By Eric Bruneau:
The Syrian crisis has seen two opposite forces competing for the country’s Kurdish-populated provinces. The Syrian branch of the PKK, the PYD, established itself as the only power there, using its armed wing to quell dissent; and the Kurdish National Congress, a coalition of the other Syrian Kurd political parties, created in Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan autonomous region capital, under the patronage of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The two parties who divided Kurdistan among themselves in the 1990s – Massoud Barzani’s KDP and Jalal Talabani’s PUK – have sheltered in their respective fiefdoms numerous Kurd political parties fleeing repression in the neighbouring countries. They see them as many proxies they use to advance their agendas beyond the Kurdistan region’s borders and, sometimes, fight each other. It is therefore not surprising to see that part of the events affecting Syrian Kurdistan are taking place in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Syria itself the PYD prevents the KNC, which from the beginning appeared plagued by internal rivalries, from setting up. In Afrin, a Kurdish enclave north of Aleppo, Azadi, a KNC party contesting the PYD’s grip on Syrian Kurdistan, became the victim of severe repression. Another party, the KDP-S, actually the Syrian extension of Massoud Barzani’s own party, was targeted as well. Violence culminated in Amuda in July where, in disputed circumstances, seven people were killed by gunfire during an anti-PYD demonstration.
In the meanwhile the PUK, afraid to see Massoud Barzani becoming the dominating figure of Kurdish politics if ever he could extend his influence on the Syrian Kurd provinces, activated the parties it control inside the KNC, some of them even rallying to the PYD.
Khamgin Derik is a politburo member of the KNC Rekeftîn party, originally Syrian PKK veterans who left the PYD to create their own party, due to not accepting any more the PKK’s tutelage on the PYD. They now live in exile in autonomous Kurdistan near Sulaimaniya.
“When we created our party we were subjected to violent PKK propaganda attacks”, recalls Khamgin Derik. The PKK does not tolerate dissidence, as the new party soon discovered. “Our general secretary was assassinated in our stronghold outside Sulaimaniya by a PKK cell in 2005. His successor and another cadre were killed in Syria itself the following year.”
So a very specific background: having been part of the PKK, then having been its target, the Rekeftîn knows first-hand about the organisation’s methods. But Rekeftîn does not currently have any problems with the PKK or its Syrian branch the PYD, says Khamgin Derik. “When the Syrian uprising started, the PYD sent us a message: they wanted to stop their attacks against us.” They are not, he says, threatened any more by the PYD. And the civil war in Syria, now reaching the Kurdish provinces, requires the Kurds to be united.
Nonetheless Rekeftîn condemns the PYD’s totalitarianism and its brutality towards its rivals. It would be pointless, says the politburo member, to see the one-party Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship disappearing in Syria only to have it replaced by a one-party state dictatorship in Syrian Kurdistan. “Whatever party it is”, he adds tellingly.
For, and Khamgin Derik seems aware of this, the PYD is not the only party to show hegemonic tendencies. In early 2013 there appeared the Kurdish Democratic Political Union (KDPU), a movement inside the KNC, encouraged by Massoud Barzani, whose ambitions in Syrian Kurdistan were impeded by the KNC’s chronic paralysis.
“The KDPU comprises the KDP-S, the two branches of the Azadi party, and the PYKS: parties frustrated by the coalition’s immobility, who wanted to be proactive. Parties willing to oppose concretely the PYD’s attempt to build a one-party state in our country, too”, explained Roni Batal, an Azadi representative in Europe, in early 2013.
“The idea was to merge the four parties into a single one. This party would have been powerful enough to work efficiently for the future of Syrian Kurdistan and would have been a credible interlocutor, able to represent the Kurds’ interests”, says Abdulbaqi Youssef, member of the PYKS politburo. Training was to be provided by Barzani’s KDP, so that the Syrian Kurd parties composing the KDPU would have become viable, efficient political machines. The KDPU was to have a protection force, a near-compulsory requirement for a Kurdish political party today.
