Focus on Aleppo allows Kurds to fill vacuum


ANALYSIS:As yet uninvolved in the conflict, Syria’s Kurds will be affected by the unfolding drama, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

SQUEEZED BETWEEN the rock of Damascus and the hard place formed by the external powers involved in the struggle for Syria, the country’s Kurds have adopted an independent line. They have rejected the deployment of rebel forces in their area and aligned themselves with the domestic political opposition.

With the tacit acceptance of Damascus, the Kurds have assumed control of Kurdish towns and villages from which government forces have made a tactical withdrawal in order to fight rebels in Aleppo.

Kurds are also excluding the Free Syrian Army from the northeast corner of Syria bordering Turkey and Iraq. In response, Baghdad has bolstered army deployments along this sector of the frontier with Syria.

The largest Kurdish faction is the deeply-rooted Democratic Union party (PYD), an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been fighting Ankara for the past 30 years and is regarded by Turkey as a terrorist movement.

The fierce anti-Turkish Syrian Union party is associated with the Syria-based opposition National Co-ordination Body, which rejects militarisation of the Syrian drive to achieve democracy.

Ankara has expressed concern that Syria’s Kurds could try to establish an autonomous region in Syria modelled on the three-province Kurdish region in northern Iraq and has threatened military action against PKK-PYD cadres in Syria. However, Turkey knows full well that the Kurds are scattered round northeast Syria and are not in a position to form a separate region.

The much smaller and less influential Kurdish National party is a coalition of 11 factions aligned with Iraq’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani. He has urged all factions to unite in administering the “newly liberated” areas and to “avoid narrow partisanship”.

Early last month, the groups agreed to share equally in the management of Kurdish-held areas. For the time being, the two groups are co-operating and the flags of the PKK and the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq fly over public buildings in northeast. They have also formed a western Kurdish council to unify policy.

Mr Barzani’s involvement with Syria’s Kurds has exacerbated existing tensions with Baghdad, arising out of the Kurds’ exploitation of their region’s oil resources without clearing deals with foreign firms with the Iraqi government.

Dominated by pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalists, the Baghdad government has followed Tehran’s pro-Damascus line along with Russia and China.

These external actors insist that there should be no outside intervention in the Syrian conflict, argue there should be a “Syrian solution”, and oppose the militarisation of the conflict by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar which have the support of the west.

Mr Barzani, a chameleon who has allied himself with both Iran and the west, has tried to reassure the US, its European and Arab allies and Turkey that the PKK/PYD will not take control of northeastern Syria. However, it has already done just this, although Mr Barzani’s peshmerga militia has been training and arming Syrian Kurds with the aim of creating his own countervailing force in northeast Syria.