The Syrian Kurds & the Changing Middle East Political Map

By Michael M. Gunter
Submitted to Session P3651 (The Kurds and the Changing Middle East Political Map, 2014 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries; Kurdish Studies;
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 PKK-supported PYD and the much weaker Massoud Barzani supported KDP/KRG Kurdish National Council (KNC), which consisted of most of the other 12-15 odd Kurdish parties in Syria. With this incredibly complicated and evolving scenario in mind, the main substance of this paper will analyze specifically the following developments: 1.) The Syrian Kurds “third path” in the Syrian civil war; 2.) The secular Syrian Kurds battle against Salafist elements of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime 3.) The Syrian Kurds’ declaration of autonomy in November 2013; 4.) The Syrian Kurds’ relations with Turkey and influence on the current Turkish-Kurdish (PKK) peace proves; and 5.) The Syrian Kurds’ relations with Barzani’s KDP-KRG. 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 contributing to the changing political map of the Middle East.