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Why Syria’s Kurds Are Joining the Mainstream

The mainstream Syrian political opposition failed for nearly two years to draw in the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a muddled coalition of 16 Syrian Kurdish political parties.

Written by Cale Salih Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

In what was hailed as a breakthrough, the KNC finally decided to join the Syrian National Coalition (NC) last month.

Yet the decision will have little practical impact on Arab-Kurdish relations in Syria. Its impact will primarily play out abroad, giving both the KNC and the NC a boost in international credibility, rather than inside Syria. The NC was eager for the Kurdish bloc to join its ranks in order to address a common criticism that it has not sufficiently reached out to minorities. The KNC, desperately looking for a way to stay relevant as a rival Kurdish party establishes dominance inside Syria, hopes to use the NC as a platform to boost its international credentials.

The KNC’s motivations

The KNC famously stormed out of an opposition meeting in Cairo in 2012 when Arab participants refused to use the term “Kurdish Nation” in the meeting’s final statement. Subsequent negotiations between the two hit dead ends over disagreements regarding Kurdish autonomy and symbolic wording details. Now, the Kurdish group has changed its course, opting to formally join the opposition. Yet little has changed since the Cairo meeting in terms of the KNC’s relationship with Syrian opposition leaders, and the latter’s willingness to concede to Kurdish demands for decentralization.

The Kurdish coalition’s decision to join the opposition was not a result of a change of heart on either side. Rather, it was prompted by a growing need for the KNC to find ways to compete with its increasingly powerful Syrian Kurdish rival, the Partiya Yeketiya Demokratiya (PYD).

In the past two years, the PYD has grown from being a relatively unknown party in Syria to becoming the most powerful Kurdish political and military force inside the country. It has pulled off masterful diplomatic acrobatics, balancing opportunistic relationships with elements of both the regime and the opposition based in Syria, and has asserted military control of key Kurdish cities. The party recently gained newfound popularity, earning the role of “protector of the Kurds” in its latest battles with extremist Sunni groups. In some cases, it has even outperformed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). While ISIS has made alarming gains against FSA-aligned groups in Azaz and other parts of Syria, the PYD has successfully ousted the jihadist group from some Kurdish villages.

Meanwhile, the KNC has proven unable to compete, despite significant financial, diplomatic and even military support from its Iraqi Kurdish patrons. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), an Iraqi Kurdish party led by Massoud Barzani, has trained a number of Syrian Kurdish army defectors that could serve as the military wing of KDP-friendly parties within the KNC. Yet KDP-trained Syrian Kurds remain based in Iraqi Kurdistan, unable to move into Syria where they could face PYD retaliation. The PYD has explicitly threatened that it would reject the arrival of an external Kurdish armed force.

Unable to take on the PYD inside Syria, the KNC is trying its hand in the international arena. The KNC’s decision to join the NC is a play on its only viable card against the PYD – the bid to gain international legitimacy. The PYD is a sister party of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Turkey. These links preclude it from establishing working relations with powerful Western nations, and with the Western, and especially Turkish-backed NC. PYD leader Saleh Muslim declared that he does “not accept” the KNC’s decision to join the NC, and the party’s armed wing went further, implying that the NC, and therefore the KNC, supports anti-Kurdish extremist Sunni groups.

Though the PYD has some representatives based in Europe, it has not, like the KNC, enjoyed official invitations to Washington and NC courtship. Joining the Syrian opposition gives the KNC access to international donor money, and a global political platform that the PYD cannot compete with. Yet, it is unlikely to boost the KNC’s ability to play a role inside Syria, especially given that the NC itself has weak ties to groups working inside the country.

The NC’s motivations

The NC has long been desperate for a significant minority bloc to join its ranks, as one of the most common criticisms it faces, especially from Western nations that fund the coalition, is that it is too Arab- and Sunni-dominated. The KNC’s new membership may therefore boost the NC’s legitimacy in the eyes of international backers, and possibly draw in more foreign donor money. Yet it is unlikely to improve the NC’s standing among Kurds in Syria, especially given the PYD’s hostility towards the NC. Given the KNC’s inability to compete with the PYD on the ground, it is unlikely to be able to act as a vehicle for NC influence in Kurdish parts of the country.

Moreover, the KNC-NC agreement addressed mostly symbolic points of contention, postponing the wrangling over the most divisive issues at the heart of mistrust between the Kurdish and Arab communities. While the deal affords a KNC leader the position of third vice president in the NC, and drops the “Arab” from the official name of the country, the Syrian Arab Republic, it did not outline an agreed-upon understanding of decentralization. The KNC seeks decentralization, though it has only vaguely defined the extent to which this would imply Kurdish autonomy, and the NC is careful to insist on the territorial integrity of Syria. Trust between the two sides has been severely damaged by suspicions among the Arab community that Kurds are merely waiting for an opportunity to secede, and beliefs among the Kurdish community that Arabs aim to suppress their political rights. The symbolic concessions outlined in the KNC-NC agreement do little to resolve this mistrust.

Consequences

The KNC’s decision to join the NC is a way for both sides to boost their international legitimacy, but is unlikely to have a practical impact on Arab-Kurdish relations inside Syria. Neither group has strong enough links to players inside Syria to achieve this result. The union is in line with the NC’s trend of drawing in groups and individuals that are disconnected to the decision-making activists and armed groups working inside the country.

“It’s symbolic, and it’s way too late,” said Syrian journalist Sirwan Kajjo. “The PYD has already determined how the newly established Syrian Kurdistan will be. For the NC, the KNC is the best example to gain more popular support inside Syria. But they’re not aware of the fact that the KNC has lost a lot of its popularity within Kurdish Syria.”

It would be fallacious to conclude that the Kurds have committed to the Syrian opposition. A fragmented coalition of Kurdish parties, periodically on the verge of collapse and politically and militarily irrelevant inside Syria, joining a disjointed Syrian opposition umbrella group based in exile, is at most a precarious start to making the Syrian opposition a more legitimate representative of the anti-regime movement in Syria. Yet if the NC and the KNC gradually improve their ties to groups working on the ground, they may eventually be able to play a role in reconciling the deep grievances and mistrust between Arabs and Kurds that have taken root since the conflict started two years ago.

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