18/06/2014 - 23:00
Syrian Civil War: Emergence of a Kurdish autonomy in Rojava

Written by Yasin Duman, Sabanci University


Recent years marked lots of important traces both in the global and domestic context. The Middle East has been one of the most affected geography that faced fierce conflicts which increased regional tensions and reminded and refreshed the polarization of international politics. The complexity of ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle Eastern countries turned to be the most important reasons of the conflicts beside the interests of the international powers seeking control over the Middle Eastern politics, resources, military and economic opportunities. Protracted and historical issues deriving from the inability to embrace diversity and uniqueness of the multicultural societies, guarantee basic human rights and political participation of different parties and get rid of the nation state ideologies have been the basic reasons of suppression, inequality and injustice. Current problems should be considered as a framework that has deep roots which are built by extremely authoritarian and denying regimes. Providing the basic structure of the nation state ideologies, says Öcalan (2014, 7), the capitalist modernity has an important role in the current developments and conflicts around the world. He argues that nation states have been built on behalf of the national advantages and interests while the reality shows something different; protracted conflicts have shown and still show that nation states that have such inabilities can never serve for the benefits of their own nations (Öcalan 2014, 8). The global tendency that was forcing the political system by claiming that "every nation must have its own state", could not solve the problems. Probably the most known example is the fall of Soviet Union after which almost all of the union countries tried to create their own nation states which was resulted in deeper ethnic and border conflicts. The ongoing South Ossetia-Abkhazia-Georgia and Crimea-Ukraine-Russia and many more are only some of them. Different from these conflicts, the one that put a historical remark in the history of Arab states now draws attention of many academics.

One of the most difficult times that Arab countries have ever encountered is the wave of revolutions that is called as "Arab Spring". Kurdish politicians called it "People's Spring" and argue that Arab geography does not include only Arabs and if there is going to be a spring, it should be embrace all people in those countries. Regarding this difference, many academics and politicians have commented on what was going on in those countries and probably the common point agreed on was potential power of people, who have been suppressed for decades, to change the governments or leaders of force them to have new reforms. Considering the ruling system in those countries, that is historically monarchy or dictatorship, it was an important acquisition that people could push-off the leaders. Hundreds of thousands people were joining the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya at the biggest squares of the cities shouting freedom and more democracy. The question why those people have not taken such a step before and what was the reason behind such huge movements are still discussed among the political scientists. Yet it is clear that this wave has not been completed and it ravages Syria right now. In March 2011, Syria encountered the start of bloodiest and dramatic conflict of its 59 years-old nation state history. "With more than 100,000 deaths in less than three years, it ranks in the top 20 most intense of around 150 civil wars since 1945" (POMEPS 2013, 13). Since the beginning of the conflict, more than 150,000 lost their lives and five million left the country and hundreds of thousands have been lost during the clashes. This paper is going to analyse nature and history of the conflict, how it started, who the conflicting (primary, secondary and third) parties are, and what the relation between them is, and also it aims to offer some basic solutions regarding the multicultural nature of the Syrian society. Beside these, a special section is dedicated to the Kurds living in West Kurdistan, or Rojava(1), (which is north of Syria). Kurds, as one of the most and longest suppressed people in Syria, followed a different strategy since the beginning of the conflict and now became one of the most important actors among the parties. They have created autonomous administrations in the northern region of Syria and believe that such autonomous administrations can help Syria find a way out and solve the problems to some extent. This paper focuses on the Syrian Conflict while more specifically explain the conflict between Kurds and the Baath Regime in Syria. It also explains the process and anatomy of the Rojava Democratic Autonomous Regions being established by Kurds and other suppressed minorities in Syria and Rojava. It also discusses how these autonomies differ from already existing autonomous regions, how, as the Kurds propose, they can be a solution, what kind of problems it may have and whether it will follow the way towards a nation state as it happens now the Federal Kurdistan Government in Iraq.

History and nature of the conflict

Considering imperialist role of France and Britain in the Middle East, it is not difficult to predict what kind of struggle the Syrian people gave to get their independence. After a long period of struggle against the French government, Syria got nothing considerable and in 1939, Syrian National Coalition had some negotiations with the French officials that were not recognized by the French government and in October 1945 Syria declared independence and became a member of the United Nations (Karabat 2013, 33). White (2010, 901) argues that Arab nationalism in Syria mainly focused on creation of an Arab nation state. The process followed after the independence was, not surprisingly, an ethnic unification that resulted in repression of non-Arab identities. Similar to the process in Turkey in which all ethnic groups joined the independence war but got nothing after the glory, the same process took place in Syria. Considering the Kurdish minority in Syria, for instance, even though the Kurds helped the Syrian Arabs to get rid of the French mandate, after the independence they have not been provided basic rights and even had to live under worse conditions (Kandil n.d., 227). Policies followed by the Syrian governments, since the very beginning of independence, did not recognize multi-ethnic and multi-religion nature of the country. Due to the Arab nation-state understanding, there have always been struggle for minority rights among Kurds.

Karabat (2013, 35) claims that the conflict between the political parties usually ended up with a military coup and that led the country to re-form the government twenty times in ten years. Lack of democracy and power of army seem to play a significant role in Syria's politics. The last coup was organized by Hafez al-Assad in 1970 when he was the Minister of Defence. During his administration till 2000, Phillips (2012, 37) argues, even though he was Shia, he was supported both by the Sunni and non-Sunni Arab minorities too and he internalized ruling Baath Party policies in the society as way to adapt the Arab nationalist identity. However, it is obvious that these policies either have not been revised or advanced by democratic reforms after his death or his son Bashar al-Assad who came to power in 2000 could not understand what was waiting for him. There is no reason behind following the same strategies while almost the whole Middle East has been changing. Bashar has become one of the leaders who failed to follow the radical democratic regulations that have been necessary after wave of "Arab Spring".

