When in the summer of 2012, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) took over the town of Kobani and later other Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria, few took the occurrence to be so consequential. It was in the midst of the Syrian uprising and the world’s focus was on the fight in major areas such as Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and Idlib.
The PYD claimed it liberated those few Kurdish-dominated towns from the Syrian army while its detractors, Kurds and non-Kurds alike, accused it of having struck a deal with President Bashar Al Assad’s regime. They argued Assad handed over control of those areas to the PYD to be able to focus on the fight against opposition fighters elsewhere.
Nearly four years later, the PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have evolved into major actors in the Syrian civil war. The territory they now control spans most of Syria’s border with Turkey.
And to Ankara’s chagrin, the PYD and its allies have recently declared plans to establish a federal entity.
A council representing various groups in PYD-controlled areas, known as Rojava or west Kurdistan, set a six-month deadline in March for federalism plans to be finalized. If implemented, this could be an act of far-reaching consequences, and not just for the Kurds. It could also set a model that other groups in Syria might want to emulate in the future.
“The idea of establishing a federal structure in northern Syria is a very good idea,” Omar Sheikhmous, a veteran Syrian Kurdish politician told Newsweek Middle East. “The only viable future solution to maintain Syria united as a state will have to be a federal one.”
The Kurdish push for federalism in Syria was prompted by the exclusion of PYD from the Geneva peace talks in February. Neighboring Turkey and Syrian opposition groups had blocked PYD from getting a seat at the negotiations table.
Ankara sees PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has been fighting the Turkish state for Kurdish rights for over three decades now. And Syrian opposition groups question PYD’s credentials when it comes to fighting Assad’s regime.
Interestingly, PYD’s federalist ambitions have even drawn the ire of Damascus.
“Establishing federal regions in the north for the Kurds or other groups is not possible. It’s not permissible geographically, especially because neither Syria nor Turkey will accept it. Syria will not approve federalism because it will be the beginning of dividing the country,” Sharif Shahada, member of the Syrian parliament tells Newsweek Middle East.
“When this war is over, there will be one accomplishment for all Syrians—whether Kurds, Arabs or Assyrian—and that’s thwarting the conspiracy to divide Syria. In Syria, there are no spoils of war for each group. There are no prizes to please individual groups,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the PYD’s forces have now—with extensive support from the U.S.-led coalition—connected two of three detached Rojava cantons: Jazira and Kobani, respectively in Hasakah and Aleppo provinces. They also aim to occupy the narrow strip of land in northern Aleppo that would join Kobani and Afrin zones together.
Ever-Changing Domestic Dynamics
Five years into the Syrian uprising and the subsequent armed conflict, the dynamics of Syria’s civil war keep shifting. Although many, like Sheikhmous, would assert that PYD has been cooperating with the government out of “pragmatic” considerations, signs of a possible change of heart on both sides are emerging. Occasional bouts of fighting have erupted between pro-regime forces and PYD’s armed branches here and there.
The most recent incident was in Qamishli, the largest Kurdish-dominated town in Syria, where PYD armed forces clashed with regime forces and loyalist militias on April 20. After three days of intense fighting and at least 24 dead on both sides, the two parties agreed to a truce.
“The recent clashes between the Kurds and the Syrian regime are showing the increasing concern in Damascus about the growing power of the YPG and the PYD in northern Syria backed up by the U.S.-led coalition against [Daesh],” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a field researcher for the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies.
When Assad pulled out his forces from the Kurdish towns in 2012, many considered the move to be an attempt to intimidate Turkey due to PYD’s perceived close ties to the PKK. But over the past few years, the PYD has established its firm grip on northern Syria and developed a ruling structure to gradually replace the Assad government.
The challenge posed by the Assad regime to the flourishing Kurdish entity in northern Syria appears to be mounting, especially after Damascus restored some key territories near the western coastal region as well as Aleppo province and Palmyra.
But Kurdish officials say they’re confident of their capabilities to fend off future attacks by regime forces or loyalist militias.
“The regime does not have the strength and power to restore their control [over Kurdish areas],” Redur Khalil, the spokesman for YPG forces told Newsweek Middle East. “So, they attempt to create problems among communities here and then use communal rifts as an opportunity to intervene and apply influence.”
Complicated Relations: Allies And Enemies
For a couple of years, after it became a dominant force, PYD was mostly shunned by international actors.
The U.S. which was initially loathe to work with the PYD and instead preferred to funnel weapons and resources to “moderate” elements of the FSA—a scheme that eventually failed—gradually opened up to working with the Kurdish group.
Washington has supplied weapons to the YPG and the new umbrella force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which comprises YPG as its primary component in addition to a number of local Arab groups. Managing this complex web of relationships with the PYD and Turkey has proved a major challenge for the U.S., which does not want to alienate either group. The U.S. needs the YPG as the most capable partner in fighting Daesh in Syria.
“Turkey and the United States are engaged in a compartmentalized relationship regarding the PYD,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey and Kurds at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank in Washington. “And Turkey is fine with Washington working with the PYD to the east of [the] Euphrates, but not to the west of the river. The U.S. is fine with Turkey hitting the PYD from areas near the Turkish border, while the U.S. works with the PYD up front near Raqqa, inside Syria.”
In late April, Syrian rebel factions such as Jaish Al Sunna and Sultan Murad Brigades that are known to enjoy Turkey’s support, launched an attack in Ayn Daqnah and Tell Rifaat in Aleppo but were repelled by YPG forces.
PYD’s advances and its attempts to consolidate the Kurdish entity in Rojava have had the effect of prompting regional rivals Iran and Turkey to take joint stances. During a joint meeting in mid-April, the Turkish and Iranian presidents called for protecting Syria’s territorial integrity, a coded reference to what they perceive as Kurdish secessionist ambitions.
The PYD has been keen to maximize its standing and influence by developing relations with international powers.
YPG’s Khalil implicitly admits his group’s cooperation with the Russian military. He said the YPG is willing to receive support from “anybody willing to help us… within the framework of our war against terrorists,” a vague reference to extremist opposition groups in Syria.
Yet the main concern on the part of Syrian Kurds is whether the U.S. would continue to back them when and if Daesh is defeated or crippled in Syria.
“We’ve good military relations with the U.S.,” said Khalil. “But the relationship has not gone beyond the military realm and it’s not clear where it’s heading politically.”
But while the PYD doesn’t have a seat in the Geneva talks to discuss Syria’s fate, its rival the Kurdish National Council (KNC) is represented at the negotiations. But the KNC has no power on the ground inside Syria and it is not clear how its inclusion can change things for the Syrian Kurds. The KNC is allied with Iraqi Kurdistan’s dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has tense relations with both the PYD and the PKK. As a result the KNC is excluded from the local administrations in Rojava.
In response to the PYD’s hostility toward its KNC allies, the KDP closed down Rojava’s only functioning border gate, which is vital for commerce and humanitarian aid to get into northern Syria.