Another Problem in Syria: How Do Kurds Fit In?

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A major Kurdish group opens talks with the leading Syrian opposition groups. Will this pave the way to a unified Syria after Assad?

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Syrian Kurds hold flags and portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan during a protest in Derik, Hasakah on November 1, 2012. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

With the war in Syria about to enter its third year, many opposition leaders are looking toward the future of a unified Syria after the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One of the biggest questions facing a post-Assad Syria is what will become of the residents of western Kurdistan (commonly called "Rojava")--which comprises much of northern Syria--once the war is over? Long persecuted under the Assad regime, Syrian Kurds have spent the war protecting their own land rather than taking the battle directly to the government in Damascus. This has put them at odds with some opposition leaders who see the Kurds' actions as helpful to the Assad regime.

Now, however, Salih Muslim, the leader of the biggest Syrian Kurdish Party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has opened up the possibility that people of Rojava might join the struggle of their fellow Syrians and work toward a more unified transfer of power in post-Assad Syria.

Muslim met with leaders of the Syrian National Coalition on Wednesday in Cairo to discuss joining the umbrella organization of opposition groups.

The PYD is the most powerful political party in Rojava but has so far abstained from allying with opposition forces. While it is openly opposed to Assad's Ba'athist regime--which stripped many Kurds of their rights--and supports his downfall, some Kurds also fought against various opposition groups. A handful of well-trained militia have, for the most part, been successful in keeping both sides of the conflict out of Rojava, but not without opposition forces labeling them as sympathizers of Assad.

The negotiations on Wednesday seemed both amicable and productive compared to this mixed past. "The meeting was to [get to] know each other better," said Muslim in an interview with Radio Sawa afterwards, adding that the goals of the meeting were for, "[President of the Syrian National Coalition] Moaz al-Khateib to listen to us, to listen to what we say directly, who we are, and who we represent."

These meetings come as much of the anti-Assad Coalition (excluding the Syrian National Council) has reversed their initial plan to boycott the Friends of Syria conference, which started Thursday. The conference will include an appearance by Secretary of State John Kerry, who announced an increase in aid to opposition forces. Whether or not the PYD joining the Coalition would mean any American aid would go to Rojava as well as the front lines remains to be seen.

Before any such alliance can be brokered, however, Muslim insists that Arab leaders recognize the legitimacy of the Kurds.

"We are not satisfied with the language used by the Syrian National Council [a member group of the Coalition] and we are trying to help the Syrian National Coalition to avoid the same mistakes...Our priority is that we get a recognition for our existence in the constitution or at least written on a paper as a Kurdish people and as a part of the Syrian people."

This isn't the first time that members of the opposition have met with Kurdish leaders. Last summer leaders of the Syrian National Council met with the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Mossoud Barzani, the Turkish Foreign Minister, and members of the Kurdish National Council. The PYD did not attend those negotiations.

In terms of military cooperation, Muslim points out that the Arab leaders have already brokered a deal with the PYD regarding the liberation of cities with mixed populations of Kurds and Arabs. But this doesn't mean that an arrangement with the Coalition would see Kurdish militias in Damascus: "Kurdish fighters won't go to Damascus to fight," Muslim said, quipping, "If each fighter liberated his city, Syria would be liberated by now."

Negotiations between Syrian Arabs and Kurds are a long way from over, but if Cairo is any indication, there is a place in Syria for discussion between the nations' two biggest ethnic groups as they both work toward the goal of a unified Syria.

"[W]e are away from drawing new borders in Syria or between us or the Arabs," said Muslim when asked about the possibility of an autonomous zone for Kurds in Syria like the one in Iraq, "[W]e didn't demand the partition now or in the past."

Whether or not a deal can be reached before the end of the conflict remains to be seen.

Zaid Benjamin of Radio Sawa contributed reporting to this article.

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Jonathan Krohn DUPLICATE

Jonathan Krohn is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

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