Probably nobody even imagined that a Tunisian pedlar, Mohammed Buazizi, was going to be the man shaping destiny of Tunisia and the Middle Eastern countries by burning himself to protest Tunisian Government's policies. Just like the case of Buazizi, probably nobody imagined that the Kurds in Syria are going to be that powerful and will be able create their own autonomy in the region after a long suppression by the Baath Regime. At the very beginning of the civil war, the focus was more on the struggle between the Bashar's regime and the Syrian National Opposition. However, one year later things changed in a way that Syria would never become as the one before the war. Kurds, in northern Syria, organized themselves in a very short time and formed first their own armed defence units that recruit only the Kurds at the beginning. In a war that there are many different armed groups, Kurds tried to defend their regions both against the opposition groups that want to take some cities from the regime and against the regime that wants to keep control over the country.

By not supporting any of those parties, Kurds declared that they are going to defend their own regions against both and will not allow any of them to set their bases to attack the other. The first attempt came from Kobanê city on 19 July 2012 when the Kurdish armed groups seized many state institutions including police centres and military headquarters. However, the city is on the border with North Kurdistan (Turkish Kurdistan) and the border gate has been under the control of the Syrian opposition (Habertürk 2012). Kurds took the control of other cities one by one throughout west and east of Kobanê. It is important that there were no clashes between the Regime forces and the YPG. Some argued that the Kurds and Bashar al-Assad had an agreement on not attacking each other but Kurdish parties refuted such a statement and announced that any party trying to enter Kurdish regions are going to be responded by YPG. Clashes broke out between the Assad forces and Kurds in Sheikh Maqsood and Ashrafiyah districts of Aleppo and the ones in al-Qamishlo are shown as evidence by the Kurds to disprove such an agreement (ANHA 2013; Wilgenburg 2012).

Kurds declared that they do not want the conflicting parties to turn Rojava into a battlefield and tried to create their own administration step by step. The YPG (People's Defence Units), the YPJ (Women's Defence Units, a unique women wing of the YPG), Public Security Forces (Hêzên Asayîşê), Women's Security Forces (Hêzên Asayîşa Jinê) are the security bodies of Rojava. Beside these, the Kurds also founded the Kurdish National Council or the KNC (Desteya Bilind a Kurd) on October 26, 2011 in Hewlêr (Erbil) in a meeting chaired by the President of Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, Mesûd Barzanî. The KNC was aiming to bring all the Kurdish parties under an umbrella and help them cooperate with each other. However, due to the conflicts among the parties, it could not play its role. The PYD (Democratic Union Party), founded in 2003 and co-chaired by Asya Abdullah and Salih Muslim, has become the strongest party among twelve Kurdish political parties in Rojava and Syria. The PYD says that it has ideological ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party or the PKK (Radikal 2012). This is one of the most important reasons of the conflict between KRG and Rojava Administration because Barzanî government wants to have a Kurdish administration in Syria similar to his own in Iraqi Kurdistan while the Rojava Administration says it is going to be democratic autonomous regions that do not seek independence or a nation state. Further details will be given in later pages on nature of the Rojava's autonomous regions and its role in Kurds own policies and how it affects neighbouring countries' strategies.

The conflict between the Assad's Regime and Kurds has several aspects. First, because the Kurdish ethnic identity and all the items associated with it have been suppressed and basic rights of Kurds have been denied by the regime, it can be named as an ethnic/identity conflict. The constitution of Baath government defines all Syrian citizens as Arab and all social, cultural and educational system refers to Arab identity. Kurds in Syria were recognized as refugees coming from Turkey and Iraq. Salih Muslim, co-chairman of PYD, argued that "the de-identification policies started in 1960s and the number of people who were not given an identity is around 300,000 (PolitikART 2012)". They have been disfranchised and forced to live under stateless status. They did not have access to medical service, have their own jobs and get support from the state. Because of this and many other issues, Kurds had to leave Syria which was not a legal move because they did not have right to travel to other countries. Some regions of Rojava, especially between Efrîn and Kobanê and Kobanê and Qamishlo were populated by Arab citizens while Kurds were forced to move to other cities. The Regime also changed the names of the cities, counties and villages which are originally Kurdish or in another language and gave Arabic names (Balpetek 2012). Aleppo and Damascus are the immediate cities Kurds had to migrate and that is why there were more than 500,000 Kurdish citizens in those cities before the civil war.

The second aspect of the conflict is economic issues. The Baath Regime seized the fertile lands in Rojava and either distributed them to the Arab citizens or registered them as national treasury of Syrian state. With this dispossession policy, the regime deprived Kurds from their basic source of economy. Agriculture was the only legal source for Kurds to earn money because they were not allowed to have their own industry and take place in economic activities. Such harsh conditions led some people to smuggle on the border leaving hundreds of citizens dead. Rojava also has the Rimêlan Oil Sources in Cizîre Canton that drills 60 % of Syria's oil (Dicle, 2013). It was controlled by the Baath Regime for decades and now the oil fields are under the control of the KNC and protected by the YPG. Political issues are the third reason of the conflict: the Kurds had no right to found their own parties and participate in the Syrian politics. All the Kurdish parties were banned and not allowed to make propaganda based on their rights and identity. Bashar al-Assad announced that he forgave co-chairman of the PYD Salih Muslim at the beginning of the protests in 2011 and this was seen as a strategy to prevent the Kurds rebel against his government. It is obvious, however, that it did not work and now the PYD is the most popular and strongest party leading the autonomy in Rojava. There have been some Kurdish members of Syrian parliament especially in the recent years before the civil war yet most of the Kurdish political parties were forbidden in Syria (Rûdaw 2013).

Political violence on the civilians has been another important factor. Rojava, as other parts of Kurdistan, was colonized and Syrian state institutions were carrying out systematic violence on the Kurdish population. There are three salient examples of how Kurds confronted that violence for decades. The first and probably the most traumatic event happened on 13 December 1960 in Amûdê city. 500 Kurdish children went to see an Egyptian film in the only cinema of the city. Some say that the cinema was burned in the middle of the film and children could not get out because the Syrian soldiers locked and the narrow doors of the cinema and prevented people trying to rescue their children (Eskin 2014)(2). This was also the time that Kurds started to take the streets to protest Baath policies. The second one was in March 1988 when Kurdish citizens wanted to celebrate Newroz(3) yet Syrian state forces did not allow celebrations and killed dozens of Kurds in Kobanê. This means that the Baath Regime was quiet inflexible against the Kurds and used all its military power to suppress not only political participation but also use of cultural items by the Kurds.

The last event that marked an important point in the conflict was the Qamishlo Uprising on 11 March 2004. Hundreds of Kurdish people from other Kurdish cities went to Qamishlo to watch a match between Cihad (a Kurdish team) and Deir ez-Zour (an Arab team) in which the fans of Arab team provoked the Kurds by saying that "the second Halabja waits for you in Syria(4)". After such a provocation, clashes broke out between the Kurds and Arabs and spread to the city centre where thousands of Kurds protested Arab nationalism and Baath Regime's policies. At the end of the day, 8 Kurds were killed and many more wounded by the state forces (Kurdistan24 2014)(5). Many Kurdish politicians in Rojava say that this last attack was the beginning of today's uprising and revolution in Kurdish society. Some argued that YPG was in fact established in 2004 after the state's attacks in Qamishlo (Aryen 2104, 36). Salih Muslim agreed with Evran and stated that Kurds started getting organized both politically and militarily after Newroz in Qamishlo and more and more people were attending Newroz celebrations in the next years (Bilgin 2012).

Conflict Parties:

a. Primary parties

I believe that both as governmental bodies and armed forces fighting in different fronts against each other, Bashar al-Assad, Syrian National Coalition, Kurdish High Council and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham are the most important primary parties both. There are also pro- and anti- Assad secondary parties to be mentioned and the b section is going to identify them. In c section, UN and Arab League will be given as third parties in the war. The following paragraphs try to explain their demands and positions of both primary and secondary parties and how the third parties approach the conflict.

Syrian Government (Assad's Regime): In most of the countries where governments encountered massive demonstrations organized especially by young population demanding democracy and justice, in Syria too there were youth citizens writing sentences on the walls criticizing Bashar al-Assad and his government. However, Assad's response to those people was quiet violent and the protestors were captured and tortured for days (BBC 2014). What the government wanted is to reassure its control over the country and eliminate impact of the Syrian opposition supported by some international powers. However there has always been more than one counter-party against Assad. The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) and Kurds are most known and powerful bodies fighting against the regime's authority. Even though the strategies and aims of the various opposition parties are very different from each other, they are still important actors and Assad will have to consider each of them in every step he takes. What Assad seeks now is to be elected as president once again and show up in the domestic and international arena as the "legitimate" president of Syria. Kurds declared that they will not allow Assad have the elections in Rojava(6), while Assad stated that elections are going to be held in 60% of Syria (the regions controlled by Assad forces). The Syrian opposition already denounced the elections (Etilaf 2014). Assad has two basic arguments to defend himself against the opposition groups: western countries support the opposition to re-colonize Syria and radical Islamist groups want to establish a "safe heaven" for Muslim countries (Sayigh 2013). The last developments in Syria show that Assad is getting stronger against the opposition parties in the west regions of Syria due to conflict and lack of coordination between those parties and because Hezbollah supports him in that region (Guardian 2014). Assad has not made any statements about the Kurdish autonomy yet but Kurds believe that he supports the radical Islamist groups against Kurds to prevent autonomy and freedom of people in Rojava (Civiroglu 2014)(7). The state forces detained, arrested and tortured thousands of them.

Syrian National Coalition (SNC): Full name of SNC is "The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces" and was announced in November 2012 as a coalition of opposition groups during the meetings held in Doha, Qatar (Carnegie). The SNC has been supported by many countries(8) both politically and militarily. USA, France and Turkey, for example, have been supporting the SNC by providing the opposition ammunition (DeYoung 2014), money and diplomatic support (Fox News 2012). The SNC was expected to bring the opposition parties under one umbrella yet it failed to do that and the states supporting SNC started complaining about such an inability. USA, for instance, criticized the CNS for problems in coordination and not being able to preclude al-Qaeda expansion in the region. Kurdish parties have different viewpoints of the SNC. Kurdish High Council and the PYD, for instance, hesitated to join the SNC(9) and argued that it imposes Arab nationalism and Sunni sectarianism (Nûçe Rojev 2013). Some Kurdish parties which are member of the SNC formed Syrian Kurdish National Coalition, or ENKS(10) in Kurdish, and stated that the PYD is cooperating with Assad and does not allow other parties work in Rojava (CNNTurk 2014). In the Geneva Talks(11), the SNC delegates offered that the government must release the prisoners and allow aid access to the regions controlled by Assad forces (Atassi 2014). However, the developments after the talks revealed that the parties could not find a way out and Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, UN-Arab League envoy, announced that he is going to resign due impasse in the conflict and Assad's plans to hold elections in such a state (Al Jazeera 2014). The SNC requests international community to push Assad government towards a political solution. Free Syrian Army, or FSA, is a part of SNC and founded after the regime forces killed civilians in the demonstrations. FSA is mostly supported by SNC-supporter countries and have several affiliates (BBC 2013).

Kurdish High Council (KHC): KHC was founded on 24 July 2012 in Hewlêr (Erbil) by the Kurdish parties in Syria to get united and represent Kurds under a civil institution. Rojava People's Assembly(12) (MGRK) and 16 Kurdish parties declared that they are members of KHC and recognize it as the only body acting on behalf of all Kurds in Syria (Aryen 2012). All the institutions founded with help of the PYD (i.e. YPG, Asayish (Security) Forces, Kurdish Language Institution, and Social Service Organizations) were defined as the units of KHC authority. There have been some problems between ENKS and MGRK because the former one was closer to Barzanî government while MGRK was established with effort of PYD (ANF 2013; Besta Nûçe 2013)(13). Kurdish parties in the KHC recently declared "Kurdish Initiative for a Democratic Society" to create a platform for all the opposition parties in Syria and called them to get united and cooperate with each other for achieving common goals (DIHA 2014). No response has been given by the opposition parties to the initiative yet. Kurds in Rojava declared self-rule in January 2014 on the eve of Geneva II Conference (RT 2014)(14). They formed governmental bodies for Efrîn, Kobanê and Cizîre Cantons and announced that the assemblies are open to all ethnic and religious groups to re-structure the society all together. To this end, they formed local assemblies in districts of cities, counties and villages. Communities elect their own representatives and send them to the assembly. They have limited sources and try to get aid from other countries yet the embargo (Wilgenburg 2013) on the cantons still continue.

Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS): The ISIS is a jihadist armed party operating mostly in east and north regions of Syria. The ISIS appeared in April 2013 and carried out some suicide attacks against military bases of Assad forces (BBC 2013)(15), and targeted some other opposition groups in different regions and Kurdish civilians and military bases in Rojava (Besta Nûçe 2014). It has been reported that ISIS recruits mostly Salafist fighters from various countries (Rosenblatt 2013; Choufi 2013) including USA, Canada and members of EU. As its name suggests, ISIS's aim is to establish a sharia state combining Iraq and Syria. Some sources argue that ISIS has already started forcing people live under the sharia law (Malm 2013)(16). The ISIS presence and its ability to defeat Syrian opposition (FSA) in many regions led to a new phase in involvement of USA in the conflict (Rogin 2014). Because this conflict involves many primary and secondary parties, a small change leads to huge changes in positions of domestic and international forces. Ulutaş (2014) believe that ISIS is being supported by Assad, Iran and Russia against this new attempt of USA and the Syrian opposition. Compared to other countries encountered Arab Spring, Syria probably the most complex one and probably that is why it is still a war-ravaged country.

b. Pro-Assad Secondary Parties

Russia: Russia has been the best ally of Assad since the beginning of the conflict. Many international attempts to remove Assad have been terminated by Russia(17). Why has Syria been that important and indispensable for Russia? First, Russia has naval bases in Syria and highly concerns about national security in case of USA or any other country conducts a military strike against Syria (Fisher 2013). The second reason is Russia has been selling arms to Syria (Grove and Solomon 2012). Recent news report that Syria is going to buy new warplanes from Russia (Manfreda)(18). Every US attempt to empower the opposition is responded by Russia or vice versa and it does not seem that one of them is willing to withdraw from the conflict. US-Iran relations also have an important influence on Russia and US policies in Syria (Leigh 2014)(19). From now on, it is impossible for Russia to withdraw from Syrian conflict and let the opposition win over Assad because in such a case, mostly because Russia unconditionally supported Assad, the opposition or a new government will not have any relations with Russia. For Kurds, Russia has not done much things except for inviting PYD's co-chair Salih Muslim to several times. Al- Monitor's Suchkov (2013) argues that Russia has a tendency to support Kurds due to Russia's interests in Syria and the Middle East.

Iran: Russia and Iran have usually been in good financial and military relations and supporting each other's positions in international arenas. In Syria, too, they appear to cooperate with each other and help Syria against the US and western countries. In Iran's case, besides national and regional security, Iran has a religion concern as well. Iran is completely against any USA intervention in Syria because USA and Iran have disputed over chemical weapons for years and now, Iran wonders, USA may get closer to Iran and give the damage it did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran is a Shiite Muslim nation and Assad's supporters are mostly Alawite attacking and being attacked by the Sunni majority supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia (Yan 2013). It is argued that Iran does not want Sunni Muslim countries be powerful in the Middle East due to financial and security issues(20). To preclude this, Fulton, Holliday, and Wyer (2013), from Institute for the Study of War, argue that Iran has been supporting Assad by several ways: "expeditionary training mission using Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces, Quds Force, intelligence services, and law enforcement forces." It is also known that Hezbollah based in Lebanon fights for Assad and is backed by Iran (Olmert 2013)(21). Iran, similar to Russia, did not show any implicit support or opposition against the Kurds in Rojava. Salih Muslim was met by Iran Foreign Minister several times in Tehran. It has been stated that Iran offered Kurds military help against the radical Islamic groups in Rojava (Özgür Gündem 2013)(22). It may seem contradictory that Iran suppressing and executing Kurds in East Kurdistan wants to support Kurds in Syria. It is obvious that Iran does not care about Kurds in Syria. What is important to Iran is Iran's interests and to protect them, despite the fact that Iran knows Kurds in Syria has strong relations with the PKK, as PJAK(23) in Iran has, Iran has to support Rojava Kurds now.

China: Contrary to Russia and Iran, even though China supported Syria at the beginning, it did not support Assad implicitly except for possible US military intervention in Syria. Some believe that China follows "wait and see" strategy in the conflict (Yuhan 2013)(24). China had no say about the Kurds' autonomy and demands and probably will support Russia's policies regarding the Kurds in the future.

c. Anti-Assad Secondary Parties

The US: Considering US's interests in the Middle East (i.e. oil resources, national security, and international politics) and its previous attempts especially in Kuwait-Iraq War and intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq can tell us what the US wants and why it supports the Syrian National Coalition in the conflict. First of all, the US wanted to give a direction to almost all the states being affected by the "Arab Spring". The US's interventions, militarily or with diplomatic means, in Libya and Egypt are the most prominent examples. In a changing Middle East, the US has to establish or help parties to establish a government and/or a regime change so that it can develop and better its existing relations. Second, Israel alone, which is considered as enemy by almost all the Muslim countries, cannot provide enough help to US. Supporting any conflicting party serving the US interests will help the US get what it wants and the US has had a deep belief that the SNC will win over Assad. As mentioned before, it has not happened yet and the SNC was highly criticized by the US officials for such a frustration. Third, the US had concerns about the extremist Islamic groups that it has had to deal with for years. Now, it seems that these groups are advancing in the middle, east and north regions of Syria against the FSA and the US has some concerns about advanced weapons to be used by these groups (Hosenball and Ryan 2014)(25). The US's best excuse for an intervention was use of chemical weapons but it was eliminated by Russia and China. O'Bagy (2012) argues that growing jihadist presence complicates U.S. role in the conflict probably the US had and still has some concerns about the possibility that the jihadists groups can get advanced weapons (including chemical weapons) and use them against the US.

