Syrian Kurds announce plans for new autonomous region

Kurdish fighters seize seven towns Wednesday, a day after releasing their blueprint for a regional government

Saleh Muslim of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) receives condolences after his son Servan was killed, allegedly by an Al-Qaeda-linked sniper, in October.
Fabio Bucciarelli/AFP/Getty Images

Kurdish militias seized seven villages in northeastern Syria, activists said on Wednesday, a day after the fighters' political wing announced an interim administration that aims to carve out an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region.

Kurds, often described as the world's largest stateless ethnic group, numbering about 30 million people, are concentrated in parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. While they have had partial autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991, nationalist movements have long been suppressed in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

In the chaos of Syria's two-and-half-year civil war, Kurds have captured most Kurdish-dominated cities since the regime withdrew its forces from those areas in mid-2012 to concentrate its military efforts elsewhere.

Kurdish fighers, who have occasionally fought against the regime and alongside the Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, have made major territorial gains in recent weeks, driving out rival Islamist rebel fighters and paving the way for their long-declared plan of independent governance.

Kurdish activists said the overnight gains pushed back Al-Qaeda-linked rebel units from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in a southern region of Hassaka province, where the ethnic majority is Kurdish.

The Kurds themselves are divided over the political group whose militias are behind the advances — the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The other main party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), did not sign the plan for self-administration and has declined to comment on the declaration.

The hard-line PYD, the only Kurdish group with a military wing, remains highly controversial among Syrian Kurds, who acknowledge that the group has been able to maintain some semblance of normalcy in Kurdish areas with its iron fist. Many Kurds are dismayed by the prospect that four decades of Assad family rule, under which Kurds were severely oppressed, could be replaced by one-party rule under the PYD.

“I don’t want you to think that I support the PYD — I don’t,” said Ismail, a 24-year-old Kurdish Syrian refugee now living in Beirut who asked that his last name not be used out of fear for his family in Syria.

“But they are the only party capable of keeping Kurdistan secure,” he told Al Jazeera.

The announcement of an interim administration in Kurdish-held areas goes against the wishes of political leaders in Kurdish-run northern Iraq, who have pursued better relations with the regional power, Turkey.

Turkey is currently holding shaky peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), with which it fought a three-decade war. The PKK is believed to be aligned with the PYD's well-trained militias fighting in Syria, and Ankara is apprehensive that PYD progress could encourage further demands for autonomy among its own Kurdish population.

Iraqi Kurdish officials declined to comment openly, but privately they said they saw the declaration, which lays out plans for a regional government like their own, as part of a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad, who is fighting to put down a revolt led by Syria's Sunni Muslim Arab majority, is accused by the opposition of exploiting Kurds' aspirations for autonomy to get their cooperation in the fight against the rebels.

Self-rule, not secession

Kurdish groups aligned with the PYD on Tuesday said the planned local government would help bring stability and security to Kurdish regions amid the violence in Syria, which has killed more than 120,000 people.

The declaration's signatories also drew up a "social contract" laying out a vision for local governance through a regional parliament. It called for the region to have its own flag and national anthem but remain part of Syria.

"This contract aims to create a democracy whose base will be a democratic Syria with its regions of self-rule ... it adopts a new system based on local establishments and regional autonomy in a pluralistic Syria," the contract said.

The PYD insists that secession from Syria is not in the cards. The group's leader Saleh Muslim told the online news site Zaman Alwasl in July that “the call for a provisional civil administration does not mean separation.”

“The goal is political and economic life and security in the liberated areas,” he added.

Kurdish activists say the ethnic and religious diversity in Kurdish-majority territory would mean a bloody struggle for independence from Syria. Such a state might not be viable given its difficult location between volatile Iraq and Syria, plus Turkey, which has been antagonistic to the Kurdish liberation movement.

Despite the relative stability of Kurdish-held Syria, many Kurds have fled across the border to Iraqi Kurdistan because of the declining economic situation in Syria and interference from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, who activists say have cut power in Kurdish towns and closed off roads.

Several high-profile Kurdish politicians in Syria have been assassinated over the course of the war.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq has been hosting Syrian Kurdish politicians, who fear they may be targeted by Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups, as well as a quarter-million Syrian refugees, most of whom are Kurds.

Al Jazeera with Reuters. Michael Pizzi contributed reporting.

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