Amid Syria's Atrocities, Kurds Scratch Out a Home

Will the minority group succeed at creating a flourishing, autonomous region after Assad?
kurds of syria banner.jpg
Syrian Kurdish demonstrators hold flags and portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan during a protest in Derik, Hasakah on November 1, 2012. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

In northeast Syria, Kurdish militias have carved out a zone of control independent from both the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels. The power on the ground in this area is the Syrian franchise of the PKK guerrilla organization, a militant nationalist Kurdish movement that has been waging war against Turkey since 1984.

The Syrian Kurds are determined to preserve their fragile autonomy, but rebels, backed by the Turkish government, are equally committed to nullifying it.

One of the side effects of the turmoil in the Middle East over the last decade has been the significant improvement in the strategic position of the Kurds. The Kurds were the main losers of the Middle East states system that emerged following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, when the area of Kurdish population was divided up between four new states - Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

The Syrian Kurds are determined to preserve their fragile autonomy, but rebels, backed by the Turkish government, are equally committed to nullifying it.

In recent decades, the survival of brutal, repressive military-nationalist regimes in key Arab states prevented change in the Arab world. Among these states were two of the main sites of Kurdish residence - Iraq and Syria.

In the last ten years, two processes have changed this situation. First, the U.S. destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq enabled the emergence of a quasi-sovereign Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. The Kurdish Regional Government is today the most flourishing and stable part of what was once Saddam's domain.

Secondly, the rebellion that broke out in Syria in March 2011 has led to the contraction of the Bashar Assad regime and its departure from most of Kurdish-majority northeast Syria. The result has been the emergence of a second Kurdish de facto self-governing area.

This new area of Kurdish quasi-independence is a far more fragile construct than the well-established KRG in northern Iraq. It is the subject of the unwelcome attention of both remaining regime forces and elements among the Syrian rebels. Its survival has important implications, both for the Kurds themselves and for the future of Syria.

In mid-February, I traveled into the Kurdish controlled part of Syria. I wanted to get a sense of the true relations between this uneasy new enclave, the forces of the rising, mainly Islamist rebels and the declining regime.

I entered from the KRG-controlled part of northern Iraq. The KRG is an example of what the Kurds can achieve when they are permitted to develop independently by neighboring political forces. It offers a kind of reminder of what might come into being in northeast Syria, if political and military conditions permit.

Massoud Barazani's Kurdish entity in north Iraq is not without problems, of course. Critics cite widespread nepotism and corruption in governance. But for all that, the KRG is a success story, its capital Erbil a boom town. I had visited once before, in 2010. Since then, the oil companies have begun to arrive, attracted by the combination of relative political stability and large amounts of crude oil under the ground. New hotels are springing up. Well-heeled young people in shiny new cars are everywhere.

All this is only a distant dream for the Kurds of Syria, of course. Even entering the Kurdish controlled part of Syria requires taking account of political complexities. The KRG is ruled by the Kurdish Democratic Party - a conservative, Western-oriented movement with a burgeoning relationship with Turkey.

Kurdish northeast Syria, however, is dominated by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), the Syrian franchise of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which has been conducting an insurgency against Turkey since 1984.

Relations between the two movements are complex. They are the two main competitors for the leadership of the Kurds. The PYD is secular, leftist, and quasi-Marxist. The KDP is conservative, patriarchal, and linked to traditional clan and tribal structures.

The result is that Iraqi Kurdistan maintains an arms-length relationship with the Syrian Kurdish enclave. This extends to the border area, which remains closed to foreign journalists. Prime Minister Barazani has no special desire to take responsibility for what might happen to such travelers inside Syria, which has become notoriously dangerous territory for media professionals over the last year or so.

So to get to northeast Syria from the KRG area required an illegal border crossing. I went in accompanying a squad of fighters of the YPG (Popular Defense Committees), the armed group established by the PYD and other Kurdish parties that maintain security in the Kurdish enclave.

The YPG fighters were a mixed male and female group. They were fit, serious and knew their business, moving efficiently and silently across the territory like trained infantry soldiers.

We crossed the Tigris river, finally reaching a YPG position close to the dawn. I was taken to a tiny village of houses built out of dried mud and logs, called Wadi Souss. The next day, we drove into the town of Derik with three PYD activists heading there. Of the three activists, only two spoke Arabic. The third, a young woman who had good English, knew no Arabic, but she spoke Kurdish, Turkish and English fluently.

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Jonathan Spyer is a journalist who focuses on Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

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