The Kurdish issue in Syria and the role of Massoud Barzani beyond Iraq

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Iraq is directly affected by events in neighboring Syria, and the main link is – inevitably – the Kurdish question. Initiated by Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani, a series of high-level meetings have recently been held in the regional capital, Erbil, to address the tensions within Syria’s Kurdish opposition.

Embarrassing squabbling between Kurdish representatives during the latest Cairo conference comes at a time of increasing concern about intra-Kurdish conflict on the ground, particularly following clashes in Efrin – a town of strategic importance given its proximity to both the Turkish border and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

President Barzani’s invitation to leaders of both the Kurdish National Council (KNC) – a body representing the majority of Syrian Kurdish political parties – and the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) with its associated People’s Council of Western Kurdistan is an unprecedented gesture, indicating the current political importance of Syrian Kurdish relations for the region.  

While the developing security situation in Kurdish areas was the central and pressing subject of discussions, KNC leader Ismail Hemme also commented that, “It is unfair to blame Kurds for the failure of the Cairo meeting. Actions of the international community are dividing, rather than unifying, the opposition. The meeting was therefore pre-determined to be unsuccessful, and it should be noted that a lot of Arabs also withdrew.” The President of PYD, Saleh Mohamed, also stated that, “Prior to the conference there had been talk of constitutional agreements [recognizing the Kurdish entity], but during the conference people spoke differently.”

One major point of disagreement between these two factions of the Kurdish opposition – KNC and PYD – has been the question of how to secure the Kurdish region. PYD, through its People’s Assembly of Western Kurdistan, has taken the initiative to establish local checkpoints, according to Mohamed, “in order to protect our Kurdish people by making sure weapons are not brought into Kurdish villages. Security from the [Syrian] government is weak in these areas.” He further argues that the checkpoints “have helped until now to keep the peace, not completely, but more than in other regions.”

Others, however, suggest that the reason for relative peace in the Kurdish areas is due to the fact that the Syrian government has tried to avoid antagonizing Kurds into further mobilization. According to Hemme, PYD’s control comes “without popular consent [and] this makes people afraid.” Furthermore, Mustafa Jumaa, also a member of the KNC, and leader of the Kurdish Azadi (Freedom) Party, who was recently detained for one day at a PYD checkpoint, says that when he became aware of PYD’s intention to take military control six months ago, the Kurdish Council discussed its concerns, but decided not to take action. “Within the Council, there are two competing views,” he continues. “Firstly, there are those who believe we should be active now in maintaining security among Kurds. Others say that we should wait until the fall of Bashar (al Assad) before implementing such a policy.”

On this point, Hemme commented that he hopes that in the coming days the Kurdish National Council will begin to establish its own security structures. These, he commented will be independent, but “based on friendly relations with the Free Syrian Army” – the rebel army, which is currently opposing Assad’s forces in much of Syria. As a model, he cited the current relationship between the Kurdish Peshmerga corps in the Kurdistan Federal Region and the central Iraqi Army.

Responding to reports of recent Kurdish-Kurdish clashes, PYD leader Mohamed, who is “following events on the ground closely,” described the incidents as “nothing important.” However, he concedes that there is “something complicated at the moment” in Efrin, where PYD associates have come into conflict with members of the Free Efrin defense regiment and other youth groups. Mohamed affirmed that other groups have the legitimate right to defend their local districts, “as long as this is not against the people.” He also mentioned that an investigation committee has been formed, comprising two members from the KNC, two members from the PYD associated People’s Council and one independent. 

However, KNC representation present at the meeting said they were unable to confirm the establishment of such a committee. There is similar contestation over the status of an Agreement for Joint Implementation signed one months ago (between KNC and PYD), with the former lamenting lack of implementation, while the latter contends that there are joint committees located in Efrin, Raqqa and Kobani, but that these have not – as yet – been activated. Further Saleh Mohamed complained that certain paragraphs of the agreement have been neglected by the KNC, resulting in the exclusion of PYD from agreed joint diplomatic activities.

On July 11th, the two Kurdish councils officially signed the “Hewler Declaration” –  a political agreement supported by President Barzani, which mandates the formation of a joint “Executive Kurdish Body” and three committees for ground-level operations by a deadline of two weeks. Considering the results of this series of meetings, Mr. Jumaa stated, “We have sat together many times before and we do really make agreements, but this is often not reflected on the ground.” He suggests that it is difficult for political actors to control what is happening locally. However, he adds, “If PYD is genuinely committed to such agreements, they should not use their organizational structure [and ambiguous relationship between related bodies] as a means of avoiding taking responsibility for what happens.”

Kohderz Temir, a member of Tevgera Ciwanên Kurd (TCK) – the Kurdish Youth Movement – based in the Kurdish city of Qamishli, regrets that the KNC did not manage to agree on suitable terms for PYD to be incorporated into the Kurdish Council on its establishment in August 2011. He concludes that current distribution of influence between the two groups is close to 50-50, both on the ground and internationally. Temir adds, “We must think of the interests of the people above the interests of the parties. If PYD and the KNC cannot work together, each one will be weaker.”

While Jumaa from the KNC claims that PYD’s popularity has sunk as a result of its current security policies, the party’s own leader suggests a contrary trend. According to Temir, both claims contain some truth, since a number of long-term supporters have recently chosen to distance themselves from the party, while sections of the youth are undoubtedly attracted by the possibility of active participation in PYD’s security operations. He acknowledges the need for security, but stresses that “checkpoints to protect the Kurdish people should be on the borders of Kurdistan. Internal checkpoints, for example here in central Qamishli, are frustrating people rather than protecting them.” Finally, Temir conveyed a message from the Kurdish Youth Movement to President Barzani: “Our hopes rest with you, since you are the only one who can hold the Kurdish parties accountable and ensure implementation of their agreements.”