After the death of a leading Syrian Kurdish politician in a car bombing Tuesday, fighting between Syria’s large Kurdish minority and Islamist rebels escalated on Wednesday when the latter took some 200 Kurdish civilians hostage. The reprisal came as the country’s largest Kurdish militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG), called for all Kurds to fight jihadists operating in northern Syria.
Syrian Kurds have been waging turf wars with the Al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011. They have also seen sporadic skirmishes with the more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA). (To add to the confusion, some Kurdish clans are fighting alongside the Syrian rebels.) This internecine mini-war is not limited to disputes over ethnic or political identity — though that remains a crucial element for long-repressed Kurds — but is also about territory and resources, namely Syria’s rich oil and gas reserves. Thus far, Syrian Kurds, loosely united under the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militias, have made major inroads: seizing control of critical border crossings, establishing parallel government structures, and successfully defending oil fields near the Iraqi border. On July 18, Kurdish militias kicked jihadists out of the strategically important town of Ras al-Ain, located near the Turkish border, one day before PYD leaders unveiled plans for an autonomous Kurdish entity — possibly inspired by their Iraqi brethren — to be established in northern Syria within six months.
In the process, however, Kurdish leaders may have made a devil’s bargain with President Assad, who withdrew his forces from most Kurdish regions in the summer of 2012. Now, his troops appear to be explicitly protecting Kurdish assets: on July 29, regime aircraft bombed ISIS jihadists entering Kurdish territory. And on July 27-30, government forces conducted air raids against Al Nusra fighters attacking oil fields held by Kurds. Given that the regime has little love for Syria’s Kurdish minority, Assad’s calculus is clear: the president hopes to exploit divisions among his disparate opponents, and take a swing at his regional foe Ankara in the process. For Turkey has a delicate role to play here, as well. It has been one of the Syrian opposition’s strongest backers, in part to curb a PYD push for autonomy and prevent contagion of its own, significantly larger, Kurdish minority.
Though the PYD extended a (short) olive branch this week when secretary general Saleh Muslim Mohammad paid a two-day visit to Turkey to discuss Kurdish plans for autonomy, Ankara remains wary of the party, and its links to Assad. But with a peace deal with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in its early stages — and the political collateral it represents at stake — Ankara is unlikely to jump into the fray. Expect instead the continuation of tit-for-tat clashes between Syrian Kurds and Islamist rebels, especially now that the PYD has momentum — and Assad’s aerial support.
With the international community divided over a Syria strategy, a decisive victory for any camp remains a distant prospect. The best-case scenario for the PYD is a statelet akin to the Iraqi Kurds’ autonomous entity. More likely, however, is a reversal of tacit government support if Damascus regains control; that or a tenuous existence in a post-Assad landscape marked by continuing sectarian strife. Either way, Kurdish self-determination is looking to be a transitory by-product of Syria’s crisis.