In spite of the clear polarization of the Syrian Civil War, with Iranian- and Russian-backed Shiite authorities on one side and Western-backed Sunni rebels on the other, one group does not quite fit into this mess. Just who, precisely, are Syria’s Kurds, what are their aims, and what is to become of them?
The Kurdish question is one oft neglected by the international community. Denied a state in the Ottoman Empire’s partitioning at the Treaty of Sevres, the Kurds have since remained a repressed minority in foreign lands. The hegemony placed over them by their multitude of ruling nations has had predictable consequences, ranging from forced assimilation to outright attempts at annihilation (such as Saddam’s brutal “Al-Anfal” offensive against KDP strongholds in northern Iraq, which culminated in the use of chemical weapons at Halabja in 1988). Today, the Kurds find themselves among the world’s largest ethnic groups without national representation.
An ethnolinguistic majority in an area comprising northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and western Iran, the Kurdish struggle for autonomy has been long fought but poorly publicized. To many, it seemed that, were Kurdish nationalism to etch out an autonomous state, it would be in Turkey, where roughly half of the world’s approximately thirty-five million Kurds live. But in recent years, equally powerful independence movements have emerged in other nations.
Kurdish nationalism has, however, seen some success in Iraq, where the northern region has now formed a quasi-autonomous regional government. Although not an independent state in its own right, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) exercises a high degree of autonomy in all but the most centralized of political affairs; the region even controls its own armed forces—the 300,000-strong Peshmerga. In spite of this newfound freedom for Iraqi Kurds, their brothers in the other corners of the proposed Kurdistan remain subject to what they perceive as malevolent foreign rule. This was particularly true for the three million Syrian Kurds (roughly ten percent of the country’s population), who have long suffered forceful crackdowns and arabization under the nation’s Ba’athist government. One would thus expect that the Kurds of Syria would be unified in their opposition to Assad. This is not so.
Despite their natural disdain for the Ba’athist regime, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is no ally of the Kurds. Seen as a mixture of Arab nationalists and Sunni Islamists (two groups with whom they do not have a friendly history), the secular-minded and fiercely independent Kurds (whose military interests are largely represented in Syria by the YPG—People’s Protection Units) understand that their dreams of autonomy will be no closer if the rebels seize power. At first glance, it may seem that the YPG finds itself in a thoroughly unenviable position—sandwiched between two enemies, arguably one just as bad as the other—but the militia group has in fact used the chaos to its advantage, filling the power vacuum left by withdrawing government forces to form a quasi-independent region.
But what exactly are the YPG’s aims? Their first priority would, naturally, be to ensure the safety of the Kurdish population under their control and to maintain some semblance of order while the rest of the country burns—a task that, given the circumstances, they have performed admirably. Indeed, with the new safety and freedom afforded to the Kurdish inhabitants of northern Syria by their semblance of self-rule, the flag of Kurdistan has flown over municipal buildings for the first time in Syria’s history.
This flag reveals the YPG’s ultimate ambitions, which extend further than security. As Kurdish nationalists, it is likely that they will attempt to carve out a self-ruling entity with the aim of being recognized as a regional authority, not unlike that present in the Iraqi KRG; this would, of course, be a few steps away from a full-fledged Kurdish state.
This ambition, however, has brought them into conflict with Islamist rebels, who control much of the surrounding area, embroiling the YPG in an engagement against the feared Al-Nusra front for Kurdish populated territory. Although the offensive is still in progress, the current stage seems to point in the YPG’s favor, with Kurdish forces capturing many strategically significant locations and taking far fewer casualties than the Jihadis.
It would seem, then, that despite odds stacked considerably against them, Syria’s Kurds are in a position of power. Nevertheless, the Kurds are also no strangers to the fact that history can turn very cruelly against them. Even if the YPG succeed in their aims of uniting Syria’s Kurdish territory and establishing a defensible border, it is probable that upon the resolution of the Syrian civil war, whoever is in power in Aleppo will have the territory’s reabsorption into the effective Syrian state high on their priority list. Thus far, the YPG has had to contend with the full, united might of neither the Syrian government nor the FSA; if such an encounter were to take place, the Kurds’ good fortune may well reverse.
There is also the matter of the thousands of Kurdish refugees flooding into Iraq. Although given better treatment by their fellow Kurds in the KRG than they might have been given elsewhere, relocating these masses is likely to prove a nightmare both logistically and politically.
In conclusion, while the Kurds might not have been affected by the war quite as badly as their compatriots, the future of their people and their dreamed-of state remains precarious indeed. The only certainty for them is that they cannot expect to rely on the mercy or kindness of any foreign faction; for history has shown that the Kurds, the Middle East’s forgotten people, can only look to themselves.