Connect to share and comment

Syria: The Kurdish conundrum

Syria’s Kurds are moving to establish an autonomous region in the north, adding yet another level of complexity to the conflict.

behalf of the Assad regime.

“[Kurdish] militia shot into the air and beat up protesters,” an anti-Assad Kurdish activist from Afrin told the IRIN news agency recently.

So when Syrian troops pulled out of Kobane late last month, what was heralded as the “liberation” of the first town in Western Kurdistan by some Kurdish media was met with suspicion by others.

For Jawan, the Syrian withdrawal represented the “first step to self-determination” for Syria’s Kurds. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, he said, had “seized” the town from Assad’s security forces.

Siamend Hajo, of the website Kurdwatch in Berlin, saw things very differently.

“One dictatorship has replaced another,” he told IRIN.

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s formerly close ties to the Syrian regime have left many Kurds suspicious of its motives. Since the uprising began in March 2011, observers estimate between 1,000 and 2,000 members of the group have crossed into Syria from their base in the Qandil Mountains along the Iraq-Iran border.

With the tacit consent of the Assad regime, Kurdish militiamen began establishing checkpoints and local councils, which stretched from Qamishli in the northeast tip of Syria right into Aleppo, the capital of the north where regime troops are now fighting Free Syrian Army rebels.

More from GlobalPost: Aleppo, Syria's sleeping giant, stirs

“We organize all security measures without any interference from the regime,” a 28-year-old Kurdish militiaman in Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud district told GlobalPost. “We have been armed for a long time because most of our members train with the PKK.”

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party was providing security in Aleppo’s Kurdish-majority neighborhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh, he said, distributing cooking gas and bread to displaced families.

Across both neighborhoods, Kurdish fighters carried arms in public in the daytime, something unthinkable only this time last year when the Assad regime was still largely in control of northern Syria. GlobalPost saw no visible sign of the Assad regime’s presence, as police stations flew the red-starred flag of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

“We won’t let either the regime or the Free Syrian Army come into our area,” said the Kurdish fighter. “We have our plans for the post-Assad era.”

Those plans are meant to include all other major Kurdish parties in Syria.

According to the terms of a recent deal hammered out in Erbil by Barzani on July 11, all major parties will work together to secure Syria’s Kurdish regions.

But according to a spokesman for the Kurdish National Council, Abdulbaqi Yousef, when its activists raised the golden sun flag of Kurdistan in Kobane, it was swiftly pulled down by armed militiamen from the Democratic Union Party, who replaced it with their red-starred party flag.

The switch provided a graphic illustration of the mistrust that pervades Kurdish politics in Syria. Indeed, some are suspicious of where allegiances lie.

“The PYD [Democratic Union Party] takes its orders from the Assad regime. We call them the Kurdish shabiha,” Ibrahim, a member of the Kudish National Council in Kobane, told GlobalPost, referring to pro-regime mercenaries.

“There was no liberation here, but a handover from the regime to the PYD. Assad wants to kill two birds with one stone: Incite an Arab-Kurdish conflict; and threaten Turkey that, if Assad goes, the Syrian Kurds will announce an independent state and then the Turkish Kurds will do the same.”

Issa, a Baath Party school teacher and member of a large Arab tribe from the Arab belt of villages that surround Kobane, told GlobalPost that he understood Kurdish grievances. But he rejected any move toward Kurdish self-rule.

“Syria should be for all, but Arabs are the majority,” he said. “I don’t think the Arab tribes would ever accept splitting off part of Syria and putting it under rule from Erbil.”

Turkey has already reacted strongly to the Kurdish moves, staging exercises with 25 tanks along Turkey’s southern border, the first such exercises in the area for more than a decade.

More from GlobalPost: Erdogan: Kurd rebels inside Syria will not be tolerated

Turkey’s Foreign Minister flew to Erbil to extract a joint statement from Barzani that “any attempt to exploit the power vacuum (in Syria) by any violent group or organization will be considered a common threat” between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Yet even as the international dimension of Syria’s Kurdish conundrum was heating up, Barzani told Al Jazeera that the Kurdish Regional Government had been training its own Syrian fighters near Erbil, ready to dispatch back to Syria to fill the “security vacuum.”

The International Crisis Group estimates that about 650 trained fighters from northern Iraq are ready to return to Syria. Analysts said the training had been coordinated with the Kudish National Council as a hedge against the rising power in Syria of theDemocratic Union Party, raising the prospects of inter-Kurdish violence.

“We should block these efforts by the Assad regime to create marginal conflicts between Kurds, our Arab brothers or Turkey,” said the Kurdish National Council’s Ibrahim. “We are struggling to get freedom for all Syrians, not just Kurds.”

But riven with rivalries and long exploited in the proxy warfare of the Middle East, the path to freedom for Syria’s Kurds looks anything but smooth.

“A major factor of instability has thus been added to an already volatile region,” said Patrick Seale, a veteran historian of Syrian affairs. “The Kurdish pot is simmering. If it boils over, it risks scalding everyone within reach.”