Syria’s Kurds have developed a strong influence in the country in recent years, having courageously participated in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) group and being able to assert their military presence through the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in 2011.
The Kurds have also been able successfully to appeal to world public opinion after they stood up against the Turkish occupation of their regions in northeast Syria and their fight alongside Syrian and Russian forces against the current Turkish attacks.
For some time now, they have been demanding autonomous rule within a unified Syria, and they have been willing to enter into negotiations on the areas under their military control amounting to 30 per cent of Syria.
The Kurds make up about eight per cent of the population of Syria, constituting six per cent of the Kurds around the world as a whole. The majority of them live in Hassaka and Qamishli in northeastern Syria, Amouda and two small towns in the province of Aleppo in northern Syria: Ain Al-Arab (Kobani) and Afrin (Jabal Al-Akrad) and their surrounding areas. Today, the Kurds constitute a majority in these two regions.
Prior to the 2011 Revolution in Syria, the government in Damascus led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad treated the Kurds as foreigners who had no citizenship rights in Syria. They were not registered with the government, apart from the million or so born in Syria, and they did not have Syrian IDs or have the right to own property, marry or study.
The majority of Syria’s Kurds are Muslims, mostly Sunnis, with a smaller group of Shias.
After Syria became a French mandate territory in the 1920s, the Kurds became part of the balance of power in Syria. The French authorities took the Kurds into account when drawing up their policies under the mandate system, but the Kurds partnered with their Arab counterparts in resisting the French occupation until Syrian independence.
Things intensified in 1957, when a group of Kurdish intellectuals and notables announced the establishment of the first Kurdish-Syrian national political organisation in Aleppo under the name of the Kurdish (or Kurdistan) Democratic Party of Syria. The party called for the liberation of Kurdistan through revolution and was spearheaded by Noureddin Zaza, its first secretary-general.
The Damascus regime cracked down on the party’s leaders, leading to its dissolution. As a result, until the 2011 Syrian Revolution there was no political body defending the rights of the Syrian Kurds. The revolution then appealed to the Kurds’ desire for freedom and unity under a political banner calling for their civil and political rights.
In March 2011, the Kurdish parties in Syria negotiated to join the Kurdish nationalist movement in the country that comprises 11 political parties. The Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Democratic Union Party then engaged in talks with Damascus and demanded the cultural rights of the Kurds and their recognition as a nation within a united Syria and the establishment of autonomous rule.
The Damascus regime responded to some of the demands of the Syrian Kurds, and for the first time since 1972 more than 50,000 Kurds obtained Syrian citizenship, allowing them access to government jobs, state subsidies and the right to register their property.
Thanks to a decree facilitating the process of registering land in border areas and the Hassaka governorate, these areas are witnessing an urban boom. Naturalisation is likely to increase, and additional concessions related to infrastructure and agricultural projects may be provided.
The Al-Assad’s regime consent to some of the Kurdish demands was for two reasons. The first had to do with attempts to appeal to the Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Democratic Union Party to drive a wedge between them and the opposition forces. The second was to tighten the noose on opposition groups demanding the ouster of the Damascus regime.
The Kurdish demands then developed, especially after 2015, and coincided with the emergence of the SDF and its political wing the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), a group of armed factions numbering some 45,000 fighters affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.
According to SDF statements, its mission is to create a secular, democratic and federal Syria, along the lines of the Rojava Revolution in northern Syria. The SDF issued a constitution for federal northern Syria in December 2016 and stated that the SDF was its official defence force with the SDC its political wing.
The SDC established a unified administration for the regions under its rule to enforce its influence in northern and eastern Syria in 2014. The move gained momentum after the SDC took control of a third of the country and regained the majority of the area from the Islamic State group with US forces’ help.
SDC representatives held talks with security officials from the Syrian regime in mid-2014 based on a request from the latter. Another round of talks was held in 2018, when regime officials requested to administer border crossings, the deployment of security forces in cities, the return and administration of employees in the Euphrates region and the participation of the Kurds in local council elections.
The talks were stalled after the SDC insisted on developing autonomous rule in northern and eastern Syria and demanded a general political settlement across the country and the establishment of a decentralised democratic system.
The faltering of political negotiations between the SDC and the Damascus government did not prevent the growth of military ties, however. This development has been taking place between representatives of the SDC and Russian security officials to allow for the deployment of Syrian forces on the Syrian-Turkish border and the formation of a joint fighting force comprising the SDF and the Syrian military under Russian air cover to confront the Turkish aggression.
The Arab countries and the Europeans have been supportive of the demands of the SDC, notably after the Turkish aggression, with many Arab countries being clear in their support of the Kurds within a unified Syria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly