As Syria’s Kurds carve out an autonomous region, their brethren in Iraq continue to wait for the right moment
In late July, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria, also known as the PYD, revealed its intention to declare some form of self-rule in majority Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria.
PYD leaders clarified it was only for the duration of the Syrian civil war, but the move was part of a larger pattern in which the group has been taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by the two-year-old conflict to push out rival opposition fighters and move closer to autonomy.
The announcement caught the attention of neighboring countries, perpetually nervous about the prospect of full Kurdish independence. “It’s not possible to accept any de facto declaration of an autonomous entity in Syria,” said Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, “and that could only lead to further crisis.”
Turkey, home to the world’s largest Kurdish population and skittish about any moves that could re-ignite unrest in the country, streamed more troops to its border with Syria after the PYD statement, announcing that it had “a parliamentary mandate to intervene in the Syrian territories if there is a serious risk.”
While Turkey, Iraq, and other countries balk at indications of increased Kurdish self-rule, an independent Kurdish state in the Middle East would be a gift for Israel, many Kurdish and Israeli experts believe.
“Kurds are deeply sympathetic to Israel and an independent Kurdistan will be beneficial to Israel,” argued Kurdish journalist Ayub Nuri in July. “It will create a balance of power. Right now, Israel is one country against many. But with an independent Kurdish state, first of all Israel will have a genuine friend in the region for the first time, and second, Kurdistan will be like a buffer zone in the face of the Turkey, Iran and Iraq.”
The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless nation, numbering well over 30 million spread across Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, according to figures in the CIA Factbook, though exact population numbers are hard to pin down. Iraq’s 6 million Kurds have achieved the greatest measure of independence; they run the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, within the federal Iraqi system since 2005 (though de facto autonomy began after Saddam’s army was forced out of the region during the 1991 Gulf War). But despite a booming economy and striking freedom of action, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq still has presented no concrete plans for independence.
Will it be Syria’s Kurds who lead the way toward a Kurdish state?
Temporary autonomy or preparation for a state?
Syrian Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in the country, make up some 9 percent of the country’s 23 million people, according to US government figures. Their loyalties in the conflict are split, though Kurds have managed to carve out a once unthinkable degree of independence in the northeast of the country, where they constitute a majority. They’ve created their own police forces, issued their own license plates and have thrown off restrictions on their language and culture.
The announcement of autonomy followed the capture of the multi-ethnic Syrian border town of Ras al Ayn from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front rebels. The Sunni extremist group had tried imposing its strict form of Islam on the more moderate Kurds. Clashes between Kurdish gunmen and Islamists belonging to al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant over the past weeks left dozens of gunmen dead on both sides. Kurdish commanders charged that the mainstream Free Syrian Army commanders are also sending fighters to join the al-Qaeda-linked groups in fighting the Kurds, hinting at the possibility of an Arab-Kurdish mini-war breaking out in Syria.
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However, it is still unclear if the Syrian Kurds declared autonomy with an eye toward eventual independence.
PYD officials tried to play down the significance of the declaration. “This is not a call for separation,” PYD leader Salih Muslim maintained in an interview with France 24. “It’s just that for a year now we have been on our own in our own territories and people have needs, they want some kind of administration to run their issues, they can’t be left like that.”
According to Kurdistan expert Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv University, independence is not on the Syrian Kurds’ agenda any time in the near future. “The PYD is not talking about independence now and will be reluctant to use such terminology in order not to antagonize any of the governments or the international community,” she said. “Autonomy is the safer goal now.”
“Things may change according to changes on the ground,” she added.
But Syria might be so far gone that the Kurds will never agree to rule from Damascus, even under a federal system. “The idea of independence is also likely, because I don’t see the PYD having friendly relations with the future government in Damascus that is run by the current opposition fighters,” said Nuri.
“I think the Syrian Kurds as a people have independence as their ultimate goal,” he continued, “but at this point it is not up to them to decide.”
Iraqi Kurds bide their time
Even if the PYD isn’t planning for imminent independence, its growing autonomy and its influence on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s calculations in Iraq could be an important development. The autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq borders Kurdish areas in Syria and the two populations’ connections run deep.
Iraq’s Kurds and their leaders are deeply sympathetic to the Syrian Kurds, and have been eager to help their brethren across the border avoid the political mistakes they made, some of which resulted in a bloody Kurdish civil war in Iraq almost twenty years ago.
While Syria crumbles, the KRG in Erbil continues to help Syrian Kurdish doctors and teachers find employment in the Kurdistan Region. Kurdish students from Syria are allowed to enroll in universities in the KR, despite the fact that Bashar Assad refused to grant them passports. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds have fled to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Duhok since the civil war started.
