The Kurds in control of northeastern Syria, affiliated to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a listed terrorist group in Turkey, have been holding meetings with the Kurdish National Council (KNC) that includes various Kurdish political parties and is loyal to Turkey.
The goal of the meetings is to close Kurdish ranks after years of differences in ideologies, goals and methods, in order to bolster the Kurdish position in northern Syria after Turkey succeeded in curbing the Kurdish military presence on a substantial portion of the Turkish-Syrian border.
The PYD, which is hostile to Turkey, signed a preliminary agreement with pro-Turkey parties despite the risk to these groups and their leaders living in Turkey since they are viewed as part of the Syrian opposition coalition active from Turkish territories. The move has been seen as a surprise because it constitutes open defiance of Turkey and also distances the groups from the rest of the Syrian opposition.
The US welcomed the preliminary agreement as “an important historic step towards greater understanding” and practical cooperation that would benefit Syria’s Kurds and the rest of the Syrian population.
The US and France facilitated the meetings that led to the agreement, and the two sides said the preliminary agreement was based on the 2014 Dohuk Agreement as a foundation for unified talks that would cover governance, administrative cooperation and protection.
The Dohuk Agreement was signed by the KNC and the Movement for a Democratic Society, organisationally and ideologically linked to the Turkish PKK. This has a long history of ties to the Syrian regime and Iran.
The new agreement covers three basic issues regarding KNC participation in the “self-governance” that the PYD declared in 2014 in northern Syria as part of what are called the “Rojava cantons.”
It stipulates the formation of a Kurdish political body equally divided between the two sides at 40 per cent each and 20 per cent for independents. It says that the security of the Rojava cantons is the responsibility of all the signatories to the agreement. The earlier deal faltered because the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had not allowed KNC forces, trained in Iraqi Kurdistan, to enter the area.
Washington said the new agreement among the Kurds would contribute to a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 by “helping to unify all Syrians opposed to the Al-Assad regime.”
However, the Syrian opposition does not view Kurds associated with the PKK as opponents of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and it accuses them of coordinating with the regime on the political and military levels.
Despite the optimism about the preliminary understandings and agreement, many Kurds are still sceptical about how successful these will be. It will be difficult for the KNC to sacrifice its political gains as part of the Syrian opposition and become an enemy of Turkey.
“Those who know about the PKK’s ideological foundations understand that the dream of sharing power, administration and security is an illusion,” said Mohanad Al-Katie, a Syrian military analyst.
“The areas being discussed for Kurdish administration are inhabited to more than 85 per cent by Arabs whom the regime has stripped of all means of self-defence and has aided the PKK takeover of these areas since 2012,” Al-Katie said.
“It is important to realise that most Kurds are non-partisan and not members of any of these groups, even though nationalist sentiments are strongest among them in Syria due to decades of persecution and injustice. This could make the majority’s support something that cannot be achieved on the ground and with no guarantee that it will last.”
The deal among the Kurds attempts to set up an unelected Kurdish body based on two players that are influenced by non-Syrians, and the leaders of one of these groups, the PKK, consist of Turks and Iranians active in Syria today.
The political intentions of this body can be gleaned from its proposed name, Rojavi Syrian Kurdistan, which includes both the PKK’s favoured name of Rojava or West Kurdistan and the name used by the KNC of Syrian Kurdistan. Both names reveal a separatist inclination, according to members of the Syrian opposition.
Both Kurdish sides describe northeastern Syria as “Kurdistan” or sometimes “Kurdish areas” even though these regions have a majority non-Kurdish population that includes Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs and others. The Kurdish presence is concentrated on the border with Turkey in the three separate areas of Afreen, Ayn Al-Arab and north and northeast Hasaka. In the latter, the Kurds are a majority in only four out of 17 separate areas.
The Syrian opposition rejects any unilateral separatist plans under the banner of the Kurdish agreement, and they are also rejected by the majority of Syrians. Syrian Arabs are worried that the gap between them and the Kurds will grow ever larger after this deal, especially if the Kurds prioritise their interests over those of Syria as a whole.
There is a concern that they will become more embroiled in US plans for the region, and these can change overnight to serve US interests, as experience has shown.
Will the Kurdish forces allied with the Syrian opposition allow themselves to be bundled up with the PKK and open a confrontation with Turkey? Will they ally themselves with a group close to the Syrian regime in return for a promise of autonomy and national gains? Will they force the rest of Syria into a struggle against the formation of a Syrian Kurdistan after being exhausted by the war between the regime and opposition?
These are all questions that only the Syrian Kurds can answer.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly