Monday, May 2, 2016

Iraq and Syria’s Kurds’ Divergent Histories But Similar Futures? Interview With Journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg


Wars in Iraq and Syria offered the opportunity for Kurds in both countries to create a level of autonomy for their areas. In the 1990s it was the Gulf War and the subsequent no fly zone that allowed for the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In 2011 the Syrian war started, and Syrian forces started creating their own Rojava region. Ironically, the Syrian conflict has caused competition between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish parties. To help explain these different histories and rivalries is journalist and analyst at the Jamestown Foundation Wladimir van Wilgenburg. Currently, he is doing field research in Rojava, northern Syria for a project for the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies called "Governing Diversity, Problems of Representation of Kurds", funded by the IDRC. His updates from the ground can be followed on Twitter at @vvanwilgenburg.

1. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been long time rivals. How has that dynamic played out in the Syrian civil war?

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)’s affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has dominated the Kurdish areas in northern Syria since July 19, 2012 by its armed forces, also known as the popular People’s Protection Units (YPG). This while the KDP backed the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella for pro-Barzani parties, which is part of the Syrian opposition delegation in Geneva close to Turkey. While the KNC initially did not want to set up an armed militia, the PYD and PKK quickly set up the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and a local police force called Asayis on the ground. The KDP did
train Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga forces, but they did not enter Syria due to the KDP’s reluctance to enter the Syrian quagmire without an agreement with the PYD. Since 2012, the KDP has tried to implement several agreements with the PYD, but this failed. The KDP’s main focus was to maintain dominance in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, while the PKK did not rule any specific population or territory, and had nothing to loose, only to gain. The KDP did not want to clash with the Syrian government in northern Syria or rival Syrian rebel groups, nor fight a civil war with the PYD. The PKK used the gains of the PYD in northern Syria, to pressure the Turkish state in the peace negotiations. The KNC was initially also hesitant to adopt them as their official armed forces until their last congress in late June 2015, which resulted in one of the KNC parties leaving the council. As a result, the KNC is very weak on the ground, and the only pressure measure the KDP has to force the PYD to work with the KNC is closing the borders, and sanctioning the Kurdish region of Syria. The PYD is also reluctant to share the power with the KDP, since they see the KDP as a threat to their ideological project, and they do not want to divide the region on a 50-50 basis, as what happened between the KDP and PUK in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The KDP wants to give Efrin and Kobani to the PYD, this while the KNC wants to control Hasakah which has the most natural resources that are the economical lifeline of the Syrian Kurdish federal project in Northern Syria. Therefore, the PYD prefers to push the KNC to accept their project, instead of divide northern Syria.

2. Those two parties are also having issues within Iraq in places like Ninewa province. What has happened between the two in Sinjar and other areas?

The PKK and the YPG entered Sinjar from Syria after the Peshmerga withdrew from Sinjar in August 2014, leading to a massacre among the Ezidis by the Islamic State and the enslavement of their women. The PKK set up a similar organization as the YPG for the Ezidi Kurds, as they did for the Syrian Kurds called the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), The Peshmergas returned to Sinjar after an offensive with US-coalition support in December 2014, and in November 2015 recaptured Sinjar city. Now, the PKK wants to establish a self-administration for Ezidis with Iraq’s support, while the KDP wants to set up Sinjar as an independent province as part of the Kurdistan region. YBS fighters are now also receiving a salary from Baghdad, this while only KDP forces receive support by coalition airstrikes. As a result, there is fierce competition between the PKK and the KDP, which could lead to a potential conflict in the future. So far, both have managed to keep any conflict contained.

For the KDP, recapturing Sinjar was important to make up for their mistakes in August 2014 that led to a massacre of Ezidis. For the PKK, playing a role in Sinjar would give them more influence in Iraq, and could also possibly end the KDP embargo on Rojava and northern Syria in the future. Before, the Islamic state captured Mosul, the YPG and PKK were using the Rabia border crossing in cooperation with Baghdad, but now they are forced to depend on the KDP that controls both the Rabia and the Saemalka border crossings. If Baghdad ever takes back control of the Sunni areas near Sinjar, this would open the way for the YPG, YBS and PKK to use Iraqi territory to import goods into their federal region. That’s why the PKK opposes Sinjar becoming part of the Kurdistan region. Therefore, Sinjar is increasingly connected to the competition between the KDP-linked and PKK-linked Kurdish parties over northern Syria.

