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wasting a golden opportunity? plans for kurdish self-rule in syria

Hiwa Barznjy
The Kurdish political party running Kurdish areas in Syria want to form their own administrative authority, and include all comers in it. It would be one more step toward Kurdish rights and autonomy in Syria, they…
5.09.2013  |  Sulaymaniyah

Most of the areas in Syria that are home to the country’s Kurdish minority are now under the control of Syria’s Kurdish militias. And mostly these areas are under the control of Syria’s Democratic Union Party or PYD, and its armed wing.

The PYD, a Syrian Kurdish party, is often considered to be closely affiliated with another Kurdish political group, the Kurdish Workers\' Party, or PKK, based in Turkey. The latter has been defined as a terrorist organization by some countries mainly due to its long and violent conflict with the government of Turkey.

The PYD have formed administrative councils in the Kurdish areas of Syria that they run and they also manage militias in charge of security there. The PYD have also managed to take control of the oil wells operating in their areas.

Although many Syrian Kurdish are doubtless thankful for the conditions in which they live, especially when compared to the violence affecting the rest of Syria, there is one criticism that is often made about the PYD: and this is that it is the only party involved here when in fact, there are many other Syrian Kurdish parties around. Local Kurdish also worry that the PYD is trying to impose its doctrine on every part of life in the areas of Syria its running.

And now, due to lack of any central government body, the PYD is trying to form an administrative authority, but, they say, it will be one that includes all Syrian Kurdish parties, so that it can be seen as a reasonable and unifying political force. Any such informal Syrian Kurdish “government” would, it is hoped, begin to act in the same way that the government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region does. Iraqi Kurdistan has its own government, legislation, military and elections. And this move by the PYD would appear to be a step toward a similarly autonomous region inside Syria.

“The PYD does not want to manage the Kurdish parts of Syria all by itself,” confirms Jafar Hanan, the PYD’s representative based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. “And if we can’t come to some kind of agreement with other Kurdish parties, then we are not going to form an independent administration. If there is any party that is not included, we will not be able to succeed.”

Hanan, who is cautiously optimistic about the success of such a venture, goes on to describe what might happen if the PYD does manage to do what it wants. “If an administration can be formed then the PYD can manage it financially and it can also provide the security forces that make the region capable of protecting itself,” he told NIQASH. “The creation of an administration like this will improve conditions for the Kurds of Syria and protect their rights in the future.”

However, despite Hanan’s brighter outlook, there are still plenty of problems to overcome – some of them apparently insurmountable. For one thing, many of the leaders of the other Syrian Kurdish parties are actually based in Iraqi Kurdistan, away from the Syrian Kurdish region. They seem unlikely to want to return, given the current conditions in Syria and the country’s uncertain future.

For another thing, the PYD are often criticized by their potential partners in this administration- for example, the second largest Syrian Kurdish party in the area, the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDPS, which has strong links to the Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, is one of those calling the PYD autocratic.

Still, the head of the Syria’s KDPS, Abdel Hakim Bashar, told NIQASH that despite their misgivings about the PYD they would be interested in discussing a more formal, shared administration for Kurdish Syria. They have not yet discussed it though, he added.

Also expressing concern about the PYD going it alone is Mustapha Jumma, the leader of the Kurdish Freedom Party in Syria. “This project is not a lot different from Bashar al-Assad’s plan to form an independent Kurdish region,” Jumma told NIQASH. “It doesn’t help achieve rights for the Kurdish nation, it will be a supervisory body only and it doesn’t serve Kurdish interests.”

Jumma doesn’t believe the PYD will be able to form an independent, unified administration anyway. Instead he thinks that the Kurdish parties should simply abide by the agreement they all came to in Erbil, which says all responsible Kurdish parties should do their part together in Kurdish Syria. Jumma does not expect the broader Syrian opposition to agree with the PYD’s plan either, nor will other nations, like Turkey, whom it could affect.

Additionally there are other issues. “Even if the administration is formed,” the KDPS’ Bashar says, “it will fail. Because there are still around 7,000 regular Syrian army soldiers stationed in the north-eastern Syrian city of Qamishli. And they are doing their jobs there. So we can’t really talk about the formation of an independent administration as long as the Kurdish have enemies. We should take a more collective decision on an issue like this and we need to consult with the Syrian opposition too.”

Although at one stage, it seemed as though the PYD were allied to the Syrian regime run by President Bashar al-Assad – some suspected they had made a deal with the beleaguered leader to stay out of the conflict in return for their own region – the party has since pledged allegiance to the Supreme Kurdish Authority, a body made up of various Kurdish interests in the country, and that Authority has in turn, pledged support for the Syrian opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. So even though they may not have been involved directly, initially, and even though they themselves have clashed with the rebel-run Free Syrian Army, the PYD are now supposed to be supporting the Syrian revolutionaries.

And then there is also the matter of long standing enmity between the KDPS and the PYD. The two parties have clashed violently in the past resulting in a number of deaths. Relations have worsened during the Syrian crisis. Recently the KDPS tried to send 200 militiamen, or Peshmerga as they are known in Kurdish, into Syria. The men had been trained in Iraqi Kurdistan. However they were all arrested at the border by PYD forces and made to return to Iraq – one of the kinds of incidents that’s seen the PYD criticized for its inability to share power.

This incident angered the KDP in Iraq – it is one of the two major political parties running Iraqi Kurdistan – and in return for the slight, closed the Vichabour border crossing, an opening between Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. They refused to allow members of the PYD or any Syrian Kurds to enter Iraq from there. The border was eventually re-opened by the Iraqi Kurdish in mid-August. However relations between the KDP and the PYD remain fairly frosty.

The ever-increasing flow of refugees from Syria’s Kurdish areas is also causing a problem. Bashar believes the high number of Kurdish leaving the area also constitutes a threat to the formation of any administration, not to mention to the future of the Kurdish in Syria. It is estimated that there are now around 200,000 Syrian Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan and Bashar believes that if the immigration does not end soon, then there will be nobody left for any administration to take charge of.

Radwan Badini, a specialist in Syrian affairs, believes that the PYD has other schemes based on the border crossing. He thinks that its demand to open the borders and allow more Syrian Kurds to cross into Iraq puts pressure on the other Syrian Kurdish parties to form the administrative authority the PYD wants. “The PYD wants to show that if immigration continues unchecked, and if the situation in Kurdish Syria remains as it is, then the whole area will be difficult to control without some kind of reorganization,” Badini suggests. “It’s going to be very difficult without the formation of an administrative authority.”

Badini believes that it is essential that any administration in Kurdish Syria be one that unites all the different parties. “If it isn’t then it won’t be supported by all the different sectors of Kurdish politics and society – it’s not like there were free elections held,” Badini points out. “That means the administration will fail.”

“The best thing to do now would be to declare themselves autonomous,” Badini suggests “That would be better than forming an administrative authority and it will bring the Kurds closer to true independence after the fall of the al-Assad regime.”