Since the summer of 2012, the beleaguered Syrian regime has all but abandoned areas predominantly inhabited by Kurds. So far, the main beneficiary of this situation of quasi-autonomy for a “West Kurdistan” appears to be the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a powerful Syrian Kurdish group established in 2003 by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants of Syrian origin in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. The largely bloodless withdrawal of the Syrian army and security forces in the north and northeast of the country – as well as tensions between the PYD and other revolutionary actors – has given rise to a host of suspicions about the group’s motivations, as well as its national and regional designs.
In a remarkably short time, the PYD has set up a well-armed military of about 10,000 fighters, known as the Popular Protection Units (YPG), as well as local, self-organized civilian structures under the label of the “Movement for a Democratic Society.” In theory, the PYD shares power with some 15 other Kurdish parties. They form the Kurdish National Council, in the framework of the Kurdish Supreme Council, which was established in July 2012 through the mediation efforts of Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan and leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. Yet on the ground, the PYD is dismissing its council partners as nothing more than proxies for Barzani himself, whose close relationship with Turkey the PYD deeply mistrusts.
The PYD has also prevented any armed Kurdish presence besides its own Populist Protection Units. Most recently, armed altercations were reported with the Kurdish Union Party in Syria in the towns of Al-Darbasiyah and Qamishli.
The PYD and YPG have also repeatedly clashed with fighters of the Free Syrian Army, who themselves are connected to the KNC through the Syrian Opposition Coalition – particularly in the mixed town of Ras al-Ayn on the Turkish border. Fighting continues to flare up despite all attempts at mediation. The PYD have also repelled attempts by the FSA to enter Kurdish areas in and around Aleppo and have accused Turkey of instigating and supporting the forays of Islamist elements (such as the Nusra Front and Ghuraba al-Sham) into Kurdish areas.
The tension between PYD and FSA (as well as with other revolutionary elements) have given rise to accusations that the PYD is acting as a sub-contractor for the Syrian regime. In late December, Arab tribes attacked PYD offices in the mixed city of Hassakeh in retaliation for regime violence against protesters, and accused the party of collaboration with the regime.
While the position taken by the PYD complicates the situation for the FSA and its Turkish backers (and therefore provides an objective benefit for the Syrian regime itself), there is little evidence for active cooperation between the two sides. Areas controlled by the PYD are occasionally targeted by the regime, if on a much lesser scale than those where the FSA is present. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that the structures of Kurdish self-government that have since developed could even survive should Bashar Assad ever manage to reclaim control over the whole of Syria. Yet tensions between the PYD and FSA imply the danger of worsening relations between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in this part of the country – with sizable Christian communities caught in the middle.
The second major accusation leveled against the PYD – often by an increasingly nervous Turkey – is that the party is a front for the PKK. Officially, the PYD denies any such affiliation. Yet even if one disregards the origins of some prominent PYD leaders in the PKK, the group’s language, its symbols (most visibly, images of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan), and its organizational structures (not least among them, female fighters in the lower ranks) mirror those of the PKK. Moreover, it is unclear how the Syrian Kurds could have set up (by themselves, no less) the logistical and structural framework to form a military force of more than 10,000 fighters.
At the same time, there is little evidence of Kurdish fighters attempting to infiltrate Turkey from Syria. While the PYD and PKK leadership are concerned enough to deny Turkey any pretext for intervention, their priority is to build autonomous structures and military forces. This fits into the PKK’s broader strategic shift since 2000, which abandons the call for a unified, independent Kurdish state and instead strives for autonomy within existing state borders. Establishing a second autonomous Kurdish area (after Iraq’s) that puts one of the post-PKK organizations in charge of quasi-state structures (and eventually, a role in negotiating Syria’s future) appears far too precious an opportunity to be jeopardized.
In addition, the rugged territory to the north and northwest of the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, where the PKK headquarters are located, offers far better inroads into Turkish territory than the Turkish-Syrian border region – most of which is fairly accessible and comparatively easy to monitor from the Turkish side.
Still, since the outset of the Syrian crisis, PKK operations have been picking up across southeast Anatolia, with a notable increase of fighters of Iranian-Kurdish origin among the reported casualties on the Kurdish side. Interestingly, however, operations of the PJAK (the Iranian version of the PKK) on Iranian territory have nearly ceased. Some reports even advance theories of a strategic alliance having been forged between the PKK and Iran in attempts to put the heat on Turkey and restabilize Assad.
Yet even without such an explicit realignment, the conflict over the Syrian crisis was bound to undermine Turkish-Iranian security cooperation on the border region. From an Iranian perspective, turning a blind eye to Kurdish infiltration of Turkey offers the double benefit of putting the squeeze on Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan in retaliation for supporting the Syrian revolution, while directing the separatist efforts of Iran’s Kurds elsewhere.
These developments appear to have added new dynamics to the long-standing struggle for leadership within the PKK, between its acting leader Murat Karayilan and Bahoz Erdal, born Fahman Hussein and often referred to as “Dr. Bahoz,” the former commander of the People’s Defense Force from 2004 until he was sacked by Karayilan in 2009. Erdal, a younger leader who supports military action, appears to have made a comeback in 2011, as events in Syria improved the margin for such an approach. Time and age are clearly on the side of Erdal (provided he continues to avoid being captured or killed), and so is his Syrian background – and control of a quasi-state is bound to boost the weight of the Syrian element in the PKK structure.
Thus, it can be expected that the Syrian crisis will accelerate the generational change within the PKK toward a younger, more radical leadership. For the moment, the leadership is in the advantageous position of being able to put military pressure on Turkey on one front while demonstrating a capacity for maintaining stability in the midst of chaos on another.
Recent Turkish efforts to reopen negotiations with Ocalan may in part reflect the extent of fears of the PKK’s intentions and the corresponding urge to rein in the group’s more militant elements. Turkey has few other options to address a situation it has partly created for itself with its hard line on the Assad regime and its policy of Kurdish suppression. None of its allies south of the border – neither the FSA nor Massoud Barzani – has significant potential to put pressure on the PKK or PYD. A full-fledged invasion into Syria (or Iraq) would only galvanize the local population behind the parties and expose Turkish troops to guerilla warfare on foreign and intensely hostile terrain – a situation in which regular armies rarely fare well. This may just be the PKK’s preferred scenario.
Heiko Wimmen is a researcher at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs and coordinates its project, “Elite Change and New Social Mobilization in the Arab World.” Muzehher Selcuk is a research assistant at the Berlin-based Forum for Public Security. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.