The phenomenal rise of Kurds in Syria onto the international stage took the world by surprise. “Out of nowhere,” as the title of Michael Gunter’s 2014 book suggests, the Kurds managed within a short span of time (2012-19) to take control of one-third of Syria and, with but modest help from others, to defeat the most dangerous jihadi force in the Middle East, the Islamic State (IS). Their success raises some intriguing questions: What internal dynamics within the Kurdish community enabled this success? What tactics and strategies did the Kurdish entity develop in order to achieve its goals in a swift-changing geopolitical landscape? And with the U.S. military now drawing down in Syria, what are the prospects for its survival?
From the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, a tacit struggle for power erupted between two rival wings within the Kurdish camp. One is a conglomerate of some 20 small parties established during the late 1950s that has been supported by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP) from across the border.1 Relations started from the time of Mulla Mustafa Barzani in the early 1960s, but his son Mas’ud cemented them into an alliance under an umbrella organization in 2011.
The second is the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat, PYD), established in 2003 as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK). During the Cold War the Soviet Union and its ally Syria supported the PKK, and precursor Kurdish groups, with a view to weakening Turkey and NATO.
Between 2012 and 2014, the two wings made some halfhearted attempts to join forces, but the PYD ended up marginalizing its more fragmented rivals to secure military, political, and administrative control. The PYD’s relative cohesiveness, martial spirit, superior organizational capabilities, and ideological arsenal mattered, but its military force, the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG), trumped all.
Initially the lines dividing the political and military wings were quite blurred. However, since the beginning of war a division of power has developed, with the PYD controlling the administrative system and diplomatic ties and the YPG leading the fighting on the ground.
The YPG proved its mettle from the beginning of the Syrian war. Its successes enabled the establishment in 2015 of an autonomous region composed of three cantons: Qamishlo, Qobane, and Afrin. By early 2019 it had managed to destroy Jabhat al-Nusra and defeat the Islamic State on the ground, but lost control of Afrin.
The PYD also imposed one party-rule in Syrian Kurdistan by announcing in 2014 a law forbidding Kurdish political parties that did not recognize its administration.2 Later it was blamed for persecuting members of the other wing and imposing authoritarian rule in the region.3
In contrast to its policy of isolating rival Kurdish parties, the PYD initiated alliances with non-Kurdish groups and communities including Assyrians, Turkmen, and most importantly Arabs. The rationale was to enlarge its influence over areas with Arab demographic dominance that came under its control during the war, as well as to present an image of a pluralistic, democratic, and modern society. It was also driven by a desire to establish an anarchist-inspired polyethnic society that aimed at sharing power among all ethnic and religious communities and invalidating the notion of a larger nation-state.
In truth, however, the PYD remained the hegemonic power within the group of organizations, sharing power with its non-Kurdish allies in merely symbolic ways. Thus, after the establishment in 2015 of the military alliance—the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Arab, Assyrian, and other forces—the YPG continued to be the decision-maker and dominant force on the battlefield. Similarly, the political system the SDF established in the areas under its control was the embodiment of PYD/PKK ideological tenets, and more precisely experimentation in the social-political concepts of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan was famously influenced by the writings of the Marxist-turned-anarchist Murray Bookchin. From him he drew ideas such as “democratic federalism,” “social ecology,” and the need to renounce the concept of a nation-state. Indeed, following Bookchin’s death in 2006 the PKK paid public tribute to him for helping to shape its ideology and theory of administration.
The leadership, too, was monopolized by pro-PYD Kurds. For example, TEV-DEM, the coalition governing the autonomous region, is headed by two Kurdish co-chairs: Gharib Hesso and Zelal Ceger, whose predecessors were also Kurds. Kurdish national culture set the tone, as well. For example, the SDF celebrated the liberation of the last IS basis in Baghouz on March 24 with the Kurdish national anthem “Ey Reqib.”
The party discourse itself, which has been full of studied dissimulation, exemplifies the two opposite pressures operating on the PYD: namely, the need to retain and downplay its Kurdish identity at the same time. For instance, unlike Kurdish parties in Iraq or the other so-called nationalist Kurdish Syrian parties, the PYD has avoided the terms Kurdish or Kurdistan in its title to allay concerns from Damascus, Ankara, and potential non-Kurdish partners over the specter of Kurdish separatism.
Tellingly, the PYD chose the name “Rojava,” which simply means “west” in Kurdish, for the name of its autonomous region, rather than Rojavaye Kurdistan (“west Kurdistan”), which would have put it in the context of other parts of Greater Kurdistan: Bakur in Turkey, Rojhelat in Iran, and Bashur in Iraq. Later, due to political pressure either from its Arab partners or the Syrian regime, it thought it more prudent to drop Rojava and use the term “Northern Syria,” as for example in the document “The Social Contract of the Democratic Federalism of Northern Syria.” It then shifted to “North and East Syria” as the tide of battle moved that way. Ironically, while the PYD tended to avoid the term Rojava after 2015, most world media outlets continued to use it.
These fluctuations illustrate the challenges facing the PYD as a result of the shifting boundaries in the ongoing war and its need to adapt its discourse and maps accordingly. Indeed, the PYD-led government kept publishing changing maps of the region, including a virtual one showing Kurdistan of Syria reaching the sea. However, following the Turkish occupation of Afrin in 2018 it had to drop this map, and with it the dream of an outlet to the sea. The PYD’s name changes and vacillations in terminology—including a shift from terms like democratic autonomy to the less fear-provoking “self-administration”—have similarly been made in deference to its other partners in the SDF but, no less importantly, to President Bashar al-Assad, with whom it hoped to reach an agreement on postwar Syria.
These fluctuations notwithstanding, the PYD has stood on firm ground regarding other crucial issues. One important constant was that it has kept intact its links with the PKK, with all the positive and negative consequences entailed.4 At the same time it has been trying to nurture deep-rooted change on the societal level by engineering a gender revolution and administrative innovation, while also fostering Kurdish national identity in the education system.
Kurdish women have been leading a gender revolution in Syria simultaneously with the main one.5 In addition to their effective participation in the war against IS, women are represented in the various diplomatic and political echelons of public life. Their most important achievement has been the co-chairing arrangement anchored in the provisional constitution of 2016. Thus Article 12 states:
The Democratic Federalism of Northern Syria adopts the co-presidency system in all political, social, administrative, and other fields. It considers it a main principle in equal representation of both genders. The co-presidency system contributes to organizing and establishing the democratic confederate system of women as a special entity.
In many societies, women who come to the fore during wartime are sidelined when the war ends. For Kurdish women in Syria, however, the changes may be too widespread and deep to be uprooted when the guns go silent.
Another area of deep changes is in the education system. In contrast to pressures for blurring Kurdish identity in the public discourse, Kurdish activists felt freer to introduce a heavy dose of Kurdish nationalism in Kurdish textbooks. In this they hoped to thwart the regime’s continuous attempts to Arabize the Kurds. Examining several textbooks for small children, one is struck by their overwhelming emphasis on Kurdish identity and Kurdish nationalism as a whole.
To give but a few examples: One textbook presents a map of Greater Kurdistan carrying the original names of Kurdish cities and places instead of the official ones given them by the governments as part of their longstanding de-Kurdification policies. The term Kurdistan is repeated time and again, and the same is true for famous national Kurdish poets such as Ahmad Khani or Cegerxwin.
Pan-Kurdism is also carefully interwoven into the texts. For example, one textbook includes a poem about the Kurdistan Republic of Mahabad, which existed for a few months in 1946 in Iran. Another mentions the 1988 massacre in Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan, where some 5,000 Kurds were killed by the Iraqi Ba‘ath regime’s chemical attack.