KRG President Massoud Barzani has also served as a mediator between rival Syrian Kurdish factions, the PYD and the Kurdish National Council, closely allied with Barzani’s party in Iraq. Syrian fighters have been training in Iraqi Kurdistan with Barzani’s blessing.
Still, the relationship is complex. The PYD is very closely affiliated with, and often seen as an extension of, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), a militant group that until recent peace talks fought a long and bloody campaign against Turkey. It constitutes the rival to Barzani’s KDP for leadership of Kurds across the region. The two sides battled each other during the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s. Earlier this year, the PYD arrested 75 members of Syria’s branch of the KDP, and Barzani responded by closing the border between the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish regions. Recently, the PKK has been supporting parties in the Kurdistan Region that are critical of Barzani’s grip on power.
The relationship “is one of interdependence,” explained Bengio. “The Syrian Kurds need the KRG as a mediator and as strategic depth and the KRG needs the Syrian Kurds for its goal of turning itself into the national center for all Kurds as well as for gaining a closer outlet to the sea.”
Though the KRG sets the agenda for Syria’s Kurds, and not vice versa, autonomy in Syria may affect the calculus in Erbil.
Nuri believes autonomy for Syria’s Kurds improves the likelihood the KRG will move toward independence. “The neighbors are hostile to the idea and they are militarily strong. But if Syrian Kurds have their autonomy and rule their own areas, it will only take Iraqi Kurdistan one step closer to independence.” The knowledge that Iraqi Kurdistan’s western border is shared with a friendly administration, not a hostile army, might give the KRG a sense of security as it weigh its options.
In public, Kurdish leaders speak about a future in a unified Iraq. “We believe in Iraq’s constitution, and will not sway from it,” Barzani’s chief of staff told President Obama’s deputy national security adviser. But experts believe they are simply waiting for the right opportunity to declare independence from Baghdad.
“The important point is that the general mood in Kurdistan has changed in a way that there’s no way they would agree to be ruled from Baghdad,” said Selam Saadi, chief editor of Kurdish news site Rudaw. “The way Kurds look at the world has changed and they are very different in that from Arabs” — and they do not see a joint future.
A non-binding poll conducted by a pro-independence movement during the 2005 Iraqi elections found that over 98% of Kurdish respondents supported independence. During my time in the region in late 2012, I noticed that the only Iraqi flags flying were those on federal government buildings. Kurdish drivers even went out of their way to cover the part of their license plates labeled “Iraq” with a homemade sticker reading “Kurdistan.”
But what will it take for KRG to actually make that leap? The emergence of a strong central government in Baghdad that could once again threaten Kurds might push them over the edge. “The Kurds in Iraq are and forever will be suspicious of Iraq and Iraqi leaders,” said Nuri. “The scars imprinted on the Kurdish people in Iraq through decades of killing and persecution will probably take centuries to heal.”
Israeli and American interests at odds
When the move to independence does finally come, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq will be hostile to the development. Still, the American reaction is what counts. “I do not think that the three neighboring countries will launch a war if Washington supports it,” Bengio argued. “Washington’s stance is a key to all the others.”
But America, after investing so much blood and treasure into keeping the Iraqi state together after Saddam’s downfall, is not interested in seeing it fracture along ethnic lines. The Americans “want to keep the political map of the region as it is,” noted Saadi.
On this issue, Israeli interests run counter to the current American position. Ties between Israel and the Kurds run deep. A Mossad officer named Sagi Chori was sent to help his close friend, the late iconic Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, manage the Kurds’ battles against the Iraqi army in the 1960s. (The partnership has been well-documented in Kurdish and Israeli media.) And reports of Israel training Kurdish commandos continue to surface. Nationalist Kurds tend to see Israel as a role model for an independent Kurdistan, a small nation surrounded by enemies and bolstered by a strategic partnership with the United States.
Israel has long developed alliances with non-Arab countries on the periphery of the Middle East. Today, that policy rests on partnerships with Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, and Caucasian and central Asian countries. Kurdistan fits perfectly into that framework.
The new Kurdish country will likely open full diplomatic relations with Israel. “The Kurds are the only nation in the region that has not been filled with hatred toward Israel and America,” said Saadi. “The way Kurds see the world is different from Arabs… Generally, Islamists are more powerful in the Arab world, they think that Islamic Sharia is the solution. However, the majority of Kurds believe in a European style of government. The problem is they don’t know how to get there. They don’t have experience.”
With few friends in the region, the Kurds will likely look to Israel to help them gain security and closer relations with the United States. As Arab governments in the Middle East totter and fall, and Islamists look to exploit the chaos, the alliance is one that both countries may find beneficial to pursue.