The Kurdish Question in the Syrian Arab Spring | by Joe Lombardo

by Nov 13, 2013Magazine

Calls resounding in the halls of power and in the media for American intervention in Syria have opened up a debate that has been over two years in the making: exactly who are the Syrian rebels? According to Moscow and some segments of the left, they are radical Islamists bent on exterminating the Kurds and carving out emirates in the northeast of Syria. In Washington, Middle East policy experts speak of the liberal secular impulse that drives the revolution forward.

While there is some element of truth to both claims, a closer look reveals a flawed approach readily apparent to those studying the Middle East. That is, the practice of substituting human agency with certain assumptions about an individual or group’s religious or cultural identity. Also at home in this way of thinking is another method which tends to treat events within a larger unfolding process as distinct from the next. Both ideas have the effect of analytically suppressing the fluidity and dynamism latent in popular uprisings.

This transformative aspect of the Arab Spring should move us to readjust the scales of weight often used to measure the kind of impact a religious or ethnic identity has on an individual or group of people. In the Middle East, a concept like ‘asabiyyah – the social and cultural solidarity an individual may have with his or her people – would be hard to employ in a situation where even the more established political legacies of certain groups is being tested. The state-less existence of Syria’s Kurds often evokes such a predetermined political objective, that of national self-determination. Known as the Kurdish Question, its relevance will be one of the biggest long-term challenges a post-Ba’athist Syria and its neighbours will encounter. A current gauge of its status can be seen in the responses to the Syrian Revolution by the alleged hard line of the Kurdish political organizations such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its Turkish affiliate, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The Kurdish struggle

Who, then, are the Kurds? Approximately 30 million people, the Kurds are native to an area of land under Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty. They are the largest stateless ethnic and linguistic group of people in the Middle East. If one goes back to the late Ottoman period of the 19th Century, Kurds – a mix of Sunni and heterodox Shi’ite Muslims – were placed under the same classification as the Ottoman Turks. Yet unlike the Turks or other members of the Ottoman Empire, such as Greeks and Armenians, the Kurds never achieved nationhood. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the dominant nationalist movement of the Turks led by Mustafa Kemal (‘Atatürk’) crippled the Kurdish struggle after putting down a series of rebellions in the 1930s.

Around the same time in Syria, the French colonialists sought to contain the Kurdish movement by providing a degree of official recognition for the more privileged sectors of Kurdish society. As historian Jordi Tejel notes, the expansion of the market and industrialization policies began to fashion out of a largely agrarian population thousands of industrialized wage-labourers. Similarly in Turkey, the start of the 1950s witnessed state expenditures allocated towards paved roads in order to open up eastern Anatolia to capital as well as labour into the major urban centres of Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. This process also brought a further spread of ideas, resulting in a gradual engagement of Kurdish nationalist politics with labour politics in both countries. In Syria, however, Kurdish politics remained relatively passive in comparison to the Turkish movement.

After independence, Syria witnessed a sharp spike in repression against the Kurdish movement. In 1957 the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) was founded. This was an illegal but popular party that advocated for broader democratic rights for Syrian Kurds. Along with Kurdish nationalism came Marxism-Leninism, a separate movement that became more and more powerful in the country. Arab nationalists sought to counter these currents by opting to join Egypt in the United Arab Republic under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1958. This union between Cairo and Damascus was a short-lived affair, lasting only three years until Syria decided to reclaim its independence in 1961. This change of hands, however, did not signal any political breathing space for the Kurds. In 1962, a demographic report released by the Syrian military pointed towards the Kurdish ‘threat’ to the state, which resulted in approximately 120,000 Kurds being stripped of their citizenship. This trend became known as the ‘Arab belt strategy’. Arab farmers were offered access to cheap land at the expense of the local Kurdish population, in an attempt to dilute the homogenous ethnic composition.

The combination of political repression, selective access to the market and intensified industrialization had a similar impact in Turkey. In the 1970s, Ankara inaugurated the South Eastern Anatolia Project (known as GAP in Turkish), the largest public works project in the country’s short history. The aim was to develop the eastern provinces by embedding into the region a series of dams and electrical power plants and also to retain more control over irrigation in one of the arid parts of the country. GAP was perceived as a threat to its southern neighbours, as it had the effect of allowing Ankara to manage the flow of the two main sources of potable water in the Mesopotamia – the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. Tensions between the Syrian Ba’ath Party and Ankara mounted in the 1980s. Unable to execute a direct military response against Ankara, Damascus tapped into the last of the hardline leftist organizations in Turkey, which was the country’s main security threat: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK.

A militant injection into the movement

Starting as a student group in the early 1970s, the PKK rapidly emerged as a unique force in the landscape of revolutionary politics in Turkey and in particular among the Kurds. Its origins were a product of the Turkish far left and its relationship to the Kurdish Question.

Among the far left there were heated debates over whether or not Kemalism, the official state ideology, could be appropriated in more left-wing manner. For many the answer seemed clear enough. For others such a debate pigeonholed and downplayed the Kurdish Question – viewing it as a cultural feature not essential to the overthrow of capitalism. The initial thrust of the PKK was not sectarian in spite of the widespread chauvinism latent in the Turkish far left. The PKK envisioned an autonomous Kurdish zone in eastern Anatolia in which individual villages would act as basic administrative units. Free of exploitative tribal leaders, this would be a new arrangement of political and social relations rather than a traditional nation-state.

