Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Kurdish Question

NCF daily Report on Syrian Issue – The opposition – Report dated 20 June 2012 (evening)

We devote this report to the powerful Kurdish bloc in the Syrian opposition.

• Syria’s largest minority are its Kurdish speaking Sunnis. With a million Kurds in
Damascus and a similar number in Aleppo, at least half a million Kurds in Kamishli,
and at least a further million Kurds scattered through the rest of Northern Syria,
the NCF estimates that as a minimum the Kurds represent 15% of Syria’s 23 million

• Syria’s Kurdish opposition is reluctant to join the uprising for fear of an Islamist
successor government.
Kurdish protesters

The Syrian Kurds are best thought of as two major political blocs. The first is the powerful
PKK and its political wing the PYD. The second is everybody else – and the “everybody else”
bloc is dominated by the recently formed Kurdish National Council which is itself an alliance
of the KDP and Yakiti (as well as a few considerably smaller groups). The NCF Syria research
team identified the following currents and developments as regards the key Kurdish players:

Kurdish National Council (KNC)

The organisation, established after the start of the uprising, consists of 11 Kurdish parties
(40% of the membership) as well as important independent figures from around Kurdish
Syria and representatives of the Youth Movement (60%). The two major political parties
making up the Council are the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Yakiti.

The council aims for a parliamentary and pluralistic Syrian state and with some measure
of autonomy for the Kurdish region. The KNC is committed to the removal of the Assad
government and is unwilling to negotiate with the Syrian government, for fear of losing
credibility at street level. However they are indeed willing to negotiate with the government
as part of a delegation representing a credible opposition. With the Syrian uprising tilting
towards sectarian conflict, the KNC lacks leverage in the absence of support from either the
Western or Arab states.

The Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNC) has announced that they are part of the Syrian
revolution against the Syrian Government. To date there have been no major confrontations
between the Kurds in Syria and Syrian Government forces.

On June 19th Abdul-Hakim Bashar, of the KNC, stated that the Kurds did not want a
geographical partition between ethnic groups in Syria. The KNC and the SNC may meet each
other at a conference in Cairo next week under the auspices of the Arab League.

Kurdish Union Democratic Party or PYD

Also known as the Party for Unity and Development or ‘Payadeh’, PYD is a prominent
opposition group and the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Led by Saleh
Muslim, It is the largest of the Kurdish parties and has a virtual monopoly of support in Afrin
and Kobani.

The PYD is fiercely loyal to the philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder and leader
of the PKK. For this reason, the PYD has been criticised by other Kurdish groups that are
not affiliated with the PKK. The Kurdish Future Party, founded by Mashaal Tammo (who
was himself killed by the PKK), has criticised the PYD for having links with Damascus. After
the assassination of Tammo, the PYD and PKK lost some of their backing in the street –
especially in Qamishli where the Kurdish Future Party enjoys strong support.

The PYD has historically had tense relations with the other Kurdish groups, such as the Iraqi
Kurdistan backed Kurdish National Council (KNC). The party’s aim is to establish a Kurdish
state within Syria, not simply autonomy. The PYD are opposed to the internationally backed
Syrian National Council (SNC); PYD has vocally criticised the SNC and fears it promotes
international intervention, including Turkey, in order to set up an Islamic government that
would oppress the Kurds.

PYD have been criticised over their possible collaboration with Damascus. There
have, however, been recent clashes between PYD and supporters of Bashar Al Assad’s
government. The most recent report of such a clash was on May 9 in Aleppo. Further
clashes have occurred in Sheikh Maqsud and Qamishli. As a result, PYD’s popularity has
recovered somewhat in these areas. Recently, the PYD has expressed their intention to work
with the KNC in opposition to the Syrian regime, despite their political differences. However,
recent clashes between the PYD and KNC may undermine this.

Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK

The PKK was founded in 1978 to establish an armed struggle against the Turkish state
to achieve an autonomous Kurdistan and better political and cultural rights for Turkish
Kurds. After the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, a founding member of PKK, the organisation
has reduced its operations, although their attack on several military bases across Turkey
in October 2011 killed 24 people. They continue to enjoy a strong presence in the
mountainous regions of Kurdistan that spread across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

PKK members are able to move freely inside Syria, are allowed to bear arms and launch
propaganda campaigns. This marks a significant change in Syrian policy, which had banned
the PKK’s activities in 1999 as a result of an agreement with Turkey. PKK elements in Syria
have also been reported to be working in cooperation with Syrian government forces to
stop mass revolts against the al-Assad government in northern Syria, particularly in Aleppo,
whose residents have close ties with Turkey.

The PKK are widely believed to have reached an agreement with the Syrian government at
the beginning of the uprising. The government has allowed the PKK freedom of movement
and operation in Kurdish areas in Syria in return for pledging not to partake in the uprisings.
The PYD, as well as the PKK, have been alleged to have used intimidation techniques against
other Kurdish groups and journalists. Reports have suggested that the PKK have tried to
prevent Kurdish youth movements from joining anti-government demonstrations.