3. Iraq’s Kurds were able to carve out an autonomous region during the 1990s after the Gulf War thanks the western no fly zones. After 2003 they have been talking about independence more and more. Have Syria’s Kurds laid out their future plans or are they still in the making?

The PYD set up local canton administrations in cooperation with local Arabs and Christians in 2014, instead of working with the KNC. With the Syrian revolution becoming increasingly being dominated by armed groups, the PYD managed to become the most powerful group on the ground, and the most influential actor to beat Jihadist groups. Since September 2014, the US-led coalition against the Islamic state started to back the YPG with airstrikes and ammunition. As a result, the YPG quickly expanded its foothold in the region at the expense of the Syrian regime and the Islamic state. In June 2015, they captured Tal Abyad with US-air support linking up the enclave of Kobani with the one in the Hasakah province. They have also beaten the Islamic state in other towns like in Hasakah, al-Hawl, al-Shaddadi. The YPG in October 20, 2015, established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the PYD said it would now work to unite their local three canton administrations in the enclaves of Efrin, Kobani, and Cizere, into a federal region this year.

While the KNC is part of the Syrian opposition, it envisions a federal Kurdistan region similar to the one in Iraq. This while the PYD wants to have a federal region not based on ethnicity, but in cooperation with Arabs, Christians and other minorities. As a result, they announced a federal region for both Arabs and Kurds, for both Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), and northern Syria. Therefore, there are no specific boundaries for this region, and the PYD and YPG are also recruiting increasingly more Arabs. The PYD says explicitly it’s against a Kurdish nationalist federal region, while the KNC blames the PYD for having a too Syrian federal project, although they are part of the Syrian opposition that rejects any form of self-rule. The KNC refused to join the local administrations created by the PYD. The Syrian opposition and Turkey also back rebel groups that have been massacring Kurdish civilians in Aleppo, which has put the KNC in a more difficult position. The KNC also worked with the Syrian opposition to prevent the PYD from participating in Geneva. As a result, the situation in Aleppo and the Geneva negotiations only worsened the relations between the KNC and PYD, instead of them working together for having one independent Kurdish delegation in Geneva. So far, both the Syrian government and opposition have rejected any form of Kurdish autonomy or federalism. Despite all this, the Kurdish parties from Syria cannot work together.

4. Kurds are spread out across several countries in the Middle East, and each has grown up with a different history. For example, Iraq was built upon an exclusionist vision of being an Arab state despite it being a multi-ethnic nation. The Kurds never quite felt apart of the new country leading them to constantly fluctuate between armed rebellions and negotiations with the central government for greater rights and autonomy. In more recent times, Saddam’s Arabization program, the Anfal campaign, the Halabja bombing, and the putting down of the 1991 uprising led to a feeling of victimization amongst Iraqi Kurds. What factors shaped Syrian Kurdish identity and how has that influenced their political project?

The Syrian Kurds faced a similar Arab nationalist regime as the Iraqi Kurds. The Baath-regime Arabized Kurdish areas on the Syrian border, took away the citizenship of many Syrian Kurds, prohibited Kurdish political parties, and banned their language. Although the Syrian Kurds did not face a genocide or chemical gassing, they also have events that symbolize their victimization by the Baath-regime, such as the killing of hundreds of Kurdish children in a cinema fire in Amude blamed on the government in the 1960s, and the failed Kurdish uprising in 2004. Following the Syrian civil war, the PYD mostly shaped the political project and also history. Now, the resistance by the YPG against the Islamic state in Kobani in 2014, and the battle against rival rebel groups in Serêkanî‎ play an important role in the shaping of Syrian Kurdish history, but also the killing of Kurdish civilians by rival rebel groups in the Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo. The battles of the YPG mostly play a new important factor in the shaping of the Kurdish identity in Syria. Moreover, the PYD decided to follow a multi-ethnic model based on the ideology of PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan, trying to include Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, and others in their new administrations, appointing both a Kurd and an Arab as co-heads for institutions. Therefore, their focus is not a ‘Kurdistani’ region, but a ‘Syrian Democratic Federal Region’. The PYD also emphasizes it does not want to separate from Syria, while the KDP increasingly is moving towards a Kurdish independent state in Iraq.
 
Gender also plays an important role for the PYD, and they implement gender quotas, and both the military and political leadership required two co-chairs: one man and one woman. Furthermore, women also play a huge role in the security forces and have their own Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) that battle the Islamic state. This resulted in a lot of positive media coverage for Kurdish female fighters in Syria.
  

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