Since Syrian government officials and troops abandoned the northeast of Syria to concentrate on preserving the regime in the west of the country, the Kurdish minority population there has been able to virtually govern itself. Elections are even planned to form a Kurdish assembly.
De facto independence for Syria’s Kurds has implications not only for the future state of Syria but neighboring countries, mainly Turkey and Iraq, that are home to sizable Kurdish minorities as well.
The Kurds aren’t the only ones to have freed themselves of Bashar Assad’s yoke. Further west, along the Euphrates River, Sunni Muslims, who are the majority population in all but the northwest and northeast of Syria, are in control. The regime is still strong in the Mediterranean coastal area, especially in the homeland of Assad’s Alawite tribe Latakia, while Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial capital, is among the most hostly contested in the country.
The Economist reported on Saturday that the country was “gradually breaking into three.”
From Damascus and Homs to Hama and Latakia, the regime is carving out a coastal state. Meanwhile, the rebels are doing the same in the Euphrates valley stretching from Turkey to Iraq through open desert.
The British newspaper even believes that Syria “as a country has ceased to exist.” In the areas controlled by Islamists, sharia law now takes precedence over the secular legal system that is still in place in the west. In other parts, there is no law at all. Economies are localized. “Different flags fly over administrative buildings — where they still exist.”
The Kurds and the Islamists are not united in the fight against Assad, however. Al Jazeera reported on Sunday that Kurdish autonomy has alarmed the Islamists, who have proven to be the most effective in battling Assad’s loyalists and Hezbollah — the Lebanese terrorist organization that has tied itself to both Syria’s strongman and his only national ally Iran. The Arab news channel reported clashes between Islamists and Kurds. The former seek to establish a religious state in all of Syria. Kurdish autonomy could be a harbinger for state collapse, along the lines described by The Economist, jeopardizing their vision.
Turkey shares the Syrian Islamists’ concerns. It fears that an autonomous Kurdistan in the north of Syria could become a safe haven for Kurdish insurgents from where to stage raids into southern Turkey. But there is little it can do about it. Military intervention might not only sour relations with other Syrian rebels whom Turkey has supported; Asia Times Online‘s Spengler columnist warned last year that it could unite the different Kurdish factions against it.
Syria’s two to three million Kurds (estimates vary) are divided among seventeen political parties. Only a minority is aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the main guerrilla group in Turkey which NATO allies consider a terrorist organization.
Turkey cannot solve its Kurdish problem today because the Kurds know that time is on their side: with a fertility three times that of ethnic Turks, Anatolian Kurds will comprise half the country’s military age population a generation from now.
Al Jazeera reported that the battles between Syria’s Islamists and Kurds had the same effect and brought “rare unity to the fractious Kurds as they prepare for elections that will establish the basis of self-rule.” If Turkey tries to suppress the Kurdish insurgency, it might only bolster it.
Turkish foreign policy, moreover, could be hamstrung by military intervention in the Syrian civil war. Turkey has cultivated close ties with Iraq’s Kurds to put pressure on the Shiite government in Baghdad which is increasingly dependent on neighboring Iran — the nemesis of the Sunni powers in the region. Military action against the Kurds in Syria would anger their counterparts in Iraq, thus jeopardizing Turkey’s agenda in the country as well as its relations with Iran which could both interpret Turkish behavior as a push to reclaim Ottoman “hegemony” — which Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki accused his Turkish counterpart of in April last year.
Maliki fears that if the Kurds, who already enjoy a high level of autonomy in his country, drift further from the central government in Baghdad, but manage to get by economically by exporting oil and strengthening commercial relations with Turkey, Sunni areas might consider following their example. That could fracture Iraq and leave Maliki’s government without oil revenue which provides 90 percent of its income. Unsurprisingly, he has been the only Arab leader not to openly call on Assad to step down. Indeed, he even warned in February that the Syrian leader’s fall would destabilize the region.
The president of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani admitted last year that Syrian Kurds received military training in his autonomous province. “We do not want to interfere directly in the situation but they have been trained,” he told Al Jazeera. At the time, the fighters had not been repatriated.
While more turmoil is to be expected in the short term — states don’t usually accept secession without a fight — Syria’s unraveling and the emergence of an independent Kurdistan might provide more stability in the long term.
To an extent (but certainly not altogether), the borders in the Eastern Mediterranean can be traced to the, in the region anyway, infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 when Britain and France negotiated the partition of the Ottoman Empire that was defeated in World War I. In part as a consequence of the treaty, the Turks share a homeland with Kurds who, in turn, have been scattered between four states. Iraq, Jordan and Syria are artificial constructs that lack ethnic and religious cohesion as well as a shared heritage which are necessary ingredients for a nation-state.
If nations deserve a state of their own, the collapse of the fake states of the Middle East, when it happens, shouldn’t necessarily be cause for regret. The states that emerge from the chaos should be internally homogenous, decreasing the chance of civil wars repeating themselves in Iraq and Syria, and able to pursue a consistent foreign policy that is concerned with national rather than sectarian interests. Unfortunately, such a realignment looks unlikely to come about easily or any time soon.