POMEAS ANALYSIS, 6 July 2014
Compared to the Kurds in the North, South and East Kurdistan1 , Kurds in Rojava2 were not able to launch an armed struggle against the government and have been suppressed for years. The separation of the Kurds with national borders between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria has stopped them from uniting and, as such, organizing a joint and central movement.
The developments in the different parts of the nation, however, have always affected the relations between the states. Rojava, in this sense, is an important case and the recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq tell us how the Kurdish society affects and are being affected by these conflicts. Before explaining this point, it may be beneficial to have a look at the conflict between the Rojava Kurds and the Syrian government.
Rojava, as a part of Kurdistan, was given to France with the Sykes-Picot Treaty in May 1916. With this treaty, Kurdistan was divided for the second time (the first one was in 1639-The Qasr-e Shirin Treaty between Ottoman Empire and Safavid Empire dividing East Kurdistan). The Sykes-Picot Treaty was revised several times until the Lausanne Treaty on July 24th 1923 when Kurdistan was divided into four separate parts by Turkey, Iraq, Syria (controlled by France until 1946) and Iran. The French Mandate System in Syria started in 1920 and one year later, France recognized the border between Syria and Turkey with the Ankara Treaty. This border was a railway which was constructed by Germany.
The Syrian national front won the elections of 1943 and Arab nationalists started an independent movement against the French and subsequently succeeded in gaining their independence in 1946. The Syrian society has been kept under the rule of military authoritarian governments until today. There have been several military coups (1949, 1954, 1963, 1966) that created indisputable unsteadiness in Syria. Every new government tried to construct a new constitution, however, none of them referred to the rights of ethnic minorities and in the end Syria became an Arab State that positioned itself against minorities. Everything related to Kurds and Kurdish identity was systematically banned. This was not only a means to suppress Kurds but also a way to create a hatred among Arab society against them. Kurds were portrayed as the enemy of Syria, especially after the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria was founded in 1957. The Syrian government, for instance, forced PDK-S to remove Kurdistan from its name in 1963.
The government also tried to punish Kurds who were supporting the PDK-S and/or claiming Kurdish rights in Syria. On the 30th of November 1960, Syrian officials were accused of killing 280 Kurdish children in a cinema in the Kurdish city of Amûdê. On the 28th of September 1961, the Syrian Arab Republic declared itself, which was another shock to the Kurdish society because the new government started a "land reform" in the Kurdish populated region of Cizîre, which has historically been a fertile region for agriculture. This reform was not to offer agricultural support to the Kurds living in Cizîre but it aimed to distribute Kurds' lands to the Arab majority. That became the beginning of the Arabization of Kurdish areas.
The Syrian Baath Party was founded in 1947 and came to power in 1963. Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar al Assad, became the main figure of the party after a military coup and ruled the country from 1966 to 2000. The constitution of Assad's government defines all Syrian citizens as Arab and all social, cultural and educational system referred only to the Arab identity. Kurds in Syria were recognized as refugees coming from Turkey and Iraq. They were disfranchised and forced to live under the stateless status. The number of Kurds who were disposed of their civic rights is estimated to be around 300,000. They were not, for example, allowed health services, to have their own industries and to get support from the state. Due to this and many other issues, some of the Kurds wanted to leave Syria, however, it was not deemed 'legal' as they did not have a right to travel to other countries.
After the tragedy in Amûdê, Kurds were attacked in Qamishlo on the 12th of March 2004 during the beginning of a football match between a Kurdish team from Qamishlo and an Arab team from Deir al-Zor. Clashes broke out between the fans of the teams when the Arab nationalists provoked the Kurds by showing Saddam Hussein's posters and shouted the "Second Halabja will be in Syria" to Kurds. After the clashes spread to the city center, the Syrian Armed Forces targeted Kurdish fans and killed 7 of them. This was protested in many regions of Rojava like Amûdê, Dêrik, Hesekê and Serêkaniyê. Thousands people attended the funerals and the tension during the ceremonies were quite high, which led to a new wave of clashes between the Kurds and Syrian forces. Five more Kurdish protestors were killed during the demonstrations after the funerals and a number of people were wounded. Qamishlo was a remarkable period in Rojava's history because it was also the time when Kurds decided to create their own self-defense forces, which later was announced as YPG (People's Defense Units) in 2012.
How did the Kurds get organized?
Most people argue that after the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, the Kurds followed a "wait and see" strategy. They supported the Syrian opposition at the beginning, however they only wanted to see what would happen and whether it would bring anything new for Kurds. Later on, the Kurds decided not to be a part of the war and neither supported the Assad government nor the opposition, which was divided into some paramilitary groups in the following months. Kurds implemented a "third line"3 that was a process proposed by Abdullah Öcalan4 towards self-determination of Rojava. July 19, 2012 was the beginning of this process when the Kurds took over control of many state institutions in the city of Kobanê. They did not want to have clashes with the state forces and the state forces also had to leave the Kurdish region to fight the Syrian Opposition. In the end it was not that difficult for the Kurds to gain control of other cities'. YPG, the army of Rojava, took the cities and towns one by one and set up its own headquarters.
In January 2014, before the Geneva II Conference was held, the Kurds declared autonomous administrations in three cantons: Efrîn, Kobanê and Cizîre. This was both a reaction to the international powers that denied Kurds and did not invite them to the conference as an independent entity in Syria and was also the beginning of the process to establish autonomy. Kurds also declared that any decisions taken without Kurds' approval would not be recognized in the Rojava cantons. The parties represented in the Geneva conferences could not reach an agreement and issues still could not be addressed due to the mutual rejections by the Syrian government and Rojava autonomies. Kurds recently announced "the Kurdish Initiative for Democratic Syria" and called on SNC and other opposition parties to unite and propose a political solution for the conflict. In the last week of June, a delegation of the initiative came to Turkey to meet SNC representatives in Istanbul where the delegation also held a press meeting and stated that the SNC members welcome the project and agreed on having further meeting for cooperation.
