As they fight to secure their new autonomous zone in northern Syria, the Kurds must be careful not to fall into the trap of becoming a tool of President Bashar al-Assad against Syrian opposition forces and Turkey.
Assad did not act to prevent the Kurds from creating an autonomous region in July 2012 partly because his forces were bogged down fighting for major Syrian cities and strategic areas. But he was also hoping firstly to bedevil the Turks with the specter of a potentially-threatening Kurdish presence along its southern border, and secondly to create a conflict between Arab rebels and Kurdish groups. Neither should oblige him.
Kurds must prevent salafist-jihadist fanatics from using any of their areas as staging grounds, and crush or expel them from any Kurdish-dominated territory. However, they must also be careful not to be drawn into a broader confrontation with less extreme Islamist forces that will only serve the interests of the Damascus dictatorship.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions face the same conundrum. The prospect of Kurdish autonomy, or even secession, from Syria is no excuse to join forces with al-Qaeda against local Kurdish militias. Again, the only winners will be the Assad regime.
Falling into Assad’s trap, some FSA forces reportedly – and inexcusably – fought in late September alongside the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the al-Sham (ISIS) against Kurdish groups in the northern town of Atma.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most potent political force among Kurds in Syria, is pulling away from membership in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The umbrella Kurdish National Council (KNC) recently joined the SNC, but without much enthusiasm because the SNC continues to oppose Kurdish autonomy.
The KNC move was ostensibly based on the SNC’s grotesquely belated agreement to drop the word “Arab” from “The Syrian Arab Republic,” an embarrassing misnomer for an ethnically heterogeneous society. But the SNC continues to foolishly oppose Kurdish aspirations to autonomy.
However, the KNC was probably driven mostly by its rivalry with the PYD. The PYD has grown in stature as fighting has intensified. Yet the KNC retains a significant advantage: continued support from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is emerging as the predominant Kurdish party in Iraq and regionally.
KDP leader Massoud Barzani is starting to look like a genuinely trans-national Kurdish leader. With its own leader, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, desperately ill, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), – the KDP’s traditional rival in Iraq – seems to be in something of an eclipse.
Recent elections in the quasi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq saw the KDP increase its parliamentary power to 38 seats, while the PUK dropped into third place with 18. The Change Movement surprisingly came in second with 24 seats, ostensibly running against corruption and lack of accountability in the KDP/PUK coalition that has dominated the KRG since its founding.
But the overall result has left Barzani further strengthened against all rivals, including the jailed Turkish-Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is extremely influential with the PYD. Öcalan’s efforts to secure a peace agreement with the Turkish government have recently suffered significant setbacks.
Yet securing Turkish acquiescence for Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria is indispensable. Without an agreement with Öcalan, Ankara is likely to remain deeply suspicious, if not hostile, toward the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish area in northern Syria, despite Turkey’s good relations with Barzani and the KRG.
Indeed, the Syrian conflict appears to have followed the Kurds into their Iraqi capital Erbil, with a series of violent explosions rocking the normally peaceful city. They were clearly aimed at the security services personnel and infrastructure. Tellingly, the attacks came immediately after the announcement of the election results.
It’s possible the sudden violence is connected to Kurdish rivalries, but much more likely to reflect the gruesome spillover of the Syrian conflict into other parts of Iraq. A spate of vicious suicide bombings killed at least 1,000 people in Iraq last month. This seems to mainly be the work of al-Qaeda-linked groups closely connected with the most extreme forces in Syria, who appear to regard Iraqi Shiites as targets that are extensions of its war against the Assad regime.
Both Mr. Assad and al-Qaeda appear willing to use Kurdish areas, not to mention Iraq, as an extension of the conflict in Syria. Any responsible Syrian opposition group should have no trouble embracing legitimate Kurdish aspirations. And the Kurds of Syria need to be careful not to be drawn into becoming unwitting allies of the dictatorship, while denying al-Qaeda any presence in their territories.
The legitimate Syrian opposition and the Kurds should recognize that they face common enemies in al-Qaeda and the Assad dictatorship, and – differences over Turkey notwithstanding – should cooperate as much as possible against both.