complex balance for Iraqi Kurds, weighing
broader Kurdish ambitions against the benefits of
friendship with Turkey, which offers investment and
aid to build pipelines that may eventually give
Kurdistan more energy autonomy from Baghdad.
"Kurdistan is acting like an independent nation,"
said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "It
is not good for Kurdistan to weaken Baghdad's
By Patrick Markey - Reuters
Copyright ©, respective
author or news agency,
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