In addition, the PKK performs a direct security role by manning armed checkpoints at
intersections, performing vehicle searches, and guarding the entrances to villages.

Relationship between the Kurds and the SNC

There has been a high level of suspicion between the two groups ever since Kurdish factions walked
out of one of the original SNC (Syrian National Council) meetings over the use of the word “Arab”
in “Syrian Arab Republic.” This distrust was strengthened by provocative remarks by the former
SNC leader, Burhan Ghalioun, most notably his statement comparing Kurds in Syria to immigrants in
France. Since then, however, the SNC has made strong overtures to the Kurds.

The SNC want to gain the support of Kurdish factions to strengthen their own position. It therefore
comes as little surprise that the newly appointed leader of the Syrian National Council is
a Kurd. Abdulbaset Sayda’s election was an attempt to enlist Kurdish support for the SNC.
Sayda places little faith in the Assad government and its newly drafted constitution, claiming
it will provide the Syrians with ‘nothing’. He is widely regarded as a better selection than the
former leader, Burhan Ghalioun.

Sayda is not the only Kurd in the SNC as the organisation included a few Kurdish
independents, as well as the Kurdish Future Movement, the only Kurdish party left in the
Arab dominated SNC.

There have been many adverse reactions to the SNC by the Kurdish population, largely
directed at Abdulbaset Sayda, despite his pledge to recognize the Kurds as an autonomous
nation after the fall of Assad’s government. Many Kurds dislike the SNC’s close association
with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist factions. Furthermore, they do not feel as
though Sayda fully supports the Kurdish plight, marginalizing Kurdish interests for those
of the Muslim Brotherhood within the SNC. Another issue for many Kurds is the Turkish
involvement with the SNC, making the Kurds wary due to poor treatment of the Turkish

On the other hand, some Kurds are pleased to see a Kurd at the helm of the SNC. NCF
sources believe that a merger between the Kurdish National Council and the Syrian National
Council is possible in the near future.

Kurds non-involvement in the uprising

Since the uprising started in February last year, minority groups in Syria have not acti vely
supported it. This includes the Kurds whose political factions have not been behind the insurrection.
There are two main reasons for this:

  • Kurds fear an Arab post-Assad government that could be worse than what they have at present and the SNC is widely accepted to be strongly influenced by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

  • Kurds are sceptical that they would be treated as equals in the Council.

 Earlier this year(January 2012), the KNC agreed to meet with the SNC in Erbil to discuss future cooperation.

However, the KNC were forced to walk away from the discussions because the SNC wanted
the KNC to be sucked under the SNC umbrella rather than be treated as an equal partner.
Kurds may not have had large scale involvement in the revolution however a number of
demonstrations have occurred in Kurdish towns throughout Syria. The most recent entitled "Friday
of Russia is the enemy of Syrian people," was focused in the north-eastern town of Amouda on June
15th. Protesters waved Kurdish flags and burnt effigies of Bashar al-Assad. Kurdish demonstrations
have also intensified in Aleppo since March after the killing of a female Kurdish journalist working for
Media TV. In response Kurdish protesters burnt the houses of those involved and set up blockades to
hinder the response of the Syrian Armed Forces.

On June 19th, the Free Syrian Army called on their ‘Kurdish brothers’ to join forces in the fight
against the Syrian government. They aim to work “hand-in-hand to build the country’s future and
end discrimination for all Syrians, whatever their ethnic or religious background”. The statement
by the FSA comes after numerous raids throughout the country by Government forces against FSA
strongholds. Full scale Kurdish involvement in the revolution remains improbable as the levels of
trust between the Kurdish and Arab opposition remains low.

The Issue of Federalism vs Autonomy

Federalism is a contentious issue and many non-Kurds believed further fragmentation along
sectarian lines might develop if federalism was to be implemented. Kurds aspire to an autonomous
Kurdish area in a united Syria and in many meetings the idea of autonomy was favoured over

Syrian Arabs are concerned that the coastal governorates of Latakia and Tartus, which are majority
Alawite, might follow the Kurdish lead and push for federal autonomy. At NCF meetings there has
been no agreement as to which parts of northern Syria would become autonomously Kurdish. The
Kurdish voices claimed the Ifrin region of Aleppo province, and Qamishle and Hasaka in the Hasaka
governorate as a minimum.

There is a substantial Assyrian population in the Hasaka governorate, who might or might not object
to Kurdish autonomy. There is a further issue of splitting Aleppo along Kurdish and non-Kurdish lines,
an idea which remains contentious and one that is opposed by many outside the Syrian Kurdish
population. There is also clear disagreement as to whether an autonomous Kurdish region would
mean mere administrative autonomy or full devolution. They believe that they need to ask for the
maximum in order to be able to negotiate and get something like autonomy or semi-autonomy.


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