Syria's Kurds stand alone after rejecting rebels and regime
Developments in Syria and Iraq have led some to speculate that the birth of an independent Kurdish state might be at hand. A closer analysis shows that a united Kurdistan is still unlikely, although a separate semiautonomous Kurdish community in Syria, with some parallels to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq, is a growing possibility.
In Syria, Kurds are sitting on the sidelines of the uprising against the Damascus regime. Indeed, the Free Syrian Army has accused members of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of hindering its operations in some areas against the Assad regime, according to the Kurdish website Rudaw.net. Leaders of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is affiliated with the PKK, have made it clear that they will not tolerate the spread of Syria's conflict into the Kurdish-dominated areas of Syria.
The PYD stands separate from the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of 11 Kurdish parties in Syria that has ties to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. But leaders of the Kurdish National Council have also indicated to Rudaw that they are aiming to keep Kurdish areas free from fighting between the regime and the rebels.
The Kurdish groups are far from united on most issues - the KNC has in the past clashed with the PYD, but since Syria's unrest began last year, the two factions have "signed an agreement sponsored by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to prevent intra-Kurdish tensions", according to Jonathan Spyer, an analyst at the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs Center.
This, Mr Spyer writes in the Jerusalem Post, ensures "de facto Kurdish control of a large swathe of Syria's north-east and the placing of this area off limits to the insurgency against the Assad regime for the foreseeable future".
Syria's Kurds are not, by and large, supporters of President Bashar Al Assad, but their scepticism about the Syrian opposition is understandable. For one thing, rebel fighters in Syria have the support of Ankara, which has a bad reputation regarding Turkish Kurds in matters of civil and cultural rights.
In addition, whenever Kurdish groups have tried to engage the Syrian opposition about the shape of a post-Assad Syria, talks have always broken down. The main issue is that the opposition refuses to drop the identification of Syria as an Arab nation (as evinced in the country's official name: "Syrian Arab Republic") and accept that Kurds are a distinct people. Thus ended the recent Cairo meeting of anti-Assad groups, attended by the KNC.
With Syrian Kurds declining to choose between Mr Al Assad and the opposition, the idea of a de facto Kurdish autonomous area in the Al Jazira area of north-east Syria becomes a possibility.
In the event of Mr Al Assad's downfall, Sunni groups and others in Syria might be too distracted by infighting to deal with the question of Kurdish autonomy.
It does not follow, however, that the Syrian Kurds will join with Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government to form an independent Kurdish state straddling the northern part of today's Iraq-Syria border.
Evidently, Iraq's Kurdish leadership would like to win independence from Baghdad eventually, although that is rarely stated explicitly. But economic independence is a prerequisite, and Syria's Kurdish areas would have little to offer the Iraqi Kurds in that regard.
Most of Syria's remaining oil reserves are located in the Sunni Arab tribal areas around Deir Ezzor. Nor does Syria's Kurdish region have access to ports that could allow Iraq's Kurds to set up an independent pipeline to transport petroleum to the international market.
There was considerable media coverage of an agreement signed in May between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, covering two pipelines that carry oil and gas from the Kirkuk area to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
Numerous reports portrayed this deal as incurring the disapproval of the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The implication was that Turkey and the KRG had agreed, without Baghdad's permission, to set up these pipelines.
Some commentators saw the deal as part of a Turkish strategy to deepen economic ties with Iraqi Kurds. This was seen as a sign that the Turkish government had warmed to the idea of potential Kurdish independence.
However, as the analyst Joel Wing of the blog Musings on Iraq noted, this analysis gets the basic facts wrong. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipelines are under the control of the oil ministry in Baghdad, and so the KRG agreement with Turkey must have had central government approval to some degree. After all, Baghdad provides 95 per cent of the KRG's annual budget.
Note that the Kurdish areas of Turkey constitute at least 50 per cent of the dreamed of Kurdistan. Ankara would not welcome an independent Kurdish state just south of its border, believing that such a state would increase the possibility of a Kurdish revolt in Turkey's south-east. One of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipelines was shut down on Saturday after an explosion that Ankara blamed on Kurdish rebels. That fraught relationship does not appear to be improving any time soon.
As long as Turkey remains opposed to Kurdish independence and the KRG lacks opportunities to break its financial reliance on Baghdad, an independent Kurdistan will remain a remote prospect.
Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi is an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum
Updated: July 23, 2012 04:00 AM