The Kurdish language is another identity marker given much attention in the textbooks. Kurdish is glorified as “the sweet and beautiful language” and “the star of the world.” Interestingly, no allusion whatsoever to Islam may be found; instead the stress is on Nowruz as a sacred day for the Kurds.
The long war in Syria forced the Kurdish leadership to wage war on several fronts, but simultaneously to leave as many channels as possible open for forming ad hoc alliances and maneuvering between potential partners. One major problem was that the more victories the Kurdish forces scored against IS, the more they antagonized Turkey, which came to view them as an existential threat. Initially, the PYD attempted to reach an understanding with Turkey, Syria’s nemesis, when its leader Salih Muslim visited Ankara twice in summer 2013. The attempt failed: Turkey turned gradually from a passive into an active anti-Kurdish adversary. In two operations, in August 2017 and January 2018, the Turkish army and its proxies took control of Syrian lands—in Jarablus and Afrin, respectively—in hopes of eliminating the Kurdish dream of creating a contiguous autonomous region.
Sandwiched between two archenemies, Turkey and Syria, the PYD managed successfully to keep a channel open to the latter. Thus, from the start the leadership has maintained a tacit understanding with President Assad with regard to the administration of the region from which the Syrian army had withdrawn in 2012. This meant, for example, that Kurdish employees could continue receiving salaries from Damascus and thus avert a serious economic crisis. For its part, the regime maintained a token force in an enclave in Qamishlo, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.
Ad hoc cooperation did not prevent occasional armed clashes between Kurdish forces and the Syrian army, as happened in April 2016 and September 2018. The latter clash signaled the strengthening of Damascus and its aspiration to reassume actual control over the autonomous region. Indeed, in the negotiations between the parties in summer 2018, Assad was reluctant to acknowledge the Kurdish demand for autonomy.
Confident of the Kurds’ unique contribution to the rout of IS in Syria, the PYD initiated diplomatic moves early on to gain legitimacy for Kurdish autonomy. However, the position of its so-called allies—especially that of the two major players, Russia and the United States—proved inconsistent and frustrating.
The Kurds depended on Russia, which granted them some diplomatic space by allowing a Kurdish representation in Moscow, and by mediating between them and Assad. However, when put to the test, Russia’s backing proved ephemeral. Moscow not only offered no tangible military support to the Kurdish forces fighting IS, but also granted Turkey a green light to occupy Afrin. Russia also dismissed talk of an autonomous region in postwar Syria. Thus, in the mediation talks between the Kurds and Damascus in early 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry told the Kurdish representative that Russia was ready to “work together to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria”—not a word about Kurdish autonomy. Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the U.S. administration of trying to establish a Kurdish state in Syria’s north.
For all of Russia’s accusations, the American stance regarding a Kurdish entity was no less ambivalent than its own. The PYD itself had to adapt itself quickly to a new partner with which it had no earlier ties. The Kurds’ need of American military assistance moved the PYD to soften some of its leftist ideological tenets. This flexibility combined with Kurdish military achievements prepared the ground for the ad hoc military cooperation between the parties initiated at the end of 2014.
Reluctant to send its own boots to the battlefield and leaning on Kurdish YPG fighters as the best proxies for defeating IS, the U.S. government was even willing at times to prioritize its relations with Syrian Kurds above those with Turkey. However, paradoxically enough, the YPG’s victories stood once again to jeopardize the continuity of American support. The best illustration of this paradox was President Donald Trump’s sudden declaration at the end of 2018 to withdraw all American forces from Rojava with the excuse that IS had been defeated. Obviously, both Turkey and Syria were enthusiastic about this sudden declaration, which carried an opportunity to get rid, each in its own way, of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. This American capriciousness induced the Kurdish leadership to use various diplomatic channels in Washington and the world at large to curtail losses and safeguard Kurdish autonomy.
