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
- First attempt – December 2011 - an attempt to replace Kurdish alliances with The Kurdish Political Union. Nine Kurdish parties joined including: Azadi, Yeketi, Kurdish Future Movement, KDPS (Abdulhakim Bashar), KDPS (Nesreddin Ibrahim), Kurdish National Democratic Party, Kurdish Left Party, Syrian Democratic Kurdish Party and the Kurdish Democratic Equality Party.
- Second attempt – July 2011 - ten Kurdish parties met in Dortmund, Germany. This followed a similar meeting in March held in Syrian Kurdistan that resulted in the formation of the Council of Syrian Kurdish Parties.
- Third attempt - on 27th October 2011 – resulted in formation of the Kurdish National Council, incorporating 15 Kurdish parties.
- On 11 July 2012, Syria's two main Kurdish opposition blocs said they would unite under one banner, following talks in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region. The Kurdish National Council and the Western Kurdistan People's Council announced the formation of the Supreme Kurdish Council, after a meeting that also included Iraq's Kurdistan Region president, Massoud Barzani.
· 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
- Some Kurds would argue that the Syrian uprising began as a Kurdish one: The Kurds organized the first demonstrations on January 25 in the Eastern city of Hasaka, where almost 300,000 Kurds reside.
- 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
- Like most secular groups, the Kurds have been very suspicious of the SNC. Kurdish factions walked out of one of the original SNC (Syrian National Council) meetings over the use of the word “Arab” in the name “Syrian Arab Republic”
- Kurds were allocated 22 seats in the 230-member body, although the exact level of their representation is far lower. Kurds were theoretically also allocated four seats in the 29-member Secretariat, the main decision-making echelon of the SNC.
- Levels of distrust were increased by provocative remarks by the former SNC leader, Burhan Ghalioun, most notably his statement comparing Kurds in Syria to immigrants in France. Ghalioun rejected the existence of any region called ‘Kurdistan’ within Syria. He called on Syrian Kurds to abandon what he called the ‘useless illusion’ of federalism. The SNC also made no commitment to Kurdish autonomy in a post-Assad Syria.
- More importantly, the Kurds lack of faith in the SNC stems largely from the council’s seeming dependence on its host nation – Turkey. Potential Turkish meddling in the SNC's affairs is viewed as a problem because Kurdish separatism is still the prism through which Ankara views the region
- The head of the Syrian National Council (Burhan Galioun) resigned on 23 May 2012 after the Local Coordination Committees resigned from their association with the SNC, blaming the SNC leadership for monopolizing decision-making powers. That signaled a major split in SNC. On 8 June 2012 the SNC met in Istanbul to choose a new leader – Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda emerged to become a consensus candidate.
- Dr. Abdulbasit Sieda, a Kurd, the new chief of the SNC was born in 1956 in the Kurdish town of Amude, northeast Syria – and is a Kurdish philosophy professor and one of the founders of the SNC in August 2011. In his first press conference Sieda said he would work towards encouraging Syrian opposition groups to work under one umbrella. He claimed that the SNC had intensive contact with the Kurdish National Council (KNC), and one of his key objectives would be to include the KNC in the SNC. In terms of post-Assad Syria, Sieda said that ‘everyone would be treated equally in the new Syria’, promising ‘a democratic and pluralistic state with an equal citizenship among all the different components of the Syrian community regardless of the religion, ethnicity, or belief of the Syrian individual.’
- The KNC acknowledged the importance Sieda’s election as ‘a positive step that will contribute to the consolidation of an actual democracy in post-Assad Syria’. Although some Kurdish groups are less positive over Seida’s leadership in the SNC. The representative of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party (PPD) Ali Shemdin, said he doubted Sieda could change the SNC’s position on the Kurdish issue.
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:
· ABDUL HAMID DAWISH
· ARESH JABBO
· DR. KAMRAN HAJABDO
· DR. SADREDINE MULLA
· MOHAMMED RASHID
· MURSHID AL KHAZNAWI
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 components of the KNC have divided their allegiances between 1) Barzani, and 2) his KRG rival Jalal Talabani. Those affiliated with Barzani are led by Hakim Bashar, the head of the NKC and the Kurdish Democratic Party [KDP] in Syria. Abd-al-Hamid Darwich, the leader of the Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party, leads the faction that is affiliated with Talabani. 3) Mustafa Juma’a leads a third group that is closely tied with Salah Badr-al-Din from the Kurdish Azadi Party. Badr al-Din supports extending the operations of the Free Syrian Army into the Kurdish area.
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 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.
- A 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
- Traditionally, The Kurdish opposition’s demands could be roughly separated into three, progressively more radical categories: (1) cultural, linguistic and political rights; (2) constitutional recognition of Kurds as a minority in Syria; and (3) autonomy. There is still a lack of coherence in terms of key messages and aims of the groups. For example some seek Kurdish independence, whereas others have their own unique strategies (e.g. some favor federalism for all Syria, some are interested in Kurdish autonomy and so forth).
- Although it has often been said that the Kurds of Syria, acting as a ‘decisive minority’ could provide the tipping point in Syrian revolt, they are not interested in joining the current armed uprising. This is in part because those elements of the opposition backed by the West do not favor Kurdish autonomy. The Kurds walked out of a conference for Western backed elements of the opposition organized by Arab League in Cairo on 4 July 2012 under a banner that called participants the ‘National Council of Syria’. Abdul-Kareem Bashar, foreign relations chief of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) of Syria, said the NCS "withdrew from the agreement and promises it made before holding Cairo conference." The KNC and NCS had agreed before the conference that the final communiqué of the event should state that Kurds are a distinct ethnic group in Syria who are living on their land and in their own country and enjoy their own history and identity. However the NCS did not comply with its promise and did not refer to Kurds at all.
- The Kurds and their supporters insist that it would be a tragedy if they were cut out of the Syrian equation. They say the Syrian Kurds are predominantly secular, western-oriented and embrace a pluralistic vision for a ‘new’ Syria, in contrast to some other opponents of the Assad government.
- Kurds in Syria are now self-policing their areas. The Kurds took over all government buildings in the Kurdish city of Kobanê ("Ayn al-‘Arab") near Aleppo on 19 July 2012 when clashes between Assad’s government and the rebels intensified. One day later the Kurds also took control of all government buildings in Afrin and Amuda cities as well as Cidêris district. The ‘freed zones’ are now run by a joint committee of the KNC and the PYD dominated Western Kurdistan's People's Assembly.
- Tensions between Kurdish groups allegedly associated with the Syrian Free Army (FSA) and those associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resulted in destruction of property, arrests and the deaths of three people in Efrin on July 3. At the end of June, the PYD arrested Mustafa Juma of the Kurdish Freedom (Azadi) Party, releasing him after at the request of Iraq Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani. The PYD claimed Juma had been in touch with Turkish intelligence and the FSA with a view to plotting against the PKK in Syria.However Syria's Kurds now seem to be putting aside differences to unite and manage their own region in the face of an uncertain future.