Syrian Kurds will be represented in Geneva II peace talks in Switzerland next month, though they will present far from a united front. On Friday, Kurdish leaders announced the preparation of two delegations for Geneva – one in conjunction with the Syrian opposition, the other with President Assad’s regime.
The split delegations attest to the deep fissures between the main Syrian Kurdish groups: the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is expected to attend Geneva talks with the opposition; and the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), which includes the powerful Democratic Union Party (PYD), and reportedly harbors close ties with the regime. Feuding between the groups, both vying for territory in what has became a de facto autonomous zone in western Syria (thanks, in part, to a live-and-let-live policy from Assad), intensified last month when the PCWK announced the creation of an autonomous federation in the region — without the KNC’s backing.
The infighting also reflects the regional character of the Kurdish question, particularly since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the resulting upswing in Kurdish independence there. The KRG, which heads its own mini-statelet in Iraq, is the KNC’s primary backer, and a prime rival of the PYD, which is supported by the Turkish-based Kurdish movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party, (PKK.) (Still with us?) In essence, rivaling factions in Turkey and Iraq are a fighting a proxy war for influence over Syria’s Kurdish zones (not to mention the country’s rich oil and gas resources). In May, KRG leader Massoud Barzani went so far as to send armed militants into Syria against PYD troops and shut down sections of the Iraqi-Syria border. This gambit reflects the reach of yet another regional player — a spooked Turkey attempting to counteract the gains of the PKK and its Syrian allies by bolstering the KRG.
Pressured, no doubt, by the negative backlash from the larger Kurdish community, Barzani has since changed his tune, fervently advocating pan-Kurdish unity in recent months. This week saw the KRG leader put his money where his mouth is, so to speak, by inviting Syria Kurds to a summit in Erbil to mend internal divisions before Syria peace talks. (The KRG hopes to participate in the Syrian delegation.) The messaging coming out of the meet was positive, but it looks to have been overly optimistic. Given their opposing stances on Assad, it’s hard to imagine that the daylight between Syria’s main Kurdish parties — and for that matter, between them and their Iraqi counterparts — will dissipate any time soon.
Or, more pressingly, that the various factions will coalesce into a cohesive movement long enough to reassure western powers long uneasy with the prospect of Kurdish independence. Though Geneva II is shaping up to be an unfunny geopolitical joke of a peace summit, Kurdish leaders across the region are nonetheless missing a huge opportunity here — to demonstrate that amidst the chaotic infighting roiling Syria’s opposition, the Kurdish question of autonomy should be a no-brainer.