By Manish Rai:
The start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 gave the historically marginalized Kurds their first real chance to assert their autonomy and to become a political powerhouse. Syrian Kurdish society now strongly feels that they can reverse the last half-century of assimilationist pressures and revive their cultural heritage and get their political rights. Before the conflict erupted, Kurds faced oppression under the Baathist, Syrian regime, ever since it came to power in 1970. But since the war broke out, this repression has been diminished. In fact, certain strategic opportunities have emerged for Kurds in Syria’s northeast. They have, for instance, entered into a tacit peace agreement with the President Assad regime. Hundreds of Kurdish political prisoners were released from prisons and government troops were withdrawn from almost all areas with compact Kurdish population. These measures contributed to the fact that the Syrian Kurds adopted a position of neutrality in the inter-Arab conflict in the country and even created self-defence forces in order to prevent Islamist militant groups from invading their territories. It is a ground reality that Kurds currently hold an effective veto power over the terms of any post-war negotiated settlement. Many factors contributed in this rise of Kurds in Syria. Let’s have a look at some of them.
Military capabilities: YPG, the military wing of major Kurdish party Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the most militarily capable group confronting the Islamic State. That is why it has been provided with air support to fight the Islamic State even after the objections of NATO ally Turkey. Its forces number some fifty thousand. Moreover its strong organisational abilities and highly disciplined cadres make it a formidable fighting force.
US and Russian backing: Kurds simultaneously maintain cordial relations with both the United States and Russia. The US stance towards Syrian Kurds is very strange. It keeps the PKK on its terror list while insisting that the PYD and its military arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are not associated with terror in spite of what the Turkish President Rejeb Tayyib Erdogan might say or think. Likewise Russia also has good relations with the PYD and doesn’t consider it a terrorist organization. Syrian Kurds are the only group that have common interests with both the United States and Russia.
Good governance of Rojava: Rojava effectively exists under embargo, with even the most basic of supplies very difficult to import into the region. Bread rations are provided by the local administrations to each household, and fuel is distributed by local communes. So far two oil refineries have been constructed as well as a number of publicly-run mills and dairy processing plants. Since 2011 the new administration has taken over the land previously held by Syrian government officials and distributed much of it to self-organised farmer cooperatives. The PYD took control of the federal region of Rojava following the Syrian regimes retreat. It is an effective provider of services and security in the areas under its control.
Sizeable territory under control: Kurds control large swaths of territory in northern Syria, divided into three cantons of Afrin, Jazira and Kobane, which make them an important player in any future road map for the resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Control of key economic resources: Kurdish-controlled areas are some of the most fertile in Syria, and they are blessed with reserves of oil, gas and ample supplies of water. Even the regime has established agreements with the Kurdish authorities on maintaining its share of oil and agricultural revenues.
As the other parties in the conflict are battling to eradicate each other, the Kurds have become the linchpin for mediating a solution for Syria’s bloodletting. But still the Syrian Kurdish leaders say they do not want independence. They have declared a series of so-called self-administered cantons that for all practical purposes are as autonomous as can be in wartime. Kurdish aspirations in Syria are limited to getting a special status with enhanced powers, as part of asymmetric decentralisation with the Rojava administration to be a constituent entity in the future Syrian state. Kurds are demanding a decentralized, democratic Syria where all ethnic and religious groups enjoy freedom and democratic rights. Kurdish aspirations are not illegitimate: they are demanding what they deserve. The West and Russia should fully support these legitimate demands of Kurds because empowered Kurds will serve as a barrier to radical Islamists such as IS, hegemonic Shiite Iran, and Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategy of supporting the radical Muslim Brotherhood. The Kurds are also notably less hostile to the West than many others in the region. For the most part, their grievances are directed not against the US or Europe, but the local oppressors of the Kurds like Turkey. One thing is clear: at this point in time that the Kurds will emerge from this crisis stronger than before.
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle-East and Af-Pak regions and Editor of the geo-political news agency Views Around. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org