The Kurdish Awakening in Syria: Could It Lead to Regional War?

Vol. 13, No. 23    August 15, 2013

  • After largely sitting on the sidelines of the Syrian revolution, political groups from Syria’s Kurdish minority have moved decisively to claim control of Kurdish-populated areas.
  • For the first time in modern Syrian Kurdish history, Kurds have created an exclusively Kurdish-controlled enclave. Kurdish spokesmen have indicated that they are planning to form a provisional Kurdish government due to the absence of any central authority.
  • The Kurds have faced resistance to their new gains from the jihadist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
  • For the first time since the start of the Syrian civil war, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, threatened to intervene on behalf of Syrian Kurds. Immediately after Barzani’s statement, Iranian Kurds also announced that they were ready for battle.
  • A “Greater Kurdistan” is no longer a remote possibility. This reality poses challenges for all of the states with large Kurdish populations: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

Kurdistan is on the verge of becoming the new regional flashpoint in the Middle East. The Kurdish people have long sought autonomy, and the Syrian civil war has created new opportunities for them to achieve their goal.

The Syrian Spark

After largely sitting on the sidelines of the Syrian revolution, political groups from Syria’s Kurdish minority have moved decisively to claim control of Kurdish-populated areas. In July 2012, Syrian opposition activists reported that a group called the Free Kurdish Army had taken control of several towns in northeast Syria on the Turkish border, such as Amuda and Qabani. Few analysts paid attention to this news at the time, since most observers were focused on what appeared to be the disintegrating Assad regime.

Today, for the first time in modern Syrian Kurdish history, Kurds have created an exclusively Kurdish-controlled enclave.1 Kurdish-liberated areas are being administered by local councils, and Kurdish spokesmen have indicated they are planning to form a provisional Kurdish government due to the absence of any central authority.

The Kurds have faced resistance to their new gains, not just from the Assad regime, but from other rebel forces, namely the jihadist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The jihadists are prepared to fight to maintain control of the Syrian border areas with Turkey and Iraq, respectively, in order to ensure that arms continue to flow into their hands.

The border areas are no less important to the Kurds. For them, control of the border regions means that there can be territorial continuity between Syrian, Iraqi, Turkish, and possibly Iranian Kurdistan – the necessary condition for an independent and united Kurdistan.

In July 2013, the jihadists carried out a series of attacks on Kurdish towns. They killed a respected Kurdish leader, Issa Hassou, with a car bomb.2 Kurdish forces reacted swiftly, and after some major battles with the jihadists, regained lost territory and expanded their control to new areas. 

The Domino Effect

News of the fighting between Syrian Kurds and jihadists spread east to Iraq. The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, was livid. He heard rumors that the jihadists were ransacking Kurdish villages and holding hundreds of Kurds captive. Therefore, for the first time since the start of the Syrian civil war, Barzani threatened to intervene on behalf of Syrian Kurds.

He said if Kurds were “under threat of death and terrorism,” then Iraqi Kurdistan would be “prepared to defend them.”3 Barzani accused al-Qaeda of being responsible for the slaying of innocent Kurdish women and children and urged all Kurdish parties to go to Syria – “Western Kurdistan,” as he called it – in order to verify the tragic news.

Immediately after Barzani’s statement, Iranian Kurds also announced they were ready for battle. The Iranian wing of the Kurdish Labor Party, known as the Party of Free Life, said they were prepared to send men to join their Kurdish “brothers” in the fight against the jihadists.4

In parallel, the Kurdish leadership in Syria is trying to convince young Kurdish fighters who have joined jihadist groups to return to Kurdish militias or to Kurdish units within the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Kurdish Ulema (Muslim legal scholars) published a “fatwa” with their plea. One such group, the Kurdish Front Brigade, was formed at the beginning of the Syrian revolt against Assad and functions as part of the FSA.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has expressed his concern at the deteriorating situation.5 He said that an ethnic conflict would be detrimental to all interests, meaning that Iraq would not agree to the establishment of a united Kurdish entity on its border.

Turkey Threatens Intervention

Another Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD in Kurdish), has established in Syrian Kurdistan what it calls “People’s Defense Units,” which have fought against the jihadists. The PYD is unique among Syrian Kurdish groups for one important reason: It has historical links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, which is regarded by Turkey and the United States as a terrorist organization.

The Turks, who have been at war with the PKK for decades, have been monitoring developments in Syria with increasing concern. “Only a week ago, we had a 400 kilometer ‘Kurdish border,’” wrote a columnist for the Turkish daily Hurriyet. “Now, 800 kilometers have been added to this.”

The Turkish government has delivered a blunt warning: “We will not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey.”6

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made clear that Turkey will take any step necessary against a terrorist presence in northern Syria. He delivered a personal warning in a meeting in Istanbul with his intelligence chiefs and PYD leader Saleh Muslim. The meeting was called after Muslim declared his intention to create an independent council in the “liberated areas” of Kurdistan.7

The Turks are deeply worried that the emergence of a “Greater Kurdistan” is no longer a remote possibility. This reality poses enormous challenges not just for Turkey, but for all the other states with large Kurdish populations: Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Competing Interests

Kurdistan is a potential land bridge for many of the conflicts in the Middle East. It provides a ground route for Iraqi Kurdistan to supply the Syrian Kurds as they seek greater autonomy from Damascus. Iran, too, is seeking a corridor to supply its Syrian surrogates as well as Hizbullah in Lebanon. Whichever power can control the tri-border area between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey will be able to control Kurdistan’s supply corridors.

With all these competing interests in mind, it is easy to see why the fate of Kurdistan will help shape the future of the Middle East.

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Notes

1. Jacques Neriah, The Future of Kurdistan: Between Turkey, the Iraq War, and the Syrian Revolt (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, August 2012), http://jcpa.org/article/the-future-of-kirdistan-between-turkey-the-iraq-war-and-the-syrian-revolt/
2. AlArabiya.net, July 31, 2013.
3. “Iraqi Kurd Leader Massoud Barzani Issues Syria Warning,” BBC, August 10, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23650894
4. AlArabiya.net, August 5, 2013.
5. AlArabiya.net, August 6, 2013.
6. The Future of Kurdistan.
7. Reuters, August 9, 2013.

 

About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.