The ‘Arab Spring’ and the Kurds of Syria

– The ‘Arab Spring’, has not only influenced Arab peoples but other groups as well. –

The wave of uprisings that has been sweeping the greater region of the Middle East is first and foremost a wave of hope, ambition, and inspiration. This wave has also touched the Kurds. To be sure, the most important issue with regard to the Kurds which has arisen in the midst of the Arab Spring, relates to the case of Syria, and, by extension, to Turkey. What are the ambitions and limitations of the Kurdish minority opposition in Syria?

In Syria, the destabilization of the regime and the current domestic fluidity in the country gives the Kurds the opportunity to claim their rights and more liberties – something that they have always wanted. However, there are divisions among the Kurdish opposition that make the goals of the Kurds hard to achieve, while also posing serious challenges to the effectiveness of the Syrian revolt. The Syrian Kurdish National Council (SKNC), as the largest opposition group, supports the revolution and has certain demands to make of the government that will succeed Assad. These demands concern issues like the constitutional recognition of the Kurds, the previous discriminatory policies and laws of the regime, and the desire for a greater degree of autonomy. In the words of Hassan Saleh, a member of the SKNC and the deputy secretary of the Kurdish Yekiti Party in Syria:

 “Political decentralization has become necessary to build a modern state, and I believe that the federal system is the best way for internal peaceful coexistence. […] In Syria, there are contiguous Kurdish areas that the Kurdish community can manage as their own federal region by managing their own legislative, judicial, and executive affairs, but [nevertheless] participating in federal authorities, institutions, and councils according to the proportion of their population.”

The call for greater autonomy is clear. Yet, the federal system is not the most radical aim among the Kurds of Syria and beyond. After all, it could already be said that there are far too many Kurdish political parties and even militia groups with different goals. This fact, in conjunction with the existing semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, in Northern Iraq, and the PKK’s (Workers Party of Kurdistan) efforts for Kurdish autonomy since the late 1970s and early 1980s, creates unfavourable prospects both for Syria, which is in a state of chaos, and of course for Turkey. These possibilities include the vision among some Kurdish nationalist circles for the rather unlikely scenario – at least for now – of ‘Great Kurdistan’, which includes territories from Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.

While a ‘Great Kurdistan’ would be a security threat to all countries concerned, the secessionist PKK is currently a real threat only to Turkey, mainly because it maintains ties with the Syrian regime. That is one of the reasons why the Kurdish opposition is divided and why the Kurdish protests have been limited in relation to other protest movements in the country. Furthermore, the PKK and the politically similar Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party) have been developing closer relations with Russia and China aimed at furthering their goal for autonomy, which is in contrast to Turkish and Western support for the Free Syrian Army. Thus, the PKK and PYD seem to be exploiting every means available for the achievement of their ends. Even if that means that they will be both cooperating with and fighting the Assad regime at the same time.

On the other hand, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is supported by the Western powers, recently made an effort to reach wider Kurdish masses by electing the Kurdish activist Abdelbasset Sida as its leader. At the same time the Turkish government has been trying to improve its relations with Iraqi Kurdistan for several reasons, including the improvement of the relationship between the SNC and SKNC through the involvement of the Iraqi Kurdish president. Even leaving aside the remaining international and regional political issues that make the situation more complicated, it still remains to be seen whether the SNC will gain the trust of the Syrian Kurds, and in particular the SKNC, by providing assurances in relation to its political demands in a post-Assad Syria.

In general, the Arab uprisings have created a dynamic situation which affected the Kurdish issue and could further legitimize Kurdish movements that seek either a greater degree of freedom and recognition or even secessionism. Yet, the Kurds have thus far not been very successful in exploiting the opportunity which has been given to them through the Arab Spring, even though their struggle could have well been at the forefront of the current events in the Middle East.

Zenonas Tziarras

Published on Global Politics, June 16, 2012.



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