In spite of its broad vision as well as calls for broad support, over time the PKK became increasingly sectarian, often engaging in shoot-outs not only against its main enemy, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), but against other leftist groups as well. The military coup d’état of 1980 wiped out most far-left organizations in the country, leaving thousands injured, dead and imprisoned by the state. Only the PKK managed to survive.

Hafez al-Assad welcomed the PKK on Syrian territory, even allowing its headquarters to be set up in Damascus. The main reasons for this move were strategic: there was the perception of a weaker Kurdish political movement in Syria, and GAP presented itself as a mutually undesirable project for both Assad and the PKK. GAP was not a mutually agreed-upon project by the residences of the Kurdish east and members of Turkish Parliament; thousands of villages were destroyed, accelerating the urban migration of Kurds into the developed Anatolian west. The relationship between the Syrian Ba’athists and the PKK lasted until 1998. Syria and Turkey formalized an agreement to fight against the PKK that same year.

Two events in Syria in 2003 and 2004 signalled the re-emergence of the Kurdish struggle there. In 2003, a Syrian Kurdish engineer, Salih Muslim, founded the Democratic Union Party (PYD) after breaking with the KDPS. Seen as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK in Syria, the PYD was initially suppressed by the Ba’athist regime, which had been under the direction of Bashar al-Assad since 2000. The PYD espoused the idea of direct autonomy, rejecting the more moderate ideas latent in ‘democratic federalism’. Then, in 2004, riots in the city of Qamishli, viewed as a centre of Kurdish politics, brought Kurdish protesters into direct confrontation with the police and military apparatus. What began as a football riot quickly blossomed into an uprising, as Ba’ath Party offices were burned to the ground and protesters took down a statue of Hafez al-Assad. By 2010 this activity had ground to a halt.

The pragmatism of the PYD

On 15 March 2011, 15 school children from the southern border town of Daraa were arrested by the police after being caught spray-painting anti-regime slogans. Inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, they called for Assad to be toppled. Peaceful protests began in the city and within a matter of weeks the protests moved beyond Daraa and into Syria’s major cities. Syrian workers, farmers and others who remained outside of the patronage system that flourished under the Assad oligarchy demanded decent housing, higher wages, jobs and an end to emergency laws. Having boasted only months before that the Arab Spring would not affect Syria, Assad ordered the Syrian armed forces to put down mass protests. The troops encountered not terrorists but unarmed men, women, and children. Mass defections took place, signalling the start of a new armed force that became known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

After the repression at Qamishli, the regime wagered that the Kurds would stand aloof from what was, at first, a protest movement led by Sunni Arabs. By April, however, the protests spread to Rojava, where tens of thousands of young Kurds came out in force in solidarity with Syrian Arabs, demanding the end of the regime. Kurdish political parties were split as to whether to join the protesters or stay on the sidelines and see what happened. The PYD, known to have the most hardline stance on the Kurdish Question, should have been the logical choice for the newly radicalized youth, but this didn’t happen.

The PYD had been caught off guard. Depending upon the sway of the protesters on the streets, the political line of the PYD shifted in support of their demands. They called for the end to discriminatory policies against Kurds, free political expression and the unbanning of opposition parties, checks on the executive branch, and greater civil liberties. Other Kurdish parties close to the regime had attempted to reanimate the 2005 Damascus Declaration, whose modest terms outlined ways to democratize the system without overthrowing the Assad regime. In July, the PYD along with other Kurdish parties created the National Union of the Forces for Democratic Change, which took a more progressive line but stopped short of calling for the fall of the regime. The rise of the local council system in other parts of the country that had cast out Ba’ath apparatchiks was mimicked by the PYD.

By August 2011 it appeared that the Syrian military was not strong enough to retain control of the Kurdish region. Rumours among Arab and Kurdish activists circulated that the regime and the PYD were working together to allow the latter to become the de facto power in the region. PYD members began to insert themselves into the crowds, waving PKK flags and giving the outside world and the regime a sense that things were under control. Kurdish activists reported being harassed and intimidated by PYD members. Their attempts, however, did not slow the protests or prevent other Kurdish parties from adopting more hardline, anti-regime slogans.

The entry of Islamism into the revolution worked against the movement in favour of broader struggle. Groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept through the region, massacring Kurds and at times working with certain brigades of the FSA in order to undermine what was largely a secular, popular uprising. The encroachment of these groups also saw the disappearance of the local councils and the bolstering of the PYD’s military strength through its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG currently enjoys a popular status among Kurds as being more effective in that they have had some degree of success in repelling al-Nusra and ISIS. In return, a mentality of rallying around the flag has also positioned the PYD as having unrivalled power relative to other groups.

One of the major obstacles the Kurdish movement must grapple with is this dynamic between the old guard of political parties and the newly emerging younger militants and activists. It is within this struggle that one can begin to detect the contours of how the Kurdish Question itself can be interpreted and resolved. Will it be led by the parties whose vision is to break the region into its own autonomous entities and end the struggle there, or will the on-going revolution be able to provide the grounds and leverage needed to strike at the heart of chauvinistic ‘Arab socialism’ and potentially more? We have yet to see. For now, what is needed is a perspective that can go beyond one-dimensional characterizations and mechanical analysis to see what may lay on the horizon for Syria.

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