Recent developments in Iraq
Many domestic, regional and international parties have been involved in the Syrian civil war and that has forced parties to occasionally change their positions. The most prominent example is the attacks of ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or Levant) on Mosul city of Iraq. This was not a threat to only Iraqi government but the Kurdistan Regional Government was also affected because ISIS attempted to enter the city of Kirkuk controlled by Jalal Talabani's Peshmerga Forces. West Kurdistan's People's Defense Units YPG announced its support to Peshmerga forces after the attacks carried out by ISIS in Iraq. Many videos released show that at the Til Koçer (Rojava) and Rabia (Iraq's Yarubiya) borders they have been uniting against ISIS. This cooperation is expected to mitigate the conflict between Rojava Autonomous Administrations and Barzanî's PDK (Kurdistan Democratic Party) which emerged after the PDK decided to dig ditches at the border between West and South Kurdistan. The Sêmalka border was closed due to the conflict but some news agencies report that it opened for migrations' return to Rojava.
PKK, YPG and YRK stated that they are ready to defend all parts of Kurdistan5 in cooperation with Peshmerge forces and called all the Kurdish parties to work for organizing the Kurdish National Congress that has been postponed for a few years. It looks like the Syrian conflict, establishment of Rojava Autonomy, advancement of ISIS in regions populated by Sunni majority, US's statements about a possible intervention in Iraq and reports of Iranian government on the ongoing clashes in Iraq tell that a new and more intense phase of conflict is waiting for the parties. It seems that Kurds will rather choose to keep their regions safe and preserve what they have gained so far.
ISIS's attacks on Kobanê Canton and PDK's struggle for an independent Kurdistan
ISIS by using the heavy weapons it seized in Iraq has attacked the Kobanê Canton in Rojava the last week. In one of his interviews, Salih Muslim, the co-chair of PYD (Democratic Union Party), said the collapse of Kobanê will be collapse of all Kurds.6 A similar assessment was made by KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) calling all Kurds to get mobilized against ISIS in Kobanê.7 Kobanê is in the middle of Rojava and has no physical connection with Efrîn and Cizîre because there are ISIS headquarters and mercenaries between the cantons. Kurdish Jabhat al-Akrad, an armed group fighting the Syrian government and a former member of the FSA (Free Syrian Army), is also being attacked by ISIS at the border.8 In addition, with the declaration of the Caliphate, ISIS called all Muslims to obey ISIS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who assigns himself as the caliph of Islam. A few days ago, a voice record of al-Baghdadi was released that calls all Muslims to fight 'enemies of Allah' and ISIS immdeiately started destroying Shia mosques and tombs in Iraq. All these developments in Syria, Rojava and Iraq indicate that the conflict will intensify the war and change the dynamics in the Middle East. South Kurdistan's attempts to get independence and official statements by Iraqi government warning it not to take such a step9 is one of those dynamics and it seems that Kurds have become an important actor in the international politics on the Middle East. Time will show us whether this will be for the benefit of Kurds. Israel10 stated that it is ready to recognize an independent Kurdistan while US, South Kurdistan's best ally for a long time, to the surprise of the Kurds still insists on a 'united' Iraq.11 Turkey12, despite having good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan has not made a statement about recognizing independent Kurdistan but did not expressly state that Turkey will stand against it.
1 Kurdish regions in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
2 Rojava means west in Kurdish and by Rojava Kurds refer to West Kurdistan (North Syria).
3 "Zûhat Kobanê: Rojava is the litmus test of our day," ANHA, May 30, 2014, http://www.hawarnews.com/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1671:zuhat-kobane-rojava-is-the-litmus-test-of-our-day&catid=1:news&Itemid=2.
4 One of the leader of the Kurds imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. He is also leader of the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union).
5 "Bayık: We are prepared to defend Kurds in West and South Kurdistan at any cost," ANHA, June 25, 2014, http://www.hawarnews.com/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1830:bayk-we-are-prepared-to-defend-kurds-in-west-and-south-kurdistan-at-any-cost-&catid=1:news&Itemid=2.
6 "Salih Müslim: Kobani düşerse Kürt iradesi kırılır," [Salih Muslim: If Kobanê collapses, Kurdish will breaks] July 4, 2014, http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x20tsqb_salih-muslim-kobani-duserse-kurt-iradesi-kirilir_news.
7 "KCK: Everyone must mobilise for Kobane," ANF, July 5, 2014, http://en.firatajans.com/news/news/kck-everyone-must-mobilise-for-kobane.htm.
8 "ISIS aims to take Ezaz," ANHA, July 5, 2014, http://www.hawarnews.com/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1902:isis-aims-to-take-ezaz&catid=1:news&Itemid=2.
9 "Kurdish Officials Seek More Autonomy in Any Deal With a New Government," New York Times, July 3, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/world/middleeast/kurdish-officials-doubtful-of-a-new-iraqi-government-still-seek-autonomy.html?_r=0.
10 Sherkoh Abbas, Robert Sklaroff and Joseph Puder, "America Must Recognize Kurdistan," Focus Quarterly, Spring 2014, http://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/5213/kurdistan-us-recognition.
11 Aliza Marcus, "The U.S. Must Listen to Iraqi Kurds," New York Times, June 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/06/15/how-to-stabilize-iraq-and-stop-the-march-of-isis/the-us-must-listen-to-iraqi-kurds.
12 Daniel Dombey, "Turkey ready to accept Kurdish state in historic shift," Financial Times, June 27, 2014.
*Research Assitant at POMEAS