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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.

Syria kurds north aleppoEnlarge
Syrian Kurds hold their rifles, as they flash the sign for victory, in the Kurdish town of Jinderes, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, on July 22, 2012, as Kurdish activists on the Syria-Turkey border started taking control of towns in the area without encountering much resistance from the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

KOBANE, Syria — Life just got a lot more complicated for Kurds in this town on the Syrian-Turkish border.

First, what do they call their town? Do they live in Ayn Arab, as the Assad regime told them, after moving thousands of Arab families to the area to dilute its Kurdish majority?

Or do they call it Kobane, the Kurdish name the townspeople use, but which doesn’t show up on any modern Syrian map?

Then there’s the more vexing question of which country they inhabit. Are they residents of Syria, 90 miles northeast of Aleppo? Or do they live in western Kurdistan, that great leg-shaped swath of Kurdish dominated territory, part imagined, part realized, stretching from the mountains of southeast Turkey across the western edge of Iran and deep into northern Iraq?

More from GlobalPost: Complete Coverage from Inside Syria

And finally, after Syrian troops pulled out of Kobane recently, which flag should they have flown in this newly “liberated” town? The green-striped flag of the Syrian revolution, which many Kurds say they support? Or the yellow sun flag of Kurdistan, which now flies in northern Iraq?

With attention focused on Assad’s life-or-death struggle with Syria’s largely Sunni Arab opposition, recent moves by Kurdish leaders to assert their autonomy have added a layer of complexity that could ultimately decide the status of a large portion of post-civil war Syria.

Kurdish independence aspirations are a major issue in the region, where the ethnic group dominates large swaths of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. The Syrian conflict is already fueling tension among these neighbors, with Iran blaming Turkey on Tuesday for supporting anti-Assad rebels.  

“We should learn from what happened in Iraq. We too have the right to run our Kurdish region as we want,” Jawan, a member of Syria’s Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish initials PYD, told GlobalPost.

More from GlobalPost: Who are the Kurds? An Explainer.

The group is the Syrian branch of the radical Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the PKK, which has fought a 28-year separatist war in Turkey in which more than 40,000 people have died. Turkey, the United States and the EU consider the PKK a terrorist group.

“For decades we have been calling for our cultural and political rights. Today we should take these rights by our own hands,” Jawan said.

Many Syrian Kurds have long yearned for the kind of autonomous self-rule now enjoyed by their brethren in Iraq. Kurds here have long felt oppressed under four decades of Assad rule. They are banned from speaking Kurdish, often tortured in prison for organizing politically and have been stripped of much of their best farmland.

More from GlobalPost: Can the Kurds tip the scales in Syria?

After remaining largely on the sidelines of Syria’s uprising, Kurdish leaders see in the Syrian conflict an opportunity to exert their independence, not just from the Assad regime but also from the opposition.

Negotiations between Kurdish leaders and the opposition Syrian National Council have repeatedly broken down over Kurdish insistence that their rights as Kurds, distinct from the Arab majority, be enshrined in a post-Assad constitution. The Syrian National Council has rejected such a move, calling it overtly separatist.

“We don’t want our Kurdish regions to be a battlefield for Assad’s forces and the Free Syrian Army and we don’t expect much from the Syrian National Council. We want to be secure and away from problems,” Jawan said.

But if Kurds see a chance for autonomy, their fractious internal politics may prevent them from forging the unified front needed to seize the opportunity.

The conflict between Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), largely based on tribal rivalries, has defined Kurdish politics since the 1970s. Talabani is now president of Iraq, while Barzani heads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

In Syria, despite being banned from politics, Kurds are divided into at least a dozen parties that not only compete for leadership of their community but also diverge on existential questions, such as how hard to push for autonomous self-rule and whether to oppose or cooperate with the Assad regime.

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Kurdish militiamen have been accused of breaking up Kurdish anti-regime protests in northeast Syria, leading many to view them as operating on