Syrian Kurds Ascending

By Michael M. Gunter
Submitted to Session P3251 (The Kurds Ascending, 2013 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
From being merely a sleepy unimportant backwater in the Kurdish struggle, Syria has suddenly graduated to being not only a burgeoning center of the Kurdish national movement and even an important flashpoint in the regional geopolitical situation. How did this occur? The Arab Spring revolt that broke out against the long-ruling Assad family in March 2011 quickly involved not only the many different groups within Syria, but also most of the surrounding states and parties as each perceived the Syrian outcome as potentially bearing a most important impact on its own future. Turkey feared that the violence would spill over into its borders and further inflame its own Kurdish problems especially as the PKK-affiliate Democratic Union Party (PYD) headed by Salih Muslim Mohammed in Syria began to gain influence. To meet this threat, Turkey supported the oppositional Syrian National Council (SNC). However, such Turkish support scared the Kurds in Syria away from backing the opposition as Turkey clearly had no interest in empowering the Syrian Kurds in a post-Assad Syria. The PYD especially argued this point. Furthermore, the Syrian Kurds did not trust any prospective Sunni Arab government that might succeed Assad to grant or protect Kurdish rights. On the other hand, Assad’s earlier anti-Kurdish record had been abysmal. Moreover, even the Kurds in Syria were divided among themselves between the much stronger PYD-supported People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which consisted of most of the other 12-15 odd Kurdish parties in Syria. Such Kurdish divisions in Syria, however, were not novel. With this incredibly complicated and evolving scenario in mind, the main substance of this paper article will analyze specifically three recent developments that have contributed to the Syrian Kurdish ascent: 1.) the assassination of Mishaal Tammo on October 7, 2011; 2.) the rise of Salih Muslim Muhammed (SMM) and his PKK-affiliated PYD; and 3.) the emergence of a de facto Syrian Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria in. This paper will be based on primary sources gathered through field work in Syria, interviews with important actors including PYD leader Salih Muslim Mohammed, and secondary sources. The tentative conclusion will reinforce the paper’s title that the Syrian Kurds are ascending.