At a recent meeting in London, I asked a Syrian Kurd whose affiliations are
close to the nationalist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) why the Kurds of Syria
remained on the sidelines in the uprising against President Bashar
The Kurds of Syria, who number around 10 percent of the country’s
population, have largely preferred to avoid active involvement in the civil war
now taking place.
His reply was enlightening. “What uprising?” he asked.
“What’s going on in Syria is a fight between the Assad regime on the one hand
and the Turkish government and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. The Kurds
have no part in this, and we need to protect our own areas against both the
Assad regime and the possibility of Turkish intervention.”
This was not
idle speculation. The PKK and its Syrian affiliates are currently organizing to
prevent the Syrian revolution and its armed elements from activity in Kurdish
areas in the country.
This is leading to tensions with the Free Syrian
The FSA now controls significant territorial enclaves within Syria.
One of the largest of these stretches from the Turkish border in northern Aleppo
province, west of Aleppo city and down to the area north of Idleb
East of Aleppo, however, is an area of largely Kurdish
In the large area of Syria’s northeast, stretching from the
triangular border area where Syria meets Turkey and Iraq, to the town of Efrin,
east of Aleppo city, the FSA has found its activities hindered by the presence
of an armed Kurdish element.
These armed Kurds are not merely a local
initiative. According to a report by Mohammad Ballout at the respected Al
Monitor website, 4,000 to 4,500 PKK fighters travelled over the last year from
the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq to northern Syria. Their presence,
alongside mobilized local men, ensures the dominance in this majority Kurdish
area of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the PKK’s
representative movement among the Kurds of Syria.
This force has no
interest in allowing Kurdish areas to be used for the operations of an
insurgency which they regard as Turkish-sponsored and Sunni Arab in
The Assad regime has been happy to take advantage of the
opportunity to ensure quiet in the northeast. According to Ballout’s report, the
regime released 640 PYD members from its prisons in 2011. Most of these
militants made their way to the north to take part in the securing of the
The town of Efrin, east of Aleppo, offers a gateway into
Syria’s secondlargest city. The Free Syrian Army identifies securing control of
Aleppo as a strategic goal. But the presence of the PYD-controlled fighters, who
maintain checkpoints along the road from Efrin to Aleppo, has prevented the FSA
from achieving this objective. The Kurdish fighters also try to prevent the
smuggling of Saudi, Turkish and Qatari arms for the rebels across the Turkish
border into the area they control.
The Kurdish-controlled area in Syria’s
northwest has been acknowledged by the FSA leadership to represent a significant
challenge. Gen. Mustafa al- Sheikh, FSA chief of staff, told a Turkish newspaper
that “the Syrian regime is trying to use the Kurds. The PKK has been mobilized
in Syria on orders of the regime. The Syrian regime is supporting the PKK now
against the interests of Turkey.”
Colonel Riyad Asaad of the FSA, who,
like Sheikh, is based in southern Turkey, concurred that PKK fighters were
present in the Efrin region. “The PKK guerrillas,” Asaad said, “are hindering
the movement of our armed forces in these regions.”
The PYD is not
The party is an affiliate of the National Coordination
Committee, an opposition coalition that opposes external intervention into
This group is regarded by the FSA and the Syrian National Council
as a stooge of the regime.
PYD representatives freely acknowledge their
opposition to FSA activity in the Kurdish northeast. Hussein Kocher, a local
representative of the PYD, noted that “some time ago, units of the FSA wanted to
enter the Efrin region but the Kurdish people did not allow them. Kurds have
their own forces and do not need Arab forces or forces from other
The PYD is of course not the only element active among the
Kurds of Syria’s northeast.
But even its rivals in the 11-party Kurdish
National Council (KNC), who are close to the Kurdish Regional Government of
northern Iraq, are sceptical regarding the pro-Turkish and -Arab nature of the
uprising. Following recent tensions, the two groups signed an agreement
sponsored by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to prevent intra- Kurdish
This agreement seals the de facto Kurdish control of a large
swathe of Syria’s northeast and the placing of this area off limits to the
insurgency against the Assad regime for the foreseeable future.
among the Kurds there is not pro-regime. Demonstrations calling for the downfall
of Assad do take place.
But the distrust of the Turkish-backed rebel
forces runs broad and deep. The general consensus against allowing FSA activity
is strengthened by a determination to spare the Kurdish population from the
brutal regime retribution meted out elsewhere in the country.
Kurdish scepticism toward the rebellion is well-based. The main strategic backer
of the rebels is indeed Erdogan’s Turkey. The Turkish government remains opposed
to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy. Erdogan has ensured a top-heavy
representation for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Turkish-sponsored Syrian
But even non-Islamist elements in the SNC and the FSA
look for the most part suspiciously like Arab nationalists, from the Kurdish
point of view. The appointment of a Kurd, Abd al Baset Sieda, as the nominal
head of the SNC is likely to prove insufficient to dispel this sense.
the Kurdish strategy appears to be to seek to sit out the Syrian civil war. If
the rebels win, the Kurds will then try to negotiate from a position of strength
with the new regime, from their fastness in the northeast of the country. In the
unlikely event of Assad prevailing, the Kurdish stance will mean that they will
avoid the worst fury of the regime’s revenge.
Minority communities have
not so far done well out of the Arab uprisings.
The main victor in Egypt,
Libya and Tunisia has been Sunni Islamism.
The Kurds of Syria differ from
many other regional minorities in that they possess separatist defense
structures of their own. In the context of the earthquake currently taking place
in Syria and beyond it, it is not surprising that they prefer to place their
trust only in themselves.