Page Text

Black Sea



















Siirt Diyarbakır

Urfa Ayn al-Arab

Ras al-Ayn


Qamishli Amuda

Deir al-Zor


Mosul Sinjar



Erbil Koisinjaq


Kirkuk Domiz

















Border proposed by the Kurdish delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919

Border defined by the Treaty of Sèvres, 1920

Border proposed by the Kurdish delegation at the first United Nations conference, San Francisco, 1945





200 km


Kurdish Republic of Mahabad (1946-1947) Iraqi Kurdistan

“Red Kurdistan” in Azerbaijan (1923-1929)

Kurdish-inhabited areas

Sources: Kurdish Institute of Paris; Michael Mehrdad R S C Izady, University of Columbia, New York, 1998

New Year. Names of towns and villages were Arabised and references to Kurdish identity removed from official textbooks (8).

Yet the Syrian regime was happy to give sanctuary to Kurdish armed groups from neighbouring countries to increase its leverage against Iraq and Turkey. Talabani, for instance, lived in Damascus for many years and founded his PUK there in 1975. But it was another party, from the north, that grew the deepest roots among the Syrian Kurds – the PKK.

Syria’s Kurdish regions have not been hotbeds of revolution. Although there were large demonstrations in Qamishli, the biggest Kurdish town, they did not join the armed Syrian revolution. In August 2011, when the Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed, Kurdish militants asked for specific recognition of their past suffering and future guarantees for their cultural identity and political self-rule. SNC activists took such demands as a sign of chauvinism, and invited them to join the revolution, leaving their own problems to be addressed in a future democratic Syria. The formation of the SNC was announced from Istanbul, and the Free Syrian Army was based in Turkey’s Hatay Province, so pro-PKK Syrian Kurds saw Ankara behind Syria’s opposition.

The Syrian authorities have been careful not to open a new front in the northeast. In 2011 they distributed 300,000 citizenship documents to ethnic Kurds and released a number of Syrian Kurdish political prisoners. (Though this did not stop the repression of activists, such as the assassination of Mashaal Tammo in October 2011.) Syria’s Kurds, who were quite dispersed, have never demanded autonomy or self-rule, so they were attracted by the more powerful Kurdish political movements, in Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east. The first to affirm a Kurdish identity was the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) (9).

The PKK, founded in 1978 by Kurdish students in Ankara, turned to armed struggle against Turkey after the military coup of 1980. The movement had support from the Syrian regime and its leader Abdullah Ocalan was based in Damascus for years. It was able to set up military training camps in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, then under Syrian control, and could recruit among Syrian Kurds: young Kurdish men who joined the PKK were spared compulsory military service. Though estimates vary, 7,000-10,000 Syrian Kurds are believed to have died fighting under the PKK banner (10), and even now a third of the PKK guerrillas in the high mountains of northern Iraq are of Syrian origin.

In 1998, under threat of war with Turkey, Syria closed down the PKK bases and expelled Ocalan, who was arrested by Turkish security agents in Kenya. But then the tide then turned. The Syrian government developed good relations with Turkey and sent hundreds of PKK militants to prison. The PKK, isolated after Ocalan’s capture, pulled back to the Kandil Mountains in the northeast, and its militants were hunted down by neighbouring states, as if to prove the saying “The Kurd has no friend but the mountain”.

But the Arab revolutions changed regional alliances. In 2011 hundreds of PKK-PYD militants left their mountain sanctuaries and took up positions in Syria’s northern areas, which they call “Western Kurdistan”. When the battles for Damascus and Aleppo erupted last summer, the Assad regime was no longer able to hold the entire country, and withdrew its forces from some Kurdish towns. In June 2012 PYD activists took control of Malekiyeh, Ayn al-Arab, Amuda and Afrin. “The regime is finished, its presence is disappearing day by day. Therefore, we cannot enter into an alliance with them,” said Hussein Kojer, a PYD spokesman. He said accusations of PYDDamascus cooperation came “from Turkey. We have hundreds of martyrs who died in prison under torture by the Ba’ath.”

