This was published first at The New Arab.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Marxist-Leninist turned authoritarian-anarchist (yes, that is an oxymoron) Kurdish separatist party-militia at intermittent war with the Turkish state. The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a PKK-offshoot set up while Abdullah Ocalan was hosted in Syria by Hafez al-Assad. Given its focus on the war against Turkey rather than civil rights in Syria, the PYD was usually tolerated by the regime.
As the revolution began liberating territory in 2012, Assad forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight, handing them over to PYD control. Thereafter the PYD monopolised arms and aid money, repressed opposition parties, and shot at protestors.
At the same time, it won an undoubted national victory for the Kurds. After decades of enforced ‘Arabism’, locals finally policed their own neighbourhoods and children were taught in their mother tongue. Through the commune system, the PYD also promoted a measure of local democracy. The allocation of 40% of commune seats to women is evidence of the party’s impressive commitment to gender equality.
As well as the PYD’s avowed secularism, the fact that its territories were not subjected to Assad’s scorched earth inoculated them against penetration by transnational jihadists. The PYD’s political innovations, meanwhile, won the admiration of many leftists and anarchists in the west. Sadly this support was often uncritical, and generally ignored similar democratic self-organisation experiments in the liberated but heavily bombed territories beyond PYD rule.
At first, the PYD governed Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, that is the Afrin, Kobani and Jazira cantons. These areas (collectively called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan) are non-contiguous. Kurdish autonomy could work there, but not statehood.
The PYD, however, was able to take advantage of both Russia’s war on the rebels and the American-led coalition’s war against ISIS to join up and expand its territory. In February 2016, in alliance with Russia, the PYD captured Tel Rifaat, Menagh, and surrounding areas close to Afrin. These Arab-majority towns were governed by civilian local councils and defended by non-jihadist rebels. Both people and rebels were driven out by Russian air power (Russian bombs destroyed all three of Tel Rifaat’s health centres during the assault) accompanied by the PYD’s troops on the ground. Next, in July 2016, the PYD captured the Castello Road leading into Aleppo, assisting the Assad regime’s siege on the city and eventually its fall (in December) to Assad’s Iranian-backed militias.
By now rebranded (on American advice, as if Turkey would be fooled) as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and incorporating Arab fighters alongside Kurds, the PYD fought valiantly against ISIS, advancing under American air cover. In August 2016 it captured Manbij, then headed south to Raqqa which, almost totally destroyed and depopulated, was taken in October 2017. Late last year, as ISIS territorial control collapsed, the SDF continued south into Deir ez-Zor province and east to the Iraqi border. Today the PYD-SDF-American alliance and the Assad-Iranian-Russian axis face off across the Euphrates river.
PYD-domination so deep into Syria is unsustainable for many reasons, only one of which is the unyielding opposition of the Turkish state. Beyond disputed claims of the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Tel Abyad, Syrians in these areas have good reason to worry that they have become pawns in a non-Syrian project. Many SDF commanders in the Raqqa battle spoke better Turkish than Arabic, and when the battle for this Arab city was won, PYD militants unfurled a giant picture of Abdullah Ocalan – a Turkish Kurd – in the central square. It quickly became clear that any return to democratic self-rule would have to be managed within the PYD’s preferred framework. Manbij, for instance, had run its own affairs through a local council from July 2012 to January 2014, before ISIS took over. Activists hoped the council would return after ISIS was expelled, but the PYD established its own council under the Rojava system.
Still, according to Syrian observers like Hassan Hassan, the SDF’s governance model is considered by many in the east to be the best on offer, at least for now. An immeasurable improvement on ISIS misrule, it has brought the beginnings of stability while keeping Assad at bay. There is hope that, as more residents return, PYD influence will wane and local control will expand. A precipitous disintegration of the SDF into warring Arab and Kurdish components would be disastrous for local people, and would greatly benefit both ISIS and Assad.
Today Turkish troops are engaged alongside Turkish-backed Free Army fighters in the (comically-named) Operation Olive Branch, an assault on the PYD in the Afrin region. The ‘official’ Syrian opposition supports the action, and it’s easy to see why. In the course of the war that Assad provoked, foreign states have carved the country into zones of influence. Russia and Iran sponsor the regime; the Americans (and sometimes Russians) sponsor the PYD. In this context, it’s natural for the rebels to exploit Turkish power to link their surviving territories in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, and to liberate the Arab towns (Tel Rifaat, etc) occupied under Russian bombs.
But the opposition’s support for Turkey’s operation should go that far and no further. Specifically, it should not support Turkey’s occupation of the Kurdish-majority Afrin canton itself. Instead it should clearly recognise the right of Syrian Kurds to political self-determination, as part of the general struggle for self-determination for all Syrians. In practical terms, it should clearly accept the principle that people in Kurdish-majority areas have the right to autonomy should they wish to exert it.
The chances that the opposition will do the right thing at this late stage are slim to vanishing. Their need of Turkey’s aid is too great, and recent history has in any case hardened attitudes. But PYD and opposition supporters alike should remember that both sides are sinned against as well as sinning. Just as the PYD shells civilians in Azaz, so elements of the Aleppo rebels shelled Kurdish civilians in Shaikh Maqsoud. Just as the PYD falsely tarred their rebel opponents in Tel Rifaat as ‘jihadists’, so Nusra and others on several occasions used the pretext of PYD ‘atheism’ to attack the cantons.
And yet PYD-rebel relations have not always been bad. When ISIS attacked Kobani, for instance, a Free Syrian Army contingent fought in the city’s defence. (Outsiders who oversimplify Syrian politics in racist terms, seeing all Kurds as secularists and all Arabs as jihadists, should note also that the leader of the ISIS attack was a Kurd.)
Finally, the official opposition should meditate on the fact that its failure to uphold the Kurdish right to autonomy at the start of the revolutionary process only increased support for the PYD in Kurdish-majority areas and gave the organisation a legitimacy it did not previously possess.
It certainly won’t, but the opposition would be well advised to make good its mistake. If it were to recognise the right to autonomy today, from a position of strength, all the better. First, because it’s the correct thing to do, on principle. Second, because it’s in the opposition’s own interest. The PYD may still have the option of trading eastern Syria to the regime in return for guarantees of autonomy in Rojava. And even if the PYD is entirely neutralised (a very unlikely prospect), the fates of Kurds and Arabs in Syria will remain inextricably intertwined. General war between the two would mark another bitter step downwards in the Syrian people’s defeat.