The Kurds in Syria have declared an autonomous region in the northern and eastern parts of the country where they have large populations.
The announcement comes on the heels of battle successes against Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), among the most powerful of the myriad homegrown and foreign forces fighting the Assad regime.
Since the latest fighting between the Syrian Kurds and Al Qaeda affiliates broke out in July, the dominant Kurdish organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has used its battle successes to burnish its image among Kurds and consolidate its hold over the region.
With a population of somewhere between 30 and 40 million, the Kurds are among the largest people to not have their own sovereign state. Saddam Hussein launched a bloody campaign against the Kurds in the northern portion of Iraq, after they sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War that lasted through most of the 1980s. Towards the end of the conflict in 1988 a large-scale gas attack killed several thousand people. A large number of Kurds also live in southern Turkey, where the far-left Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fought a long conflict for independence, which stopped earlier this year after a unilateral ceasefire (though the conflict may get hot again, over Syria). The PYD draws a lot of support from the PKK, and a lot of material support from the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, which has a relative level of stability and economic prosperity.
How groups create and reinforce their identity, and through that their claims to political autonomy or independence, fascinates me. And the situation of the Kurds is interesting- a very large amount of people forming important minorities in several separate countries. They form a third side in Syria, between anti-Assad and pro-Assad coalitions, but it doesn’t quite sync up. Mostly, the Kurds want control over the regions they inhabit, and thus don’t share the goal of keeping or removing Assad from power. By fighting ISIS and hardline Sunni militants, they are helping the Shite Assad in his campaign to defeat moderate and extreme rebel factions. However, at some point the politics of the region boil down to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Moderate rebels may fear or despise the al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters, but their mutual hatred of of the ruling regime always encourages cooperation as much as division. Kurds may be ambivalent to Assad, but need support to keep their territory together and keep connections to other groups in other countries open.
A couple months ago, when Western intervention seemed obvious, I attempted to draw a diagram of all the nations, governments, factions, militias, and coalitions in the Syrian conflict. Ultimately my piece of paper was a complete mess- and I know I left out a bunch of key and secondary players. The conflict is being fought until one or more sides is ground into dust, and the desperation brings an aggressive, merciless politics along with it.
In some ways, this is just the latest chapter in the Kurdish story- one of conflict and separation that predates the Syrian civil war by a long, long long time.