Syria’s conflict has started in 2011, but for the Kurdish citizens of Qamishli, the revolution started in 2004. After a football match, these people took the streets to protest the undeniable discrimination the Kurdish people were subjected to. The small uprising was violently halted by Assad and was left unanswered by the rest of the country. Kurds make up one tenth of Syria’s population, yet both their cultural and ethnic identity and their rights have often been ignored. Today, their importance has grown spectacularly: if willing to fight Assad, they could be the decisive minority. But are they willing?
WHAT DO THE KURDS WANT?
A lot of different things, Elizabeth Edwards, expert on Syrian Kurds, explains: Some have joined ISIS and want Syria to be part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, some – not a lot- have joined the Free Syrian Army and are not interested in Kurdish independence. The majority however, want some guarantee for non-discrimination and equal rights; be it in independence, in partial independence or even in constitutional guarantees. This interest has inspired more than 19 Kurdish parties to be created and these have formed alliances. Of these three are left today: SNC, KNC and PYD. The SNC – the Syrian National Council- is recognized by the West as the opposition to Assad’s regime, to which a few Kurdish parties have acceded as well. However, a decision of the KNC to make their membership irreconcilable with that of any other group has made all parties but one quit. This decision fell after the an agreement between SNC and KNC imploded. The SNC is mostly run by Arabs who, so far, have not been able to give the Kurds any guarantees about their rights under the next regime. The fact that part of the SNC refuses to refer to Syria as a republic instead of an Arab Republic is not a good sign.
The Kurdish National Council, supported by Iraqi Kurdistan, is the group containing most parties. It is calling for some autonomy for the Kurds, or at least constitutional recognition and guarantees for equity after the fall of the regime. It is a moderate group, calling for a non-violent revolution against Assad. This mostly has made them inactive, and overrun by both the Kurdish Youth, acting independently, and the PYD. The PYD -the democratic union party- is the only remaining party in the National Coordination Body (NCB) after two others quit it after the KNC’s decision. It is an offspring of the Turkish PKK, with whom Assad shares his dislike for Turkey. The position of the PYD on the regime has long been ambiguous, although they have recently stated that they will never support Assad’s killing innocent citizens.
The hopeless divisions in the Kurdish political landscape have led Barzani, leader of the KRG in Iraq, to step in and try and reconcile them. The Erbil Agreement, which both the KNC and the PYD attended, set up a ‘Kurdish Supreme Council’ to watch over the Kurdish revolution and to govern the Kurdish fighters that have been trained in Iraq. It is here that the PYD has been able to use the PKK’s military expertise to its advantage. In practice, the Council is not governing anything: the PYD and its ‘People protection Units’ (YPG), the armed militia of the PYD, are. The KNC on the other hand, does not have any military capacity, let alone the potential to give some counterweight.
A KURDISH TERRITORY?
As of last year, the PYD started, gradually, to take back city after city that had been run by Assad. This was done almost peacefully: the regime ceded most after the PYD’s warning that they would fight if necessary. The regime has been rather friendly for the Kurds since the beginning of the up-rise: where the 2004 demonstration was violently quelled, thousands of Kurds have now gotten citizenship and the regime is less violent in Kurd regions to keep them from joining in the revolution and becoming the decisive minority they could be. We find the center of the Syrian Kurd region in Qamishli, half of a city that was split by the Turkish-Syrian border. This half-a-city, the last stronghold of Assad’s regime, was finally ceded to the PYD, who recently announced the creation of a transitional government to prepare for democratic elections. In the meantime, the region is run by the Council in theory, by the PYD in practice. The PYD can count on some respect as a result of their relation to the PKK and as a result of their successes in protecting the region, Edwards says. But the legitimacy of their transitional government is questioned nonetheless. The group is moreover quickly losing support as they are increasingly perceived as even more repressive than Assad’s regime.
In the meantime, Qamishli is a relatively safe place to live in: the PYD allows neither Assad’s forces nor rebel forces to enter the territory. It is not even allowing entrance for the Iraqi fighters trained by Barzani and theoretically led by the Kurdish Supreme Council. But it is difficult maintaining neutrality in the Syrian landscape. Rebels are getting angry with the Kurds for their lack of support for the revolution. Their bonds with Turkey are moreover detrimental for their relations with the PYD, which is still trying to differentiate itself from the PKK. Unsuccessfully, so far, adds Edwards; many of the Syrian Kurds still refer to the PYD as the “PKK”. Meanwhile, an understanding between the regime and the PYD is suspected to explain the effortless defense of the cities and the fact that the transitional government is allowed for by the regime. The PYD denies this, but its neutrality seems increasingly risky. The people of Qamishli do take sides for the regime or against. But this is not the main issue, not now, not anymore. “Really the Kurds are just self-interested”, Edwards says. As they should be: the whole country has splintered. At this moment, stability in the region is priority. And this goal puts them sometimes opposite the ISIS, sometimes opposite other rebel groups, sometimes opposite Assad’s troops. And therefore sometimes opposite each other.