The civil war in Damascus is growing more and more intense. Assad has been forced, by Free Syrian Army (FSA) attacks on the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, to withdraw his forces from the northern Kurdish areas of the country. This has left a power vacuum in northern Syria. How are the regional players reacting?
Most Kurdish groups have struck a neutral stance in the Syrian civil war although there have been tensions between Kurdish forces and the opposition. The FSA has accused the PKK, the Kurdish independence/terrorist group based out of Turkey, of hindering its anti-regime operations in Kurdish regions. Kurdish groups haven’t supported Assad either but their ambivalence tends to favor the regime which doesn’t need to control the northern areas so long as those are denied to its enemies.
Kurdish groups have attempted to move into the vacuum left by the regime redeployments. On July 11, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a Kurdish umbrella organization much like the Syrian National Council (SNC) which desires an independent Kurdistan, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), closely affiliated with the PKK, signed a power-sharing deal. The two agreed to joint administration of any liberated Kurdish areas in Syria. “According to the treaty of Irbil which was signed by the KNC and PYD, any administrative vacuum in the Kurdish cities of Syria will be occupied evenly — 50/50 — by these two signatories. These two groups will continue ruling the Kurdish regions until an election is carried out,” said Nuri Brimo, a spokesperson of the Democratic Kurdish Party of Syria. So far the Kurdish cities of Kobane, Derek, Amoude, Efrin and Sari Kani have fallen under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has been closely involved with Syria developments. Massoud Barzani, president of the KRG, brokered the July 11 deal which was signed in Irbil, Iraq. The KRG has also been training Syrian Kurdish refugees. Barzani said “A good number of the young Kurds who fled have been trained. We do not want to interfere directly in the situation, but they have been trained.” Thousands of these troops were marched to the Syrian border on July 24, although unarmed, and there were even reports that they crossed into Syria, although these are most likely exaggerated.
These developments have sparked an interesting reaction in Turkey. Opinion pieces in newspapers, here, here, and here, are stressing the “sky is falling” scenario and the dangers that this could result in a new autonomous region in Syria, an expansion of the KRG by annexation, or even an independent state. Interestingly the Turkish government has taken developments in stride. Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said that “we are not concerned about the creation of a new Kurdish state” since the government sees this as an extremely unlikely scenario. The region has been opened up to the PKK and PKK affiliates who are using the area as a safe-haven and stronghold. Turkey, so far, has not really reacted beyond strengthening its forces on the border.
The KRG and Turkey are on different sides of this issue. Turkey, ideally, wants a strong central government in Syria which can control the border regions and clamp down on Kurdish independence. What the KRG wants is not quite clear but some level of Kurdish autonomy or acceptance within a broader Syria, much like the KRG enjoys in Iraq, is not too far off the mark. Turkey and the KRG have a close relationship, strong economic ties and oil/gas deals which are continued in the face of resistance from Baghdad. The Syrian conflict threatens to drive a wedge between the two, especially if the Syrian conflict reignites a revanche-esque move on the part of the KRG or the Kurdish public at large. Good relations between Turkey and the KRG have always depended on the ability to overlook the Kurdish issue in favor of economic and political necessity. The externalities of the Syrian conflict have the strong potential to upset this delicate balance.