Will Syria's Kurds benefit from the
By Jonathan Marcus, BBC Diplomatic Correspondent
August 11, 2012
Syria's Kurdish activists have begun to take control
of Kurdish towns in Syrian Kurdistan (western
Kurdistan) near the border with Turkey. Photo
credit: Hajer Ghareeb. •
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Heavy armoured vehicles of Turkish military are
stationed in front of Gecimli military outpost of
Kurdish PKK rebels in Turkey's Kurdish region.
Photo: Getty Images.
Many Syrian Kurds have fled to Iraq's Kurdistan
region to escape the violence. Photo: Reuters
Kurdish inhabited area
In any assessment of the potential winners and
losers from the political chaos in Syria, the
country's Kurdish minority could be among the
The Kurds make up a little over 10% of the
population. Long marginalised by the Alawite-dominated
government, they are largely concentrated in
north-eastern Syria, up towards the Turkish border.
Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the
Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, believes
that the Kurds could be one of the main
beneficiaries of the demise of the regime of
President Bashar al-Assad.
"Syria is coming apart, and there's not much chance
it will be reassembled with the kind of centralised
authority we saw under the Assads."
For the Syrian Kurds, whom he describes as "part of
the largest single ethnic grouping in the region
that lacks a state", there is "an opportunity to
create more autonomy and respect for Kurdish
"They have the motivation, opportunity, and their
Kurdish allies in Iraq and Turkey to encourage them.
But what will hold them back is Turkey's
determination to prevent a mini-statelet in Syria
along with the Kurds own internal divisions," he
"It is unlikely," he believes, "that Syria's Kurds
will be able to establish a separate entity in
Syria. Nor will the United States, nor the
international community accept that."
"At the same time, the several dimensions of the
Kurdish problem - the Iraqi Kurds' growing
determination to remain a separate entity; Turkish
determination to avoid another mini-Kurdistan along
the Syrian-Iraqi border; and the issue of the PKK,
the armed Kurdish insurgents fighting the Turkish
Army - will create a real flashpoint."
There in a nutshell is the scale of the problem.
The Kurds' future in Syria will have an important
bearing upon what sort of country it is going to
But the fate of the Syrian Kurds also has
ramifications well beyond the country's borders.
These processes are already under way.
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Politics
at the London School of Economics, told me that "the
Syrian Kurds have already seized the moment and are
laying the foundation for an autonomous region like
their counterparts in Iraq".
"The exit of Assad's forces from the Kurdish areas
has complicated the crisis and deepened Turkey's
fears that its borders with Iraq and Syria will be
volatile for years to come," he says.
"The Kurdish factor in the Syrian crisis will prove
to be as significant as the Kurdish question in
Prof Ofra Bengio, head of the Kurdish Studies
programme at the Moshe Dayan Centre at Tel Aviv
"The Kurdish dimension is likely to become a potent
factor in the near future because of the weakening
of each of the states in which they live, because
co-operation among the states for curbing the Kurds
is non-existent, and because the Kurds have made
headway in the United States and in the West, where
they proved their loyalty and lack of religious
"In a word, the West might like to support them."
If a Kurdish spectre is stalking the region then it
is probably Turkey that has most reason to be
Even as Ankara has watched developments in Syria
with unease, its own struggle with guerrilla
fighters of the Kurdish PKK has flared up again -
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu insisting
that the Syrian government is encouraging the PKK,
to get its own back for Turkey's insistence that
President Assad must go.
But it is even more complicated than this. The
dominant Kurdish faction inside Syria is a close
ally - some say even an off-shoot - of the PKK. It
has little love for the mainstream Syrian opposition
championed by the Turks.
Whilst fighting the PKK on one front, Turkey is
desperately trying to curb the political ambitions
of Syria's Kurds by political means.
Indeed the ramifications of the Kurdish issue go
even further. Prof Gerges insists that the Kurdish
question "is here to stay".
"It transcends national borders and has the
potential to redraw the Sykes-Pico agreement, which,
after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918,
established existing nation-state boundaries.
"Although it is too early to talk about the
emergence of a greater Kurdistan, an imagined
community of Kurds resonates deeply among Kurds
across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran."
It is in this sense the upheavals associated with
the "Arab Spring" take on their full regional
The Sykes-Picot Agreement (named not surprisingly
after the two negotiators, Mr Georges Picot and Sir
Mark Sykes) was a secret understanding made between
France and Britain in 1916 for the dismemberment of
the Ottoman Empire.
The agreement led to the division of Turkish-held
areas of the Levant into various French and British
administered territories which eventually gave rise
to the modern-day states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and
Fawaz Gerges asserts that the events in Syria and
their potential repercussions risk over-turning this
familiar world; a broader re-ordering of the region
in which Kurdish aspirations are just one part of a
very complex picture.
"Many of the problems in the contemporary Middle
East are traced to that colonial-era Sykes-Picot
map, which established the state system in the
region. The Palestine and Kurdish questions are
cases in point."
"National borders do not correspond to imagined
communities. Although the state system has
established deep roots in the Middle East in the
last nine decades,www.ekurd.net
the current uprisings have starkly exposed the
fragility of the colonial system imposed on the
"My take is that the great powers, together with
their local partners, will fight tooth and nail to
prevent the redrawing of the borders of the state
system in the Middle East.
"For once the map is re-drawn, where would the
limits be? There would be a real danger of perpetual
instability and conflict," he says.
The Kurds of Syria, of course, are not in quite the
same position as their brothers in Iraq and would
find it much harder to break away.
Noted Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University
of Oklahoma says that while Syria's Kurds are a
compact minority they are not a majority even in the
north eastern border area with Turkey - where they
constitute some 30-40% of the population.
They have sometimes tense relations with local Sunni
Arab tribes who see this as an integral part of
Syrian territory, reinforced by the fact that this
is an area rich in oil resources vital to the Syrian
Prof Landis argues that what is going on in the
Kurdish north-east offers a useful pointer to
President Assad's "Plan B" should his control over
key cities like Damascus and Aleppo crumble.
He says that the "embattled president withdrew
government forces from the north-east because he
couldn't control it and wanted to focus on the most
important battles in Aleppo and Damascus".
"But in the back of the president's mind, there may
be the thought that empowering the Kurds is a way of
weakening the Sunni Arab majority and underlining
the risks of fragmentation should his government
fall. It's a strategy of playing upon divisions to
sow chaos," he said.
This way, says Prof Landis, "the Syrian Army - which
is rapidly becoming an Alawite militia, whilst still
the strongest military force - may lose control over
large swathes of the country, but will remain a
vital factor in determining the political outcome in
It is a bleak prospect.
Prof Landis asserts that President Assad "may lose
Syria, but could still remain a player, and his
Alawite minority will not be destroyed".
"That's the future of Syria," he says, with little
enthusiasm. "It's what Lebanon was and what Iraq
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