Turkey: Turkey by visiting Tunisia, Egypt and Libya after the Arab Spring wanted to boost diplomatic ties and set financial relations with those countries (Öniş 2014). In that sense, Turkey supported the new governments in those countries and that helped Turkey to draw an image in the eyes of people living in those countries. At the beginning of the unrest in Syria- when the regime forces started killing civilians- Turkey thought it could help Syria and Turkish Foreign Minister visited Bashar al-Assad (Al Jazeera 2011)(26). Death of civilians in Syria seems to be the most important reason for standing against Assad even though the civilians were being killed by Assad forces before the uprising, too. The voice-records (Özgür Gündem 2014)(27) of some staff from Turkey's Foreign Ministry including the minister Davutoğlu, released on some social media showed that there are some other concerns before the civilians' life. It should be noted that Ankara recently had very good political and financial relations with Damascus and even Bashar al-Assad was introduced by Turkish Prime Minister as "his brother". After the conflict, the relations were broken and the PM started to call him as killer and demonized in his speeches. Then followed the open-border policy and set refugee camps in many cities near the border. Turkish warplane was downed by the Syrian State Army in 2012 (BBC 2012) and a bomb attack carried out in Reyhanlı of Hatay, a city at the border, and 52 civilians were killed. Even though al-Qaeda admitted that its members launched the attack, Turkey did not accept that for a long time and found some other organizations responsible (Daloğlu 2014). In that sense, Turkey is most affected country among the other ones. Despite all those things, what does Turkey do and want in the Syrian Civil War? First of all, because Turkey has common goals with the US, EU and Arab countries supporting the SNC, it facilitated Turkey's support to the opposition. Second, presence and support of Rojava Kurds to the PKK was another important concern. Turkish government stated several times that Turkey will not tolerate a Kurdish autonomy or state in the Northern Syria and such a move will be considered as a threat to Turkey's security and the region will be intervened immediately (Sabah 2012). Turkey had several meetings with delegations from Rojava before the declaration of autonomy yet it could not preclude or delay the autonomy. Even though the government MPs always denied Turkey's support to the al-Qaeda affiliated groups, it has been reported many times that those groups are supported by Turkey at the border and they create new conflicts (Demokrat Haber 2014)(28). Turkey, with the help of Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, set trenches (Polat 2014), dig ditches (ANHA 2014; Özgür Gündem 2014)(29) and built walls (Evrensel 2013) at Rojava border to prevent Kurds interacting with and get help from each other. The border which has always been open to al-Qaeda affiliated and Syrian opposition groups was closed to Kurds (Bianet 2014)(30). It must be noted that Turkey has never been attacked from Rojava regions and such a policy cannot be explained by security issues. The only reason seems to be the Kurds supposedly threatening Turkey.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia: They supported the SNC for a long time and provided arms to FSA and other opposition groups fighting Bashar al-Assad. Weinberg (Defend Democracy, 2013) argues that "Qatar seeks to turn its newfound energy riches into political power by tapping the strength of local Islamists as a force multiplier for regional influence. To that end, Qatar has spent an estimated one to three billion dollars backing the Syrian opposition, and much of this support has reportedly gone to the Muslim Brotherhood (Alfoneh 2013)". Some believe that Qatar's motivation for involving in the Syrian conflict comes from Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani who believes that Qatar can play further role in the changing Arab world and reconstruction processes during the Arab Spring (Stephens 2012). In that sense, it seems Qatar's interests overlap with interests of the US and Turkey. Qatar's support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in Syria is considered as "pan-Arab" understanding that aims to put Qatar at the centre of unification of Arab geography (Khalaf and Fielding-Smith 2013) which is an attempt seeking bigger roles in the region.

For the Saudis, Syria has become the region where they want to intensify Sunni-Arab policies by supporting the opposition. It is also argued that Saudi Arabia aims to break the alliance between Syria and Iran that has been known as "Saudi Arabia's chief rival for dominance in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East" (Manfreda n.d.). Riedel (2014) argues that there has been an agreement between the US and Saudi Arabia to empower the Syrian opposition and preclude Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliated groups from becoming powerful. The Salafist groups, says the co-chair of PYD, have been supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and recently Assad started providing them arms to fight the Kurds in Rojava (Zurutuza 2014). In line with these brief statements, it is possible to say there are political and religious issues coming first for the Saudis.

d. Third parties

The UN: The UN is one of the most known organizations that take place in such conflicts yet what the UN did in Syria has been limited due to the security issues and absence of a ceasefire. The UN was given a mission after chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in 2013 and it was expected to investigate whether they were used. The Syrian government agreed on a ceasefire with the UN before the arriving the site. On the way going for investigation, the UN chemical weapons experts were attacked. Syrian government accused of the opposition both for the attack on the UN and use of chemical weapons. This was the time when the US and most pro-opposition (mostly Arab) countries demanded a military strike in Syria yet the ambiguity about who used these weapons and Russia's attempts after the attack eliminated such an intervention. Such an intervention would probably be responded by pro-Assad parties (i.e. Iran declared that such an intervention will be considered as violation of the "red-line" (Maclean, 2013)). Regarding the Kurds in Rojava and Syria, the UN had several meetings with the Kurdish representatives from Rojava Kurdistan People's Assembly (MRGK) and Ministry of Foreign Relations of Rojava Democratic Autonomous Regions (Efrîn, Kobanê and Cizîre) in Turkey, EU and Rojava (Rojava Report 2013). Most of the meetings were held to negotiate how the UN can help people in Rojava and it has been reported that since 2012 the UN has sent humanitarian aids to Rojava for several times (ANHA 2013).

Arab League: The League declared its support for the Annan's Peace Plan for Syrian Conflict (Annan 2012) that was consisting six important points calling the parties for cooperation with the UN and each other and give a chance to negotiation for a non-violent solution. The league proposed similar plans yet they were rejected immediately by the Syrian government (BBC 2012). The league suspended membership of Syria and supported the opposition to attend the peace talks with the government (Bayoumy 2013). Impact of Arab League does not seem that powerful as a unit of Arab states yet member states, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, seem to play crucial roles in Syria. Because the parties in Syrian Kurdish National Coalition (ENKS) has been a unit of Syrian National Opposition, the Arab League met some representatives from ENKS (Kurdpress 2014) yet had no relations with the Kurdish High Council (KHC).