The PYD show of force has created suspicion among other parties, and alarm in Ankara. The 16 Syrian Kurdish parties who founded the Kurdish National Council (KNC) began preparing their own military forces, recruiting young Syrian Kurds who had deserted from the Syrian army and found

LMDLeMonde diplomatique MAY 2013 9

refuge in the Domiz camp in northern Iraq. Peshmerga officers recruited 1,600 deserters inside the camp to train them so they can “play a role in Syria once the situation collapses and there’s a vacuum,” in the words of Barzani (11). With fears of clashes between the PYD and its rivals, the KRG president mediated at meetings in Erbil, in June and November 2012. This led to the creation of mechanisms for military and political coordination between the PYD and KNC (which groups 15 organisations not linked to the PKK). Although there have been no major inter-Kurdish clashes inside Syria, tensions remain high.

There is another danger: a war between Kurdish fighters and Syrian rebels. There have been clashes in Afrin, and in the Ashrafiyeh neighbourhood of Aleppo. The most serious involved three days of fighting in Ras al-Ayn in November 2012 between Kurdish militants and rebel Islamist forces linked to Ghuraba alSham and the Al-Nusra Front. The ceasefire that followed did not hold, and there were more violent clashes this January. A new ceasefire has been agreed, under the auspices, notably, of Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo.

If Syria’s Kurdish regions were to fall under PKK-PYD influence, they would be caught between opposing powers: Turkey and the Syrian rebels. The Kurdish regions within Syria are on a long strip of flat land, not suitable for guerrilla warfare. The Syrian Kurds need to make a choice, which could be made easier by the renewed negotiations between the Turkish authorities and the PKK.

On 1 January 2013 the Turkish media revealed negotiations between Ocalan and Turkish intelligence services, which seemed advanced; Turkish Kurdish MPs were invited to visit Ocalan in prison to confirm Ankara’s willingness to negotiate. A week later, three PKK members were assassinated in Paris, including Sakine Cansiz, a founding member of the party. This was seen by Kurdish sources as a professional hit ordered by a group aiming to derail the negotiations. The funeral of the three was held in the large Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, in southeastern Turkey, and attracted large crowds who carried slogans – not for revenge but peace.

The Turkish authorities’ negotiations with Ocalan continued. On 21 March, Kurdish New Year’s Day, a letter from Ocalan announcing “the end of armed struggle” was read out to a huge crowd in Diyarbakır. Ocalan asked the PKK fighters to leave Turkey and give up their arms. The PKK’s leaders in the Kandil Mountains immediately announced that their combatants, estimated at 3,500, would start to withdraw.

These events were all the more unexpected since PKK offensives had escalated in 2012. Some say the discussions are linked to the electoral ambitions of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who aims to become president (changing the country’s constitution to introduce a strong presidential system). Whether the negotiations will overcome the many obstacles, not least an absence of mutual trust, is hard to predict. Whatever their outcome, they will also have consequences for the future of Syria.


(1) On the Kurds, read David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd revised edition, IB Tauris, London, 2004. (2) The Assyro-Chaldeans are Christians who speak a modern version of Aramaic; the Yezidis belong to a monotheistic religion and speak a Kurdish dialect. (3) Stefan Wolff, “Governing (in) Kirkuk: Resolving the Status of a Disputed Territory in post-America Iraq”, International Affairs, London, vol 86, issue 6, 2010. (4) The Iraq-Russia arms deal remains uncertain. The $4.2bn deal was first announced during Al-Maliki’s visit to Moscow in October 2012, but “cancelled” a month later over a corruption scandal, only for the Iraqi prime minister to announce that the deal was to be renegotiated. (5) The Iraqi state budget for 2013 is 138tr dinars ($115bn). (6) Currently, KRG oil production is at 30,000 barrels per day (See Al-Hayat, 21 December 2012); regional prosperity therefore depends on Iraqi oil produced mainly in the Basra region. (7) Ben Van Heuvelen, “Turkey weighs pivotal oil deal with Iraqi Kurdistan”, The Washington Post, 11 December 2012. (8) “Group Denial, Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria”, Human Rights Watch, November 2009; (9) The PYD has its own armed wing, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG or Popular Defence Units). (10) See Ilhan Tanir, Wladimir Van Wilgenburg and Omar Hossino, “Unity or PYD Power Play? Syrian Kurdish Dynamics After the Erbil Agreement”, The Henry Jackson Society, London, 2012. (11) Jane Araf, “Massoud Barzani: Flying the Kurdish Flag”, Al-Jazeera, 29 July 2012.