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The Syrian Civil War
Kurds to Declare “Federal Region” in Syria

Syria’s dominant Kurdish party, the PYD, declared that it will announce plans for a federal, autonomous region as early as Thursday. Reuters has more:

The announcement had been expected on Wednesday but was postponed for “logistical reasons” and because of demands from local Arab and Assyrian communities for reassurances that the federal arrangement will not mean separation from Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict.[..]

Syrian Kurdish groups and their allies have already carved out three autonomous zones, or cantons, known as Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin. Their capture of the town of Tel Abyad from Islamic State last year created territorial contiguity between the Jazeera and Kobani areas.

Afrin is separated from the other two cantons by roughly 100 km of territory, much of it still held by Islamic State.

So there’s more fighting ahead. And while they’re not (yet) talking about secession, there is a fair bit of autonomy envisaged:

Nassan said a federal arrangement would widen “the framework of self-administration which the Kurds and others have formed”, and the political system would represent all ethnic groups living in the area of its authority.

The system envisions “areas of democratic self-administration” that will manage their own economic, security and defense affairs, according to a document drafted by a committee in preparation for the meeting and seen by Reuters.

But how pluralistic and how democratic an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan is will have a lot to do with who shepherds it into being. On that front, some bad news: as TAI Editor Adam Garfinkle recently noted, the PYD has ties to the KGB going back to the Cold War, and of late the Russians have in many ways been the best friends of the Syrian Kurds, who already have a “mission” in Moscow. The Kremlin reportedly welcomed the recent news.

The U.S. has been relatively supportive of the Syrian Kurds as well, but that support has basically boiled down to “please would you fight ISIS for us? Thanks.” Our eroded credibility in the region, and Russia’s elevated profile, will make dealing with this news tricky. So too will our essentially ambivalent attitude toward Kurdish independence aspirations, and our official support for the fantastic goal of seeing united, peaceful, democratic Syria and Iraq restored to their ante bellum borders.

Our relationship with the Syrian Kurds is, of course, complicated by our NATO ally Turkey. Ankara is not at all pleased with the Syrian Kurdish announcement:

Turkey, whose conflict with the Kurdish PKK has escalated in recent months, said such moves were not acceptable. “Syria’s national unity and territorial integrity is fundamental for us. Outside of this, unilateral decisions cannot have validity,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Reuters.

The PYD has been left out of the Geneva peace talks, in line with the wishes of Turkey, which sees it as an extension of the PKK group that is waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

This Turkish hostility could take many forms; few of them are likely to be conducive to regional harmony. Even worse: in the course of a recent speech speech in which he compared the Kurds to the Armenians in 1915, Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu pointedly conflated the Syrian Kurdish cooperation with Moscow with internal disloyalty by Turkish Kurds. The spectre of worsened internal ethnic violence in Turkey haunts this announcement.

Then there’s the Syrian regime’s reaction (so far negative, but deals may be possible). Iraq and Iran also have Kurdish minorities and will have an interest in the precedent set by the newest attempt at a Kurdish semi-state. And the Kurdish move will complicate the calculations of the Sunni Gulf Arabs, ISIS, and the other Syrian rebels in ways that can’t yet fully be foreseen.

So anyone who thought that the Russians pulling out of Syria, combined with the Geneva peace talks getting under way, meant that we could finally forget about the bloody mess that is the Syrian Civil War probably doesn’t appreciate just what a complicated mess the conflict has left in its wake. This thing is far from over, and lasting peace is anything but assured.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Odd. is it not. that after inciting the disaster extending from Libya to Afghanistan, the US is doubtful about Kurdish autonomy.

    • JR


    • Ellen

      It isn’t odd at all, considering Obama’s prejudices. The Kurds and Israelis are the only real friends America has in the MidEast, so guess who is treated the worst of all the tribes in that region? The Kurds and Israelis.

  • Jim__L

    What was it that Machiavelli said about major powers carving out little enclaves (or small allies) as a prelude or beachhead for taking over large regions?

    • Angel Martin

      Machiavelli may or may not have said it, but Putin definitely believes it.

  • Beauceron

    I think it a source of some national shame that we have not come out in support of Kurdish national aspirations.

    In a region of Islamic inspired mayhem, misogyny, corruption and factionalism, the Kurds seem to have their act at least somewhat together. That we’re balking in our support out of respect for perfidious Turkey makes it twice the shame.

  • Episteme

    I have to imagine that part of the American reticence is not about the limited autonomy but what that might have to become due to events in the near future – and what that would involve for both the Kurds in Turkey and especially for those in Iraq. The Russian presence has been a bulwark for Asaad, and combined offenses (either truly combined, or merely in terms of multiple parties attacking the same targets) against ISIS in Syria – along with ISIS having to pull back troops (and so give up territory) to fall back and defend sites under assault in and around Mosul – gives a temporary sense of forward movement (even if Al Nusrah has been making trouble). However, it’s easy to imagine ISIS making a fallback into Syria if their Iraqi territory is hit too hard and it’s uncertain how secure Asaad’s respite is – rumors continue to circulate about talks among his government to push him into exile/retirement.

    Amidst all this, the Kurds having an island of stability sounds good. However, if things collapse, that limited autonomy quickly becomes de facto independence. That makes it very easy for the Iraqi Kurds to seek the same sort of arrangement, leaving the Baghdad portion of Iraqi even more weakened, either to be made fully a proxy of Iran or to become a failed-state battleground between the interests of Iran and the Saudis. Likewise, the declaration of anything-near-independence of one or two Kurdish factions (who control territory whose central governments can’t actually contest) would almost certainly lead to all sorts of conflicts in Turkish Kurdistan – as this ‘Kurdish Spring’ seeks to continue in territory that IS contested very strongly (and whose Kurdish population has both Marxist elements and terrorist elements among it).

    With everything else going on in the region, this sort of claim from the Kurds single-handedly is the most dangerous way to do what is, in the long-term, a good thing. It would be far safer to seek first acceptance and recognition of such a proposal as part of whatever settlement looks to be sought of in trying to form some sort of Syria out of all this. At the very least, such a unilateral declaration should wait longer until the situation on the ground (in terms of the departure of the Russians and the current situation of fighting) stabilizing more, so that such a declaration doesn’t foment new chaos among three different countries.

  • gabrielsyme

    “Syria’s national unity and territorial integrity is fundamental for us” says Turkey
    That is just stunningly hilarious. Turkey has been playing all kinds of sides in this civil war, so long as they are Islamist. They aided ISIS’s rise, continue to have an alliance with the Nusra Front, and have also supported all kinds of dislikable rebels. The idea that this adds up to a commitment to “national unity and territorial integrity” is completely laughable.

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