Will Syria's Kurds benefit from the crisis?

Syrian Kurds stand in the street in the Kurdish town of Jinderes, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, on July 22, 2012 Syria's Kurdish activists have begun to take control of towns near the border with Turkey

In any assessment of the potential winners and losers from the political chaos in Syria, the country's Kurdish minority could be among the winners.

The Kurds make up a little over 10% of the population. Long marginalised by the Alawite-dominated government, they are largely concentrated in north-eastern Syria, up towards the Turkish border.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, believes that the Kurds could be one of the main beneficiaries of the demise of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"Syria is coming apart, and there's not much chance it will be reassembled with the kind of centralised authority we saw under the Assads."

For the Syrian Kurds, whom he describes as "part of the largest single ethnic grouping in the region that lacks a state", there is "an opportunity to create more autonomy and respect for Kurdish rights".

"They have the motivation, opportunity, and their Kurdish allies in Iraq and Turkey to encourage them. But what will hold them back is Turkey's determination to prevent a mini-statelet in Syria along with the Kurds own internal divisions," he says.

Start Quote

The Kurdish factor in the Syrian crisis will prove to be as significant as the Kurdish question in Iraq”

End Quote Prof Fawaz Gerges London School of Economics

"It is unlikely," he believes, "that Syria's Kurds will be able to establish a separate entity in Syria. Nor will the United States, nor the international community accept that."

"At the same time, the several dimensions of the Kurdish problem - the Iraqi Kurds' growing determination to remain a separate entity; Turkish determination to avoid another mini-Kurdistan along the Syrian-Iraqi border; and the issue of the PKK, the armed Kurdish insurgents fighting the Turkish Army - will create a real flashpoint."

There in a nutshell is the scale of the problem.

The Kurds' future in Syria will have an important bearing upon what sort of country it is going to become.

Turkish worry

But the fate of the Syrian Kurds also has ramifications well beyond the country's borders. These processes are already under way.

Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the London School of Economics, told me that "the Syrian Kurds have already seized the moment and are laying the foundation for an autonomous region like their counterparts in Iraq".

"The exit of Assad's forces from the Kurdish areas has complicated the crisis and deepened Turkey's fears that its borders with Iraq and Syria will be volatile for years to come," he says.

Heavy armoured vehicles of Turkish military are stationed in front of Gecimli military outpost on 5 August 2012 at Cukurca in Hakkari Turkey has accused Syria of encouraging rebels from the Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK)

"The Kurdish factor in the Syrian crisis will prove to be as significant as the Kurdish question in Iraq."

Prof Ofra Bengio, head of the Kurdish Studies programme at the Moshe Dayan Centre at Tel Aviv University, agrees.

"The Kurdish dimension is likely to become a potent factor in the near future because of the weakening of each of the states in which they live, because co-operation among the states for curbing the Kurds is non-existent, and because the Kurds have made headway in the United States and in the West, where they proved their loyalty and lack of religious extremism.

"In a word, the West might like to support them."

If a Kurdish spectre is stalking the region then it is probably Turkey that has most reason to be worried.

Even as Ankara has watched developments in Syria with unease, its own struggle with guerrilla fighters of the Kurdish PKK (designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US) has flared up again.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu has insisted that the Syrian government is encouraging the PKK, to get its own back for Turkey's insistence that President Assad must go.

But it is even more complicated than this. The dominant Kurdish faction inside Syria is a close ally - some say even an off-shoot - of the PKK. It has little love for the mainstream Syrian opposition championed by the Turks.

Colonial borders

Whilst fighting the PKK on one front, Turkey is desperately trying to curb the political ambitions of Syria's Kurds by political means.

Indeed the ramifications of the Kurdish issue go even further. Prof Gerges insists that the Kurdish question "is here to stay".

"It transcends national borders and has the potential to redraw the Sykes-Pico agreement, which, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, established existing nation-state boundaries.

Syrian Kurds hold their rifles in Jinderes, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, 22 July 2012 Kurds in Syria have long complained of discrimination by the government

"Although it is too early to talk about the emergence of a greater Kurdistan, an imagined community of Kurds resonates deeply among Kurds across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran."

It is in this sense the upheavals associated with the "Arab Spring" take on their full regional significance.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (named not surprisingly after the two negotiators, Mr Georges Picot and Sir Mark Sykes) was a secret understanding made between France and Britain in 1916 for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

The agreement led to the division of Turkish-held areas of the Levant into various French and British administered territories which eventually gave rise to the modern-day states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and ultimately Israel.

Members of a Syrian refugee family, who fled the violence back home at a camp near Zakho, are seen at an Iraqi border town with Syria, June 23, 2012. Many Syrian Kurds have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan to escape the violence

Fawaz Gerges asserts that the events in Syria and their potential repercussions risk over-turning this familiar world; a broader re-ordering of the region in which Kurdish aspirations are just one part of a very complex picture.

"Many of the problems in the contemporary Middle East are traced to that colonial-era Sykes-Picot map, which established the state system in the region. The Palestine and Kurdish questions are cases in point."

"National borders do not correspond to imagined communities. Although the state system has established deep roots in the Middle East in the last nine decades, the current uprisings have starkly exposed the fragility of the colonial system imposed on the region.

"My take is that the great powers, together with their local partners, will fight tooth and nail to prevent the redrawing of the borders of the state system in the Middle East.

"For once the map is re-drawn, where would the limits be? There would be a real danger of perpetual instability and conflict," he says.

Map showing the Kurdish inhabited areas on the borders of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Armenia.
Sowing chaos?

The Kurds of Syria, of course, are not in quite the same position as their brothers in Iraq and would find it much harder to break away.

Start Quote

In the back of the president's mind, there may be the thought that empowering the Kurds is a way of weakening the Sunni Arab majority”

End Quote Joshua Landis Syrian expert

Noted Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma says that while Syria's Kurds are a compact minority they are not a majority even in the north eastern border area with Turkey - where they constitute some 30-40% of the population.

They have sometimes tense relations with local Sunni Arab tribes who see this as an integral part of Syrian territory, reinforced by the fact that this is an area rich in oil resources vital to the Syrian economy.

Prof Landis argues that what is going on in the Kurdish north-east offers a useful pointer to President Assad's "Plan B" should his control over key cities like Damascus and Aleppo crumble.

He says that the "embattled president withdrew government forces from the north-east because he couldn't control it and wanted to focus on the most important battles in Aleppo and Damascus".

"But in the back of the president's mind, there may be the thought that empowering the Kurds is a way of weakening the Sunni Arab majority and underlining the risks of fragmentation should his government fall. It's a strategy of playing upon divisions to sow chaos," he said.

This way, says Prof Landis, "the Syrian Army - which is rapidly becoming an Alawite militia, whilst still the strongest military force - may lose control over large swathes of the country, but will remain a vital factor in determining the political outcome in Syria".

It is a bleak prospect.

Prof Landis asserts that President Assad "may lose Syria, but could still remain a player, and his Alawite minority will not be destroyed".

"That's the future of Syria," he says, with little enthusiasm. "It's what Lebanon was and what Iraq became."

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