Thinking Aloud: Kurdistan in Syria, To Be or Not to Be?

June 24, 2015 by Darius 

In a development that didn’t attract much attention in the Western press, Kurdish militias forced ISIS out of the town of Tell Abyad on the Turkish-Syrian border – and Turkey is upset about that.  The town is strategically located on the roads between the Turkish border and Raqqah, ISIS’s “capital” in Syria.  Its fall is a major blow to ISIS and unites two distinct Kurdish regions.  But Turkey was so disturbed by the Kurds’ victory over ISIS in Tell Abyad that it issued a series of “red lines” about the fate of the Kurdish region in Syria.  Why?

Tell Abyad wasn’t always an ISIS stronghold, and the Turkish government has long played a role in the town’s fate.  In 2012, the Turkish government supported the town’s takeover by a coalition of rebel groups, among them Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria).  At the time, Turkey’s decision to support these rebel groups reflected the Turkish government’s desire to (1) help the Syrian opposition and (2) prevent the cohesion of a Kurdish region in Syria.  However, in January 2014, elements of Jabhat al-Nusra switched allegiances to ISIS, and ISIS took control of Tell Abyad.  Though Turkey preferred the previous coalition of rebel groups, ISIS’s takeover of Tell Abyad did not particularly concern Ankara.

Turkey’s fear of the Kurds in Syria is longstanding and has to do with intra-Kurdish politics.  The main Kurdish group in Syria, known in English as the PYD, is close to the PKK, the Kurdish group in Turkey that waged a decades-long violent insurgency against the Turkish state.  Pretty much the last thing Turkey wants to see across the border in Syria is a strong, autonomous Kurdish region loyal to the PKK.

This week, in response to the news of Tell Abyad’s fall to the PYD, a document was leaked detailing Turkish declarations of “red lines.”  According to the document, Turkey will not allow the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, nor will it allow large-scale demographic changes to take place in Kurdish regions.  This second point here is the kicker: unlike in Iraq and Turkey, Syrian Kurdistan is not homogenously Kurdish.  In fact, in Tell Abyad, less than half the population is (or was) actually Kurdish.  Turkey fears the PYD will use the fighting as an excuse to effectively ethnically cleanse Syrian Kurdish areas of non-Kurds in order to pave the way for the creation of a cohesive Kurdish autonomous area.  So far, there isn’t any serious evidence that the PYD is plotting such ethnic cleansing.  In fact, it was the Turkish-backed alliance of rebel groups that attempted to evict Kurdish residents of Tell Abyad when they controlled the town.

It is clear by this stage in the game that Turkey’s priority is preventing a hostile Kurdish region from coalescing in Syria, not fighting ISIS.  However, these latest Turkish “red lines” are not entirely without merit: it is equally clear that the Kurds hope to use the Syrian civil war to carve out a Kurdish region with greater autonomy from whatever the rest of Syria ends up looking like.  Having had Kurdish problems for its entire history, Turkey has legitimate reason to be concerned.  However, it is also worth noting that the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq is the only part of that country that actually functions on a regular basis.  It is too early to write off Kurdish autonomy in a post-Assad Syria, assuming there is eventually a post-Assad Syria.


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