Fact-Based Issues: The Baath System never accepted Kurds as a member of the Syrian society and tried to melt the Kurdish presence in the Arab nationalism. It denied the Kurds' rights over the territory and stated that they came from Turkey and Iraq. That was one of the main arguments repeated for decades in Syria and also the reason why the Kurds had not been given civic rights till the beginning of the civil war. Under the current conditions, the Kurds do not recognize Assad's authority in Rojava and seek self-rule type of governance. Assad, on the other hand, did not recognize the Kurdish autonomy and has a tendency to prevent such a formation in the north and north-east yet cannot do much due to the fight with the other opposition groups. Recently, the clashes between the Kurds and Assad government get intensified in some regions surrounding Cizîre Canton (ANF 2014).

Value-Based Issues: Kurdish identity has always been denied and suppressed by the Baath Party. Based on the Baath ideology to create an Arab nation-state in Syria, the regime did not provide any cultural rights to any minorities. Kurds, as one of them, have been the biggest group (around 15% of total population) resisting such suppressive policies for years. They could save their culture and identity despite of confronting various types of violent responds of the regime. Because the Kurds believed that the SNC is going to the same, they attempted to follow their own way. The radical Islamic groups introduce Kurds as heretic or unbeliever and called their followers to join the jihad against Kurds (Özgür Gündem 2014). In that sense, Kurds had no option rather than not supporting any party but defending themselves against all the groups in Syria. The Baath System failed to promote democracy in Syria so that ethnic and religious minorities could enjoy their rights. Nature of the conflict and position of the parties tell us that these problems will remain.

Interest-Based Issues: Rojava Cantons are the regions where Syria has important oil resources in Rimêlan and fertile lands (especially in Cizîre and Kobanê) irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates. That is why most of the regions in those two cantons were seized as treasury and the rest was given to the Arab citizens as a policy towards Kurds in Rojava. In addition, the Baath Regime used "Kurdish Card" against Turkey and Iraq for the water issue in 80s and 90s. Since 2012, Kurds took the control of Rojava and now create an autonomous governance that means even though Assad still has the same interests and concerns about Syria's future, he has to reach an agreement with the Kurds. It will require an important change in power relations between Assad and Kurds. Kurds also launched a campaign called "Kurdish Initiative for a Democratic Syria" and try to support the anti-Assad and anti-regime movements by calling the opposition parties get united against the current system. There are some parties backing this initiative yet it seems it will take long to create a cooperation among the parties due to the ongoing clashes and lack of unity.


It is possible to divide the relation between the Baath Regime and Kurds into three categories: the beginning of the independence (1946-1970), Hafez al-Assad's authority (1970-2000) and Bashar al-Assad's authority (after 2000). Because the borders between Turkey and Syria are artificial, Kurds were not that strong to self-determine, and geographically the Kurdish regions are separated from each other, it was not that easy to rebel against the regime. Kurds' first legal political attempt was foundation of the Syrian Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1957 yet a few years later the party was banned and no political activity was allowed in Syria. Those years were also the beginning of Arabization policies exerting suppression and violence. From 1970 to 2000, Hafez al-Assad continued the same policies to which Kurds responded in different ways. His strategy focused more on the denial of existence of Kurdish identity and national rights. After 2000 till present his son Assad did not do anything different and the same policies were maintained. However, compared to the previous periods, Kurds became more powerful by establishing their defence forces, political parties and organizations. After the civil war broke out, the first thing that Kurds did was formation of military units in all Rojava regions. There are three important events in each period in which Kurds responded in different ways and that can tell us how the Kurds advanced politically and militarily:
a. Cinema Amûdê: in 1960, hundreds of Kurdish children were killed by the regime forces in a cinema in Amûdê city.
b. 1988 Newroz celebrations: Kurds, for the first time, celebrated the Newroz with hundreds of people yet were responded by the regime forces in a very brutal way.
c. Qamişlo Uprising: In 2004, Arab nationalists attacked Kurdish fans at the beginning of a match between a Kurdish and an Arab team. More than 40 Kurdish people were killed in the attacks and during the protests against the regime.

The ongoing clashes between the YPG/YPJ and Assad Forces tell us that there is going to be a new phase of attacks on the Kurdish regions which may escalate the conflict. But however the attacks are, it is obvious that Kurds are not the same as they were before the conflict. There is no clue how Assad and the SNC are going to approach Kurds in the following years.

Polarization: Almost every conflicting party has external powers supporting their alliances in Syria. The western bloc supports anti-Assad parties against the eastern bloc supporting Assad government. Kurds, however, initially were supported only by the PKK and usually had been ignored by the others for a long time. Yet with the emergence of new militia groups and changing dynamics in the conflict, some parties negotiated with the Kurds to support them against the other bloc. Kurds never refused dialogue with any party within and out of Syria (Köylüoğlu 2014) and still ask to set diplomatic relations with them. Assad government and the SNC, on the other hand, still have not recognized the Kurds in Rojava and their KHC as independent units in Syria. The effect of polarization has been observed in the Geneva Talks, too. The KHC have been excluded from the international conferences because the Kurds did not accept to be a part of the SNC and refused denounce any party to represent Kurds. The polarization also led to more people recruit in the ranks of warring parties (Crisis Group, 2012)

Spiralling: Kurds have been fighting the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, the ISIS and Assad Forces since the beginning of the conflict. The ISIS attacks on Kobanê Canton and the Regime Forces' attacks in Hesekê and Kurdish districts in Aleppo and Damascus are the recent stalemates in the Kurdish regions. In response to those attacks, the YPG/YPJ launched military operations against headquarters of the ISIS and Baath Regime in different regions including Kobanê and Hesekê. An important step taken by the FSA and YPG to break that vicious circle was that they signed an accord on 17 February 2013 to defend the some regions together and not attack each other (Taştekin 2013).

Why could not the conflict be solved so far?

