Journal Essay

Sowing Division: Kurds in the Syrian War

Zeynep Kaya and Matthew Whiting

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

Dr. Kaya is a research fellow at the Middle East Centre and research officer at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr. Whiting is a research associate at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at the University of Coventry. His book on the conflict in Northern Ireland is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press in 2017.

Kurdish groups, both within Syria and throughout the Middle East, undoubtedly see the Syrian war as an opportunity to advance their goals of self-determination. The Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava is held up as proving the viability and necessity of Kurdish self-rule within any future Syria, with Kurdish leader Idris Nassan declaring that "federalism should be the future."1 In addition, key events throughout the conflict were seized upon by Kurdish leaders in Turkey and Iraq to generate support for their causes. A strong Kurdish presence at the forefront of resistance to ISIS was used to leverage support from the EU and the United States for Kurdish goals.2 The PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) drew on its close relationship with Syria's armed Kurdish group, the YPG (People's Protection Units) to further increase its influence across the border. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and leader of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), claimed that the Syrian war, combined with the fight against ISIS, heralded an end to the "Sykes-Picot era" and called for a new map of the Middle East — one that would now include an independent, sovereign Kurdistan carved out of northern Iraq.3 According to Bengio, the turmoil and cracks in the Arab societies since 2011 are juxtaposed with "a growing tendency towards trans-border cooperation and unity" in the Kurdish case.4 Or so it seemed.

On closer inspection, the Syrian conflict actually exacerbated existing tensions within Kurdish groups. Clearly, at the grassroots level the suffering of Kurds in Syria generally increased the sense of shared kinship among Kurds living in neighboring countries.5 But Brubaker argues it is a mistake to think of ethnic groups as singular entities; instead, the internal dynamics of an ethnic group need to be examined.6 In this case, increased transnational solidarity at the grassroots level did not automatically translate into greater cooperation on tactics and goals at the level of political elites. Instead, examining the internal dynamics reveals increased division at an elite level as competing political projects and struggles emerged across Kurdish groups.

The differences between Iraqi Kurdish leaders, on the one hand, and Turkish and Syrian Kurdish leaders, on the other, in their visions of the rightful future of Kurds in the Middle East have become increasingly stark since 2011. While in Iraq there were increased demands for independence, the calls were more modest in Turkey and Syria, appealing instead for federalism and autonomy. Turkey's Kurdish leaders actually criticized Iraqi Kurdish demands for an independent state. Cemil Bayık, one of three members of the PKK executive council, warned against partitioning Iraq, declaring that it would strengthen ISIS, and therefore Kurds should be satisfied with autonomy within a unified Iraq.7 At the same time, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani demanded that Syrian Kurds throw in their lot with other anti-Assad opposition groups rather than risking the unity of Syria by looking for regional autonomy.8

Instead of binding Kurds into some kind of mythical homogenous group, the war added momentum to related but distinct projects in each of the three states, thus increasing competition within and among these groups. As such, it would be a mistake to think of the Syrian war as inevitably advancing the idea of a unified Kurdish state and self-rule across the region. In many respects, it has hampered such aspirations by exposing the heterogeneity of the Kurdish population and the competing interests of different Kurdish leaders. While deepening connections between the PKK in Turkey and PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Syria are observable, the war exposed the competing interests and characteristics of the two distinct Kurdish projects of the PKK and KDP, the most powerful and influential Kurdish parties in the Middle East.

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