Will Kurds make it?
On May 18, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest and most powerful Kurdish organization in Syria, detained 74 Syrian Kurds crossing illegally from Iraq into Syria. Allegedly they had undergone training by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which heads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Eventually, the KDP closed the Iraqi portion of the Syrian border which has been a vital supply line for the PYD. In a further twist, the PUK, the KDP’s chief rival in Iraq which is now said to be supporting the PYD, issued a statement condemning the border closure.
One week later, deadly clashes erupted between the PYD and jihadist militias in the mostly Kurdish Syrian towns of Afrin and Tir Tamar. Some circles argue that Turkey, together with the KDP, its chief Iraqi Kurdish ally, are prodding the conflict even though Ankara denies any involvement in the conflict.
These all produce the big and complex picture of the Kurdish reality. The unfolding developments in Iraq and Syria are most alarming for Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Syria is on the brink of dissolution. The formation of an autonomous Kurdish entity under a federal Syria freaks out not only Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also his neighbors. The success of Syrian Kurds in winning autonomy would encourage the KRG and also Kurds in Turkey and Iran. This picture is, however, much more complicated.
Turkey, on the one hand, is scared of the formation of an independent Kurdish state along its southern borders as it would fuel domestic Kurdish separatism. An independent Kurdistan, on the other hand, would serve as a source of oil and trade, a stable ally against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other rivals in the region and a collaborator in containing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Hence, it looks like Ankara would give its consent, however grudgingly, to such a development.
KRG President Masoud Barzani also has his own challenges before him. The emergence of a Syrian Kurdish enclave is putting pressure on him vis-à-vis his policy toward Turkey. Barzani has developed a harmonious relationship with Ankara by supporting Turkey not only in its struggle against the PKK, but also in its agenda vis-à-vis Syrian Kurds.
On the other hand, Syrian Kurds are divided not only by geography, but also by political stance. There is rivalry between the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC) which is the political alliance of 12 Kurdish political parties, and the PYD. The PYD is also accused by the KNC of siding with the al-Assad regime although its leader, Salih Muslim, rejects this charge.
Kurds of the region are also not united. There is tension between Barzani and some Syrian Kurds. On the one hand, the KRG has invested in the political future of Syrian Kurds by training Kurdish Syrian militia who deserted the Syrian army. Barzani also reconciled with different Kurdish groups in Syria in June 2012. However, this is interpreted as a bid to weaken the PYD’s grip since it remains at odds with Barzani. The problem is not only the PYD’s affiliation with the PKK. The PYD argues that Barzani privileges its own interests above everything else. Plus, Barzani is unhappy with the PYD’s gains.
After all, the strategic and economic assets might make Kurdish groups put their differences aside and unite around their common goal: Self-determination. Yet, whether their determination will outweigh the regional powers’ fear of formation of an independent Kurdish state remains to be seen.