Military intervention has been the first and most promoted solution in the Syrian conflict. Since the first months of the conflict, the FSA and Regime Forces have tried to defeat each other and some new religious groups also took place and were supported by different countries. There were some attempts to bring the parties together and help them negotiate but as they reached no agreement or violated soon the points they agreed on, no political solution came up from the negotiations. Kurds announced that the negotiating parties are not doing it for the sake of peoples in Syria and there is everybody except for the representatives of the Syrian citizens (ANF 2014). There have been so many parties involved and lots of domestic and international issues linked to the protracted conflicts.

Alternative roads to a solution

In multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries, these kind of conflicts may end up with secession of some parties. Considering the Syrian case, this option was also discussed and it was believed that Syria will be separated into three states: an Alawite state in the west, a Kurdish state in the north and a secular or Islamic Arab state (depending on whether the FSA or radical Islamic groups will advance) in the remaining parts of Syria. Kurds declared that they do not seek secession from Syria (Hamsici 2013) and stated that demand a democratic and federal Syria where Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities can enjoy their rights (Sendika 2013). The Rojava Autonomous Cantons tried to involve all the groups in the administration and asked them cooperate to re-structure the society and prevent the ones who want to turn Rojava into their battlefield (Rojava Report 2014). Compared to other regions in Syria, Rojava has remained relatively calm and stable since three years. The role of YPG/YPJ in defence, participation of the citizens in the political processes(31) and re-conciliation of the social relations should also be noted as important factors in formation of the autonomous regions. There has always been a harsh embargo (ANHA 2013) on Rojava yet they could deal with such issue to some extent with the help of the Kurds living in North and South Kurdistan and European countries and the UN. Despite the imposed embargo on the Rojava Cantons, people could find a way to meet basic needs and started to solve their problems on their own (Evran 2013). In that sense, compared to other conflicting parties in Syria, Kurds became the most important party that does not seek creation of new conflicts rather motivated to solve their protracted issues and guarantee peoples' denied and suppressed rights. This has been recognized as the most important political step towards solution since three years (Çimen 2014).


The Syrian Conflict has many similarities and differences with the some other conflicts in near and far geographies. First of all, just like what happened in Afghanistan where there have been asymmetric power relations that left thousands of civilians dead (Benini and Moulton, 2004: 404), Syrian people suffered the civilian deaths and huge number of displaced people. Another important similarity is that there are radical Islamic and al-Qaeda affiliated groups in both conflicts. The US had similar "red-lines" in both conflicts yet could not intervene directly in Syria (McBain 2013). On the other hand, the Iraqi War in 2002 gave birth an autonomous Kurdish State seeking an independent Kurdistan in the north while the same is still expected for the Kurds in Syria (although the Syrian Kurds do not seek a nation-state in Rojava). The conflict between Syria and Rojava also resembles Georgia and South Ossetia Conflict where, Mirimanova (1997) argues that the ethnic division increased the tension and hindered democracy. Also the identity issue in Rojava has some similarities with what the South Ossetia experienced for years. Just like the separation of South and North Ossetia, West (Rojava) and North (Turkish) Kurdistan were separated from each other and had been ruled by Syria and Turkey for almost a century. By the same token, Russia used the Ossetia Card against Georgia (BBC 2013) while Turkey Syrian Baath Regime used Kurdish Card against Turkey with a difference: the South Ossetia wanted to be a part of Russia while Rojava wants to cooperate and remove the borders with Turkey.

Rojava autonomy is unique in many ways and highly proposed by the PKK as a political and administrative solution to the conflict between Kurds and Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. For the PKK, Rojava is extremely important experience because this has given a chance to the PKK to show both the Kurds supporting the PKK and those countries where Kurdish identity and rights are denied that democratic autonomy works and has a potential to solve protracted issues that the disadvantaged minorities have. The PKK's leadership believes that women are the first "nation" that have been suppressed (Öcalan, 2013) and assumes that a community can get its freedom only if the women in that community gets free. Women in Rojava played and has been doing so an important role in construction of the autonomies. They have equal representation in all institutions including military and political parties. Kurds who have been suppressed and discriminated for almost a century now go through a new process in the Middle East and do what have not been tried yet. No one knows what waits for them in Rojava and other parts of Kurdistan. If they succeed in Rojava, they are going to change the whole system in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, too.


