Syria’s Kurds are carving out a self-governed zone as the decay of President Bashar al-Assad’s government creates an opportunity for a people who missed out on a state after Ottoman empire’s collapse almost a century ago.
Kurdish gains in northeastern Syria include the creation of security forces, municipalities and courts, and the introduction of Kurdish language classes in schools across most of a region sometimes known as Western Kurdistan. Kurds control oil fields and get revenue from border crossings.
“They have never had any previous level of autonomy, this is completely new,” said Robert Lowe, head of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. “They are in a very vulnerable position, and they are not ideal conditions for state building. It’s a hard breeding ground, but it’s a start.”
Syrian authorities have resisted Kurdish aspirations as a threat to the state’s integrity, as have neighboring countries - - Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Yet the Kurds enjoy growing political clout, as those in Turkey negotiate to end a three-decade insurgency and Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region signs deals for crude oil exports from its estimated 45 billion barrel reserve and for a $2 billion hotel and casino resort.
“Syria’s Kurds are an important part of the Middle Eastern jigsaw,” said David Butter, Middle East analyst at the London-based Chatham House research group. “They have connections with Turkey and Iraq, and with the possibility the whole regional and political map will have to be redrawn” as a result of the Syrian conflict, “they have to be taken more seriously.”
Kurds represent one of Syria’s largest minorities. Their exact numbers are unknown, with estimates varying from 1 million to 4 million from a Syrian population estimated at about 22.5 million by the Central Intelligence Agency’s world factbook. Most are Sunni Muslims, as are many Syrian rebels.
Even so, Syrian Kurds have pursued a cautious policy, refusing to offer open support to the Assad government or the rebels of the Free Syrian Army.
“The Kurds of Syria have been forgotten or overlooked,” said Lowe. Now though, the civil war has made them “a player and they could make trouble for one side or another if they chose to.”
That’s led to clashes with both sides as Kurds forge local alliances and local enmities.
“It is not a question of being for or against Assad,” said Jordi Tejel, author of “Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics and Society.” The approach of the biggest Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, “depends on the context.”
The party runs militias known as the Popular Protection Units.
“It is the first time there is a major presence of armed Syrian Kurds on Syrian territory,” said Michiel Leezenberg, a professor at the University of Amsterdam. The rise of an armed PYD “gives a whole new complexity to what is happening in Syria, since it has large territories under its control and isn’t aligned with anyone in the Syrian opposition.”
Since last summer, Syrian Kurdish areas have largely been run by the PYD, Lowe said, with the exception of the main city of Qamishli, where Assad’s forces retain a presence, though they’ve allowed the Kurds to raise their flag.
Syria’s Kurds don’t have a tradition of armed rebellion against the central authority, unlike their brethren in Turkey and Iraq, even though they rose up against the Ottomans and fought Syrian forces in 2004 in Qamishli.
Assad played ethnic groups off against one another as part of a divide-and-rule policy, which included courting certain Kurdish leaders and ignoring others, said Eva Savelsberg, director of the Kurdish Studies Institute in Berlin.
“The Baath regime was good at making and spreading dissent among Kurdish parties,” she said.
In April 2011, about a month after the anti-Assad uprising began and a week after clashes erupted in Qamishli and another Kurdish city, Hasaka, Assad restored to Kurds the citizenship taken from them in the 1960s.
Still, Kurdish parties remain divided. The PYD is close to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has fought for autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds. The Kurdish National Council, a bloc of about 15 parties, is connected to Iraq’s Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani. With all groups acquiring arms, tensions could escalate into conflict.
“Opposing forces outside Syria are trying to gain influence in its Kurdish region -- like Iran, Iraq and Turkey -- there are enormous international dimensions at play,” Leezenberg said.
PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and Barzani have tried to position themselves as regional Kurdish leaders. Barzani sought to unite the PYD and the KNC last year.
While ties may strengthen, the creation of a larger Kurdistan is unlikely, said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria analyst and lecturer at the University of Lyon 2.
“There won’t be a big Kurdistan in the future; instead lots of different Kurdistans -- a Kurdistan in Iraq, in Syria,” Balanche said, pointing to different dialects, religious denominations and social identities. And the PYD says its not seeking independence.
“Democratic self-rule does not entail the formation of a separate Kurdish state,” PYD leader Saleh Muslim Mohamed said in a May lecture at the London School of Economics. The group only wants a free, democratic Syria in which minorities are recognized and respected, he said.