Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Kurds in Syria

The complex shifts and nuances in the allegiances of the Kurds in Syria are hard to keep track of. The following is a note of the evolution of Syrian Kurdish politics prepared by the senior analyst on the NCF team. Specialists amongst you may find it of interest

  • Prior to February 2012 Article 8 of the Syrian constitution outlawed all political parties except the ruling Ba’ath and its coalition partners. Since February 2012 the revised Syrian constitution permits broader political participation but still prohibits parties founded on a religious or ethnic basis (Article 8:4 Carrying out any political activity or forming any political parties or groupings on the basis of religious, sectarian, tribal, regional, class-based, professional, or on discrimination based on gender, origin, race or color may not be undertaken). Clearly though Kurdish parties still operate and have done so since 1957, technically they remain illegal.
  • The Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (KDPS) is the oldest of the Syrian Kurdish political parties. It is a left-wing party set up in 1957 as an alternative to the communist party, which although led by a Kurd did not promote Kurdish rights. It split in 1965, the left wing led by Osman Sabri and the right wing led by Nur Al-Din Zaza, who was later replaced by Hamid Hajj Darwish. In 1970 a third party was created: the KDPS-PL (Provisional Leadership), which was effectively a branch of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Iraq. It was headed by Daham Miro. 
  • The Kurdish political parties continued to split. The right-wing branch of Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria coming from the 1965 split was led by Hamid Hajj Darwish and retained the name KDPS for some time. The right subdivided in 1975, around the time that Jalal Talabani announced from Damascus that his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) would break with Barzani in Iraq. Having tied himself to Talabani, Darwish thought a party name change would signal his loyalties, and in 1976, he changed the name of the KDPS to the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party in Syria. A pro-Barzani faction broke away under the original name and exists to this day. The Progressive Party of Darwish eventually gave birth to two offshoots, one dubbed Wekhevi (Equality) and the other the Kurdish National Democratic Party.
  • In 1975, Osman Sabri saw his left wing faction of the original KDPS cleave in two. Salah Badreddin led the anti-PUK faction, Yekitiya Gel (Unity of the People), while the pro-PUK branch kept the KDPS name.
  • In the late 1970s a splinter group emerged from Yekitiya Gel calling itself the Kurdish Left Party, also still extant, under the leadership of Mohammad Mousa. In 1980 Badreddin changed the name of Yekitiya Gel to the Kurdish Popular Union Party, which split in 1991, with one branch retaining the original name and the other favoring Yekiti. In 1994 a faction calling itself the Kurdish Democratic United Party left Yekiti. And, finally, in 2005 some members of the Left Party and the Popular Union Party joined together to form the Kurdish Freedom Party (Azadi). Azadi is led by Kheir al-Din Murad. Today there are five parties with roots in Badreddin’s Yekitiya Gel. 
  • A few other parties that exist today do not have their genesis in the original KDPS. One is the Future Movement, founded in 2005 under Mishal Tammo. The Syrian Democratic Kurdish Party is another. One of the most important, however, is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which was founded in 2003 by former members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In 2005, the Kurdish Accord, better known by its Arabic name, Wifaq, split from the PYD.
  • The Kurdish parties of Syria coalesced into a number of broad alliances (though NOTE that these alliances shift regularly):
I) Kurdish Democratic Alliance in Syria: Followed a policy of seeking dialogue with the government. The Kurdish Democratic Alliance brought together groups broadly regarded as “pro PKK” including: The Kurdish Left Party - Leader: Mohammad Mousa; The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)  PYD is by far the most active of the Kurdish parties, with the largest membership base; The Progressive Party - Leader: Hamid Hajj Darwish
II) Kurdish Democratic Front in Syria: Held the middle ground in regard to its policy towards the Syrian government. It originally included: Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (KDPS) - Leader: Abdulhakim Bashar. The oldest Kurdish political party in Syria; KDPS (a splinter branch of the KDP with the same name) - Leader: Nesreddin Ibrahim; Wekhevi (Equality); The Kurdish National Democratic Party
                 III) Kurdish Youth Coordination Committee: Established in Qamishli, this group aims to mobilise the Kurdish communities and encourage them to participate in the protests. It is one of the most active Kurdish groups and calls for a multinational Syria with a republican parliamentary democracy, excluding the military and security forces from the political arena. It calls for a decentralised administration, respect for all linguistic, cultural and human rights and the recognition of Kurdish identity in the Syrian constitution. It includes: Shabab Sawa (Youth Together) Leader - Ciwan Yusefl; plus the youth wings of many of the main Kurdish parties
IV) The Kurdish Union Party in Syria (Yekîtî) - Leader: Hasan Saleh. Yekîtî is arguably the most influential of the Kurdish parties.
V) The Kurdish Freedom Party in Syria (Azadi) Leader: Kheir al-Din Murad formed in 2005 from members of left wing Kurdish parties.
VI) Kurdish Future Movement in Syria - Founder and spokesman: Mishal al-Tammo – a member of the SNC, who was released in June 2011 following two years’ imprisonment for political reasons and subsequently assassinated. The Future Movement is one of the most active of the Kurdish parties

Most of the Kurdish political parties are split in their allegiance between Massoud Barzani (the current President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party) and Abdullah Ocalan (a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Ocalan calls his PKK party in Syria the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Attempts to unite the Kurds in Syria

·         On  20 July 2012, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Democratic Union party (PYD) – signed an agreement in Erbil to set up the Supreme Kurdish Council to co-ordinate their efforts. They agreed to form a popular defence force primarily consisting of Kurdish Syrian soldiers who had defected from the Syrian Army. These soldiers are being retrained in military camps funded by the oil-rich KRG and have entered the Kurdish areas in Syria to defend Kurdish towns such as Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). The new Supreme Kurdish Council is also sometimes referred to in English as the ‘Kurdish Higher Commission’.

The Kurds after the start of Syrian uprising

  • The Kurds were divided in their response to the uprising. Most avoided alliances with Sunni Arab opposition groups, though a few joined the Syrian National Council (SNC), and the PYD supported the pro-negotiation group known as the National Coordination Committee (NCC).
  • As the Syrian uprising progressed, the Syrian Kurdish opposition coalesced into three groupings: those in Syria’s new Kurdish National Council (supported by Iraqi Kurdistan); the very small number associated with the Syrian National Council (supported by Turkey, and the West); and those in the National Coordination Body, notably the powerful PKK affiliated Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD).

Kurds in the SNC

The Kurdish Syrian National Council (KNC)

As of 2 March 2012, the Council’s membership included:
-       Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria led by Abdulrahman Aluji
-       The Azadi Kurdish Party in Syria led by Mustafa Jumaa
-       The Azadi Kurdish Party in Syria led by Mustafa Oso
-       The Kurdish Democratic Equality Party in Syria led by Aziz Dawe
-       The Kurdish Democratic National Party in Syria led by Tahir Sfook
-       The Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (al-Parti) led by Dr. Abdul Hakim Bashar
-       The Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (al-Parti) led by Nasruddien Ibrahim
-       The Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party in Syria led by Hamid Darwesh
-       The Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in Syria (Yakiti) led by Shaikh Ali
-       The Kurdish Democratic Wifaq Party led by Nash’at Muhammad
-       The Kurdish Leftist Party in Syria led by Mohammed Mousa
-        The Kurdish Reform Party led by Faissal Yusuf
-       The Kurdish Yakiti Party in Syria led by Ismail Hamo
-       The Syrian Democratic Kurdish Party led by Shaikh Jamal
-       Yakiti Kurdistani led by Abdelbasit Hamo

Other Key figures are:
·         ARESH JABBO
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 cautious about the idea of negotiating 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.
Only two significant Kurdish Syrian parties are not members of the KNC: the massively important PYD, which is however a member of the secular ‘National Coordination Committee’ as well as of the new overall Kurdish Supreme Council. The other party that is outside (and is an SNC member instead) is the Future Party. The KNC also includes over a dozen Kurdish Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) and Kurdish youth groups on the ground in Syria.

The National Coordination Committee

Some Kurds are in the National Coordination Committee (sometimes called in English the ‘National Coordinating Body’), a mostly internal opposition coalition chaired by Hasan Abdul Azim which favors dialogue with Assad and is often accused of being too timid in demanding the types of more radical change wanted by the protesters. Kurds in the NCC were originally represented by four parties:
-       The Kurdish Leftist Party in Syria represented by Salar al-Shikhani
-       The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) headed by Salih Muhammad Muslim
-       The Democratic Kurdish Party in Syria (al-Parti) represented by Khaled Sino
-        The Syrian Democratic Kurdish Party represented by Mahmoud Dawood
In January 2012, the Kurdish Leftist Party of Syria, the Democratic Kurdish Party in Syria, and the Syrian Democratic Kurdish Party, all concurrently members of the KNC, withdrew from the NCC at the same time that Azadi and Yekiti withdrew from the SNC, in response to a decision by the KNC to suspend membership from all opposition councils other than the KNC.


  • The PYD (the Democratic Union Party, Payedeh or the Party for Unity and Development) was founded in 2003 by former members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the well-known organization in Turkey whose fighters have waged an anti-government insurgency off and on since the 1980s. In 2005, the Kurdish Accord, better known by its Arabic name, Wifaq, split from the PYD. Allegations of Wifaq’s cooperation with Syrian intelligence services led to armed hostilities between the PYD and Wifaq, with at least one Wifaq member was assassinated by the PYD. 
  • The Democratic Union Party calls for a constitution for Syria which recognises a pluralistic democratic state with a resolution of the Kurdish issue through autonomy of the Kurdish regions. The PYD would not be satisfied with mere Kurdish autonomy in the absence of a full democratic state in the rest of Syrian territory, and therefore, ‘even if Assad offered autonomy to Kurds, the party would remain in the opposition.’
  • The PYD has historically had tense relations with the other Kurdish groups, such as the Iraqi Kurdistan backed Kurdish National Council (KNC). The PYD, inspired by Abdullah Ocalan, opposes the KNC backed by his rival Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan. The PYD also claims that the KNC and President Barzani were responsible for divisions among Syria’s Kurds. The PYD claims elements within the KNC are cooperating with Turkey to target them; anti-PYD groups claim the PYD is working with the PKK and Assad to suppress demonstrations. The PYD says this is Turkish propaganda, while other Kurdish parties claim that the PYD is not tolerant to non-PKK organizations. At present there is an uneasy truce however between all these groups under the new Supreme Kurdish Council.
  • The PYD are strongly opposed to the internationally backed Syrian National Council (SNC). PYD leaders have argued that the SNC has not adequately resolved the Sunni-Alawi issue in post- Assad Syria, nor the Kurdish problem. The party also states that the SNC aims to facilitate an intervention of foreign powers, and especially Turkey, in Syria and set up Islamist regimes which will oppress Kurds.
  • This is the largest of the Kurdish groups. PYD have been criticised by other opposition factions over their possible collaboration with Damascus. There were however many clashes between PYD and supporters of Bashar Al Assad’s government (e.g. on May 9 in Aleppo, in Sheikh Maqsud and Qamishli).
  • The PYD is one of the most important and largest parties in the National Coordination Committee. The Kurdish areas under the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) control extend for 848 km from Al-Malikiyah (also known as Dayrik) in northern Iraq to Efrin, which is north of Aleppo. This western Kurdistan region skirts the Syrian-Turkish border.

Kurdish youth

  • Kurdish youth groups appear to be the strongest forces on the ground organizing the protests.
  • Kurdish youth movements are active in the cities of Amude, Efrin, Damascus and Aleppo. Kurdish youth opposition groups include the Union of Young Kurdish Coordinating Committees in Syria, Sawa Youth Coalition (part of the Local Coordinating Committees), Avahi Coalition for the Syrian Revolution, Coordinating Committee for Brotherhood, Aleppo, Efrin Youth Coordination, and the Alind Kobani Coordination.
  • The Committee of Kurdish Youth was created after the Syrian revolution started. It also has supporters abroad in countries like Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Lebanon.
  • younger generation of Kurds in Syria is speaking out both against the existing Syrian government and against the Kurdish political parties’ stance. Currently, the rift between the Kurdish youth and the established Kurdish political parties continues to widen. What they are fighting for in reality is generational turnover in politics.

The Kurdish opposition’s demands

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