1. Rojava means west in Kurdish and because west part of Kurdistan is located in Syria, they call it as Rojava.
2. Some of the witnesses report that the regime forces burned the cinema and let children die.
3. Kurds celebrate 21st of March as the day of revival and resistance.
4. Halabja Massacre, as a part of Anfal Genocide, was carried out by Saddam's Baath Regime in 1988 and Arab nationalists were threatening Kurds in Syria by reminding them what happened to Kurds in Halabja.
5. During the protests after the attack in Qamishlo, 36 Kurds lost their lives and hundreds of them were wounded.
6. PYD co-chair stated that the regime is not allowed to conduct the elections in Rojava except for some military zones of the regime in Qamishlo and Hesekê.
7. Head of the YPG information center Polat Can argued that the ISIS's attacks on Kobanê were carried out with help of Assad and Turkey to occupy Kobanê Canton and isolate it from Efrîn and Qamişlo. "It has been several months since the ISIS forces have not fired a shot against the regime forces. Plus, regime warplanes have bombed so many civilians in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and other places, yet not raided any of the ISIS military bases. The public should know that most of the ISIS fighters attacking us came from Deir ez-Zor, Shaddadeh, and Markadeh, passing through Kawkar Mountain in Hasakah. If the regime forces wanted, they could have easily shelled and exterminated them all. But, they did not. As for Turkey, the leaked tapes of [Ahmet] Davutoglu and other Turkish officials revealed their plan to invade and occupy Rojava. What the ISIS is doing serves Turkey. Ankara thinks it is not in its interests that its neighboring Kurds establish their own government, make progresses, and run their own affairs. They continuously use a negative rhetoric against us. Besides, Turkish soldiers, sometimes, evacuate their border outposts to let ISIS pass through and attack Kurdish villages. We have proof in our hands about this." Civiroglu, Murat. 2014. YPG Officer: Extremist Groups Attack Us with Support from Assad's Regime. Rûdaw, 14 April.
8. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, right after SNC was founded, announced that more than 100 states recognize and support SNC.
9. Îlham Ehmed, co-chair of Kurdish High Council, stated that if the SNC does insist on Sunni-Arab nationalism, the KHC is willing to cooperate with SNC.
10. It should be noted that the ENKS is supported by Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud Barzanî and states that PYD's autonomy model is illegitimate. The ENKS argues that federation is the best option for Kurds in Syria.
11. Countries invited to Geneva II Conference are Algeria, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States. Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful groups in Syria, and Al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front stated that they do not recognize results of the conference.
12. Amed Dicle states that "People in Rojava founded MRGK because ruling a society was not something that a party could do alone. Members of the assembly were elected and Women Association (Yekîtiya Star), TEV-DEM, youth organizations, unions, student organizations sent representatives to the assembly. PYD is a member, too." Dicle, Amed. 2013. Rojava'nın siyasal yapısı. ANF, 14 September.
13. Xelîl Aldar, executive member of TEV-DEM (Movement of Democratic Society in Rojava), argued that Barzanî rules the ENKS and El-Parti leadership, one of the parties in ENKS, prevents ENKS to join the interim administration of autonomies. Even though ENKS and MRGK agreed on establishing a joint administration, problems occuring later on precluded such a unification.
14. Kurds stated that they suffered the results of Leusanne Treaty and will not allow Geneva be the second Leusanne. They declared autonomy in Efrîn, Kobanê and Qamişlo regions.
15. "The creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in April 2013 was rejected by the al-Nusra Front. ISI's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known as Abu Dua, nevertheless pressed ahead with expanding its operations into Syria. In August 2013, US intelligence assessed that he was based in Syria and commanded as many 5,000 fighters, many of them foreign jihadists." Syria crisis: Guide to armed and political opposition. BBC, 13 December, 2013.
16. "ISIS, previously known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AIQ), practice several forms of torture, including electric shocks and stress positions, and regular floggings with rubber generator belts or cables, in secret prisons in al-Raqqa and Aleppo." Malm, Sara. 2013. Al Qaeda establishing Islamic law amidst the fighting in Syria, with children whipped in secret prisons and adults executed on the order of 'sharia court' judges. Daily Mail, 19 December.
17. Issue of "Chemical Weapons" can be given as an example. US wanted to intervene in Syria after these weapons were used yet Russia tried to prevent it despite condemned by international community for tolerating mass civilian klling with chemical weapons.
18. "War is good for business. In 2011, Russia's weapons industry exported around $1 billion worth of arms to Syria, and there are some $4 billion in outstanding contracts. Reuters has reported an increase in shipments of small arms since the beginning of the uprising." Manfreda, Primoz. Why Does Russia Support the Syrian Regime: Blocking regime change in Syria. Middle East Issues.
19. Mark N. Katz, a professor at George Mason University specializing in Russian foreign policy and the international relations of the Middle East, argues that "It partly depends on what happens with the Iran-U.S. relationship. Some people say that the weapons going to [the Syrian government] are paid for by Iran. If Iran stops doing this, is Russia really going to carry the full weight of supporting Assad? The fact that Iran has been all-in on Syria has made it a lot easier for Russia. If things go badly in Syria, it's bad for Russia, and if they go well in the Iran-America relationship, it's bad for Russia too. It's a precarious position, though I don't think Russia sees it as such right now." Leigh, Karen. 2014. Analyzing Russia's Support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad. abc, 15 February.
20. Iran concerns about Qatar-US relations getting closer after the emergence of radical Islamic groups in Syria and if these two countries strenghten their positions in the region, it may threaten Iran's security.
21. "The reasons for the intensive Shi'ite involvement in Syria are all too obvious, and were widely defined, described and analyzed by this blog, far before so many other Syria watchers refused to accept the obvious, i.e., the Syrian war is a sectarian conflict, pitting Alawites and Shi'ites and their external backers, led by Iran, against Sunnis, and their external backers, led by Saudi-Arabia." Olmert, Josef. 2013. Hezbollah, Syria, Iran AND Israel- the Ticking Time Bomb. Huffington Post, 6 December.
22. In an interview with Dicle News Agency in Hewlêr, PYD's co-chair Salih Muslim states that, in his visit to Iran, he explained the problems Kurds face in Syria (i.e. attacks of Selefist groups) to Iran and Iran promised to be in solidarity with Kurds in Syria.
23. PJAK stands for Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Free Life Party) that operates in East Kurdistan since late 1990s. So many members of PJAK were executed by Iran and there are still hundreds of Kurdish prisoners accused of being a member or supporting PJAK. There is now a ceasefire between PJAK and Iran since three years.
24. "The reasons behind this strategy, he [Gu Xuewu, political scientist at the German-based Center for Global Studies] argues, are China's demand for Russian energy as well as a common interest in Central Asia. Both countries, he added, form a sort of "anti-Westem alliance" aimed at counteracting the international influence of the US and its allies." Yuhan, Zhu. 2013. China chooses restraint in Syrian conflict. DW, 11 September.
25. "...the United States fears supplies of advanced weapons to pro-Western rebels could be diverted to Islamic militant groups, who could use them to attack allied, Israeli or civilian aircraft, the U.S. officials said, explaining why the surface-to-air missiles won't be included in the assistance." Hosenball, Mark and Ryan, Missy. 2014. U.S. finalizing plan to boost support for Syrian rebels: sources. Reuters, 4 April.
26. Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu said he gave a "strong message" to Assad not to kill the civilians and do the reforms demanded by the Syrian people.
27. The conversation between the staff has been considered as an election propaganda and an argument to make war with Syria.
28. Governer of Hatay sent a report regarding al-Qaeda operation in the city and throughout the border between Turkey and Syria and how it creates domestic and international problems.
29. The KRG decided to dig ditches at Rojava border yet parties in KRG, except for Barzanî's Kurdistan Democratic Party, stated that this decision is not given by the government yet by KDP.
30. On 18 May 2014, a woman who attempted to pass the border with her two children and father was killed by Turkish Army.
31. People's Assemblies are important institutions where people can make decisions regarding their regions. They also send representatives to the supreme assemblies.


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