Anyone who witnessed events in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s will feel déjà vu as events in Kurdish Syria unfold. After Saddam Hussein withdrew from northern Iraq in 1991, due partly to a United States ‘no fly’ zone, the Kurds carved out a de facto autonomy that eventually became today’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a federal Iraq.
Could this happen in Syria? So far, the similarities are striking. Like fellow Baathist Saddam, Bashar al-Assad withdrew his forces, in 2012, in a move calculated to conserve military strength, as well as sow discord among opponents and alarm regional governments with Kurdish populations. In neither case was withdrawal total. As in Iraq, the government in Damascus still pays some civil servants, and indeed Assad’s security remains in the main Kurdish city of Qamishli.
As in 1990s Iraq, there are two rival Kurdish parties, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC). And as in Iraq, they want autonomy but have taken tactical decisions reflecting political complexities around them. Indeed, Iraqi Kurdistan suffered civil war from 1994 to 1997 between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), when the parties played on shifting alliances between Tehran, Ankara and Baghdad.
In Syria, the PYD and KNC have not as yet traded blows, which may reflect the strength of the PYD. They have, however, a different attitude to others in the Syrian maelstrom. The KNC have edged closer to the opposition Syrian National Coalition while the PYD leans toward the regime. What distinguishes the situation in Syria is the PYD’s close links with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which fought for decades in Turkey in the name of pan-Kurdish nationalism embracing Kurds of all countries. The PYD’s contacts with the Assad regime have their roots before 1998 when Hafez al-Assad insisted PKK leader Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan leave the country (under threats from Turkey).
The PYD denies “operational links” to the PKK but makes no secret of being part of the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), a cross-border grouping of parties following Ocalan’s ideology that also includes Pejak (the Free Life Party of Kurdistan), which operates in Iran.
PYD fighters and party events, including funerals, display Ocalan’s picture and PKK symbols, including a red star recalling the party’s origins as a Marxist group. In addition, PYD terminology reflects the PKK, including Ocalan’s ideas of ‘democratic autonomy’ and ‘democratic confederalism’ — which does not preclude the PYD from being a tight organization that critics condemn as dictatorship.
The PKK’s past commitment to an independent Kurdistan carved out of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, while moderated in recent years, jars with the Iraqi Kurdish parties’ acceptance of self-government within international borders, and their efforts to calm the fears of Turkey and Iran over Kurdish autonomy by arguing Kurds should achieve their rights peacefully.
Wariness of the PYD is seen especially in the KDP, whose leaders recall the PKK’s attacks in the 1990s from northern Iraq on Turkish forces, which prompted Turkish military intervention and led Ankara to garrison troops inside Iraq.
Even with Ocalan mellowing in a Turkish jail since capture in Nairobi in 1998, his Kurdish opponents will have read February’s interview in Vatan, the Turkish newspaper, with Cemil Bayik, a PKK founder. “Whoever wins in Syria will gain a place in the Middle East, and even in the world,” he said. “For the Kurds to win there, or to lose, will impact all of Kurdistan.”
The PKK last year declared a ceasefire in their near 30-year conflict in which at least 40,000 died, but some commanders have threatened renewed violence unless Prime Minister Recep Erdogan moves to ease restrictions on the Kurdish language and accepts a degree of Kurdish autonomy in continuing talks with the PKK. A return to war would alarm the Iraqi KRG, which has attracted considerable Turkish investment and sees Turkey as an export route for a targeted oil production of 2 million barrels a day by 2019.
At a popular level, Iraqi Kurds welcome developments in Syria, and their leadership recognizes its example of autonomy has inspired Kurds elsewhere. But Iraqi Kurdish officials are watching Syria carefully, fearing the growing strength of the PYD could jeopardize the KRG’s balancing act.