“But it was all hollow promises”, says Mr Youssef. The KDP-S, which benefits from Massoud Barzani’s personal attention, appeared to be the coalition’s privileged element. It was the only one of the KDPU parties to receive the KDP-provided training. “The KDPU is actually a plan hatched by the KDP’s secret services to absorb the PYKS and the two Azadi parties. The KDP didn’t want to help us to build an alternative for Syrian Kurdistan, it wanted to use the opportunity to hog our parties’ assets, militants, nets, and hand them over to its proxy, the KDP-S”. Other sources are confirming what says Abdulbaqi Youssef, adding that there are, inside the PYKS and the two Azadis, KDP-S agents ready to give their parties’ control to the KDP-S when ordered to do so.
“As for this protection force, one has to be a KDP-S member to be accepted in its ranks”, says Mr Youssef, pointing out that by doing so the KDP-S is mirroring the PYD’s attitude in Syria, where it keeps a monopoly on armed force and appropriated to itself the developing war against the islamists, refusing any reinforcement from other Kurdish factions, to which they deny the right to bear arms.
Moreover Abdulhakim Bashar, the KDP-S leader, demanded to be the head of the KDPU. “The other parties were not against. We just needed to agree on a term for the exercise of the KDPU’s presidency”, says today Roni Batal. “But Abdulhakim Bashar refused: no term, he said. He had to be the KDPU’s one and only leader.”
This claim for leadership is dismissed by Abdulbaqi Youssef. “Abdulhakim Bashar is irrelevant. The KDP does not care about who is the head of the KDP-S, the only things it is interested in are the structure and the militants it can provide it to get a grip on Syrian Kurdistan.” An opinion shared by observers and journalists. “Most of the people joining the KDP-S do it because they actually support the KDP, seen as a model, and Massoud Barzani”, the project managers of the KurdWatch information website were already arguing in February 2012.“The KDP-S, by itself, does not have real significance.”
The outcome of the KDP manoeuvres was that everything went to a halt. “The PYKS walked out from the KDPU”, says Mr Youssef. “And I think Mustapha Jumma’s Azadi will too.” He adds: “It has been a disaster for the PYKS and the Azadi parties. We lost assets, we lost militants.” Meanwhile in Syria the PYD has asserted its power, harassing its detractors. “The present situation is entirely the KDP’s responsibility”, stresses Mr Youssef. “It wanted to show the great powers, the Western ones, but above all to Turkey, that it was mastering every development concerning Syrian Kurdistan and was the major interlocutor there, the one who could not be overlooked. It reduced the Syrian Kurd political parties’ role so much that they became insignificant, and pretended to deal with the PYD while it was unable to do so. The result is that the PYD now rules Syrian Kurdistan, alone.”
Roni Batal says: “Every day we discover that such or such KNC party is following a private, secret agenda, or is taking orders from outside.”
The Rekeftîn party does not take part in this conflict. “There must be no combat between Kurds: this is our red line!” says Khamgin Derik. He judges severely the competition for power between the PYD and the KNC Erbil-backed bloc, and the subsequent violence. “Palestine is divided between Fatah and Hamas, and Palestinians cannot build the state they’re craving for. It is the same with Syrian Kurdistan. We want autonomy for the Kurdish provinces and a federal state for Syria. But we cannot work on these projects, because we are divided. Rekeftîn does not have any problems with any of the Syrian Kurd parties, so we call them to adopt a positive attitude: to work for union rather than to feed division.”
He denounces the allegiances the opposite factions have made to external powers. “Decisions concerning Syrian Kurdistan must not be made in Erbil or in Kandil, but in Kamishli. The parties must not turn Kamishli in the battlefield of their war. They want to fight? They can do it in Erbil or in Kandil.”
A point of view shared by Mr Youssef: “Personally, I think we must now refuse any conference, congress, or even meeting taking place in Erbil. They must be held in Kamishli, Afrin, Kobane, in Syrian Kurdistan, but not in Erbil any more.”
He would like it to become his party’s position, and he doesn’t want the KRG to have any leverage any more on Syrian Kurds’ affairs. “Western powers must not address Syrian Kurdistan’s case through autonomous Kurdistan’s government any more. They must deal with Syrian Kurd parties directly. We must be dissociated from the KRG.”
Eric Bruneau worked as an analyst for an information TV station in Sulaimaniya for several months in 2009/10, and he has since returned to Iraqi Kurdistan to write articles about Kurdish issues including, lately, about Syrian Kurdistan. http://brunozebra.blogspot.fr/