A decade ago Rojava was a nonentity, but within eight years the PYD/YPG managed to put it on the regional and international map. Yet its collapse could happen as quickly as its rise. The PYD’s victories brought it a major enemy, Turkey, but no real friend. The U.S. government, its ad hoc ally, used it as a proxy for fighting IS but might now abandon it. Clearly, the U.S. administration was oblivious to the fact that the Kurds have paid dearly in this proxy war—around 11,000 killed and many more wounded, according to the Kurds’ estimates.
For all its uniqueness, the short history of Rojava resembles that of many other minority communities in the Middle East by illustrating a major paradox: Rather than helping oppressed minorities, the backing of external powers in the region proved catastrophic for them. As ever, minorities are used as proxies only to be abandoned after having fulfilled their task.
A few examples suggest the trend. Great Britain used the Assyrians as proxies throughout its mandatory period in Iraq (1920-32) but abandoned them in the Iraqi army’s infamous Simele massacre in 1933. The Soviet Union used Iranian Kurds during World War II as a bargaining chip against the central government and even assisted them in establishing the Mahabad Republic, only to leave them to their devices at the end of that war. The United States used Iraqi Kurds as a balance against Baghdad and its patron the Soviet Union during the Kurdish-Iraqi war in 1974-75, but was instrumental in ending that war with catastrophic results for the Kurds.
Even though the SDF declared its final victory over IS in March, American zigzagging declarations and policies do not bode well for sustaining that victory. The big question mark is therefore whether the Kurds of Syria will be able to break the vicious circle of other minorities, or whether that typical fate will once again befall them.
Indeed, the real war for protecting their hard-earned autonomy has just begun. To succeed in their endeavor the PYD/YPG has to move on various levels simultaneously. Domestically, they have to lower the public profile of their relations with the PKK, soften their monopoly on power, and reconcile with the other major Kurdish wing in Syria as well as with its patron across the border in northern Iraq. Such policy may also increase Kurdish socio-political cohesiveness overall and gain the backing of an influential Kurdish diaspora in the ongoing battle for diplomatic support in the West.
Regionally speaking, the PYD/YPG has yet to cope with its two major enemies, Turkey and Syria. Regarding Turkey, the PYD/YPG should continue to mobilize the support of its allies against possible Turkish encroachment and alternatively insist on taking part in a safety zone, should one be established. The AKP’s weakened position following recent elections may be instrumental for a change of policy in Ankara, especially since the PYD/YPG have never carried out any terrorist attacks against this country.
As for relations with postwar Syria, the Kurds have already allayed Assad’s fears by renouncing separatism and adopting the notion of autonomy within the Syrian state. Still, they find themselves on the horns of a dilemma between negotiating with Assad and adhering to Washington’s warning to refrain from doing so. In the final analysis, they might be forced to come to terms with Assad, but American backing could be crucial for gaining a better deal for the Kurds.
On the international level, the Kurds should press home the idea that they are indispensable for keeping jihadi forces in the Levant at bay. Thus, they may use the West’s need for them as leverage against their abandonment. The PYD/YPG may also argue that continuing to back them would serve strategic American interests in the region, such as balancing the deteriorating U.S. relationship with Ankara and putting obstacles in the way of greater Iranian encroachment in Syria. If the Kurds can make that case, they may just be able to defy history and protect their hard-earned position.
1Harriet Allsopp, “Kurdish political parties and the Syrian uprising,” in Gareth Stansfield and Mohammed Shareef (eds.), The Kurdish Question Revisited (Hurst and Company, 2017), p.289. Alssopp describes them as “the parties of 1957,” as many were established that year.
2See Zeynep Kaya and Robert Lowe, “The Curious question of the PYD-PKK relationship” in Gareth Stansfield and Mohammed Shareef (eds.), The Kurdish Question Revisited (Hurst and Company, 2017), p.279.
4For further details, see Zeynep Kaya and Robert Lowe, pp. 275-287.
5Ofra Bengio,”Game changers: Kurdish women in peace and war” Middle East Journal (Volume 70, Number 1, Winter 2016).