Unity Talks Among Syrian Kurds; A Way Forward

Kurdish women hold flags of the YPG and PYD during a demonstration against the exclusion of Syrian-Kurds from the Geneva talks in 2016.(Photo credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

By Junaid Jamali:

Over the course of the nine-year Syrian civil war, the Kurds in Syria have paid exorbitant prices in military and social terms. In 2018 and 2019, they lost the regions of Afrin, Ras al-Ain/Sari Kani and Gire Spi/Tell Abyad to Turkey and Turkish-backed militias, resulting in the displacement of most Kurdish residents in these areas. In addition, in the fight against Islamic State, the SDF, whose backbone is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, lost 11,000 fighters and saw 22,000 wounded.

Despite controlling nearly 20% of Syrian territory, the SDF does not have political representation in the Geneva talks because of Turkish opposition to their presence.

Recently a French delegation holds a fresh round of closed door talks with Kurdish parties in northeast Syria (Rojava) as part of an international effort to bring rival Kurdish factions together, according to international media.

This is not the first meeting between Syrian Kurdish parties and foreign mediators. Several dialogues have taken place openly and behind closed doors involving the French, the Americans, and the Russians. France and Russia have even received delegations of Syrian Kurdish parties in their own capitals, each time focusing on the unity of Kurds in Syria.

What is the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) ?

The Kurdish National Council (KNC) is allied with the Kurdish nationalist party led by Ex President (KRG) Massoud and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, having been formed in 2011 with the KDP’s support. The KNC is an official part of the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition-in-exile.

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is a a Kurdish democratic confederalist political party established on 20 September 2003 in northern Syria. PYD is also part of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political arm of the Kurdish-led SDF fighting alongside the US-led international coalition. Turkey views the PYD, which espouses the ideology of the Abdullah Ocalan-led Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as its top foe in Syria.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest and most influential Kurdish group in northern Syria which has been credited for destroying IS’s aura of invincibility, calls for a secular and democratic coexistence between different ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

Tensions between the PYD and KNC took a turn for the worse when the PYD became the most influential player in northeast Syria in 2012. The KNC viewed the PYD-led autonomous administration as a fait accompli and has refused to apply for a permit to engage in political activity there. The autonomous administration responded by exiling the KNC president, shuttering its offices and arresting dozens of its leaders and members during 2016-17.

For the first time since Oct. 28, 2019, when Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazlum Kobane announced an initiative to resolve inter-Kurdish differences, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) kick-started secret, direct talks in April, 2020. The initiative is seemingly designed to include all the Kurdish parties in the PYD-ruled autonomous administration in northeast Syria, paving the way for the autonomous administration to join the UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva to end the Syrian conflict. This a gesture of goodwill from the PYD to aid the progression of their talks with the other political parties of Syrian-Kurdistan.

The biggest issue of the Kurdish struggle is the lack of cooperation and internal unity both on the domestic and international levels. The prices that the Kurds pay do not have counter results. Kurds die and they pay a very high price but without favorable outcomes for them.

The Agenda of French-Kurd Talks for Internal Unity among Kurds:

According to International Media Reports: “The two Kurdish sides discussed the adoption of a unified political vision for Syria’s future based on discussion of a draft presented by the US side. After holding at least four meetings as part of the negotiations, the two sides agreed on the following: Syria will be a federal, democratic and pluralistic state; the current regime is an authoritarian and dictatorial regime that uses violence against its opponents; the Kurdish areas consist of an integrated political and geographical unit.”

The nature of Kurdish politics in Syria is convoluted and antagonistic, an alphabet soup of party names that often reach at dreams of a grand, unified Kurdistan, while the reality is that each must navigate conflicts and real-politik to carve out whatever gains they can.

France has an interest in Rojava’s long-term stability. Some of its citizens left metropolitan France to join ISIS, and though it’s a prominent member of the multinational coalition that armed Syrian Kurds to counter ISIS, it has refused to repatriate captured ISIS members to face justice at home. That’s partly because of ongoing radicalization issues in French prisons and out of fear that domestic law simply doesn’t cover the kind of crimes its citizens are accused of committing in Iraq and Syria.

Kurdish unity is very critical for the future of security within Rojava, The American draw-down in Syria has left Kurdish-led forces tasked with policing an area far beyond just their historical homeland, stretching to Arab areas that are not always welcoming. The PYD has had less need to avail itself of diplomacy, and now it will have to be give and take — such is the nature of diplomacy, a lesson that the young autonomous administration will have to learn if it is to govern with international support.

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