Syria’s Kurds Erect Own Government Ahead of Peace Talks

On the eve of negotiations in Switzerland, Syria’s Kurds declare a regional government of their own.

A child carries a Kurdistan flag in Qamishli, Syria, March 21, 2013
A child carries a Kurdistan flag in Qamishli, Syria, March 21, 2013 (Flickr/Beshr O)

Kurds in the north of wartorn Syria declared a regional government on Tuesday on the eve of peace talks in Switzerland at which they will not be represented.

The Kurds, numbering some two million and living almost entirely in Syria’s northeast, set up a municipal council to run affairs in one of three administrative districts that were earlier declared. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an advocacy group based in the United Kingdom, the body has its own president and cabinet. Elections would be held in four months’ time.

The Kurds had asked to send their own delegation to negotiations that are due to start in Montreux, Switzerland on Wednesday between representatives of the Syrian government and rebel groups but the Democratic Union Party, the dominant political force in the Kurdish region and the only political party there with an armed wing, said this request had been denied. It blamed regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both Sunni powers that support the uprising against Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, as well as their ally the United States for obstructing it.

Saudi Arabia sees the civil war in Syria as part of a regional struggle for supremacy with its nemesis Iran, a Shia power that backs Assad. It would rather see the minority regime in Damascus replaced with a majority Sunni one that is likely to align with Saudi Arabia against Iran.

Turkey similarly has a sectarian incentive to obstruct Kurdish autonomy. The Kurds in the north of neighboring Iraq are increasingly distancing themselves from the central government in Baghdad, aided in no small part by Turkey which is importing their oil. If the Kurds in Syria became virtually independent as well, the Kurdish minority in Turkey itself might expect the same.

The Democratic Union Party in Syria is also aligned to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey which has waged a war on the Turkish state since the 1980s. The former has used bases in the north of Iraq as well as the northeast of Syria to launch attacks into Turkey.

Tuesday’s announcement formalizes what has been a reality for more than a year. Syria’s Kurds have been governing themselves since officials abandoned the northeast in what appeared to be a deliberate move on the part of the Assad regime to exacerbate tensions between its enemies and stave off Turkish intervention — which seemed possible after a Turkish reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses in the summer of 2012. A military effort could have rekindled the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey and soured that country’s relations with the Kurds in Iraq.

Clashes indeed broke out between Kurdish fighters and Sunni rebels after government forces pulled out of the region. The latter intend to establish an Islamist state in all of Syria. The regime thus split the uprising against it and convinced the Turks not to meddle in the war — but it also unified the previously fractious Kurds.