Syria war: Kurds stand ‘at the crossroads’ of the region's long term hopes for peace

The official Syrian opposition’s veto on Kurdish involvement in peace talks must be dropped, expert warns

Thursday 15 September 2016 17:38 BST
Syria’s Kurds stand at a crossroads in the region’s history

Syrians are cautiously enjoying a period of relative calm this week thanks to the US and Russian-brokered ceasefire.

The agreement between several rebel groups and the Syrian government came into effect at sundown on Monday, timed to coincide with the beginning of the Eid-al-Adha festival. While several infringements have been reported, no civilians are thought to have lost their lives in the first 48 hours.

Russia has now agreed to extend the original seven-day agreement by another two days before the next stage of the plan, which involves coordinated airstrikes against Isis militants and Jabhat-Fateh al-Sham, the al-Qaeda affiliate which previously called itself al-Nusra. The extremist groups are not part of the ceasefire agreement.

The diplomatic community is beginning to hope that Syria’s warring parties, exhausted by five years of conflict and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, may be entertaining the prospect a more lasting peace deal.

President Bashar al-Assad, despite an Eid address in which he promised to retake the whole country from rebels, is under pressure from Russian and Iranian allies to co-operate, as are rebel groups backed by the US and Turkey.

“If that’s the case, the reality is, talks will have to include the Kurds sooner or later,” Ghadi Sary, an Academy fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme. told The Independent.

Many Sunni rebel groups are uneasy with the terms of the ceasefire: they fear attack by foreign government-allied Shi’ite groups, since there are no monitoring mechanisms in place to track violations.

But the Kurds - who are the only ground force to continuously succeed in driving back Isis’s advance in Syria - are not even at the United Nations’ negotiating table in Geneva.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have evolved as a major player as the civil war has gone on: it was the the YPG, after six months of intense fighting and assistance from US military strikes, who managed to drive Isis from the Turkish border town of Kobani in March 2015.

The victory not only proved that Isis could be defeated, it cemented the Kurds’ position as a major military force in Syria’s conflict.

The aftermath of an Isis suicide bomb attack during the battle for Kobani

The YPG, affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish PKK movement, and later the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mainly Kurdish alliance of rebels, have managed to carve out a relative oasis of calm in northern Syria since the war began, despite the evolution of extremist groups such as Isis around it since.

Despite financial and military backing from the US, there has been no Kurdish delegation at international peace talks so far, thanks to a veto on their presence by some elements of the official Syrian opposition.

“The Syrian Kurds are an important component of the country, so we need to find a formula in which they are able to express an opinion on the constitution and the governance of the country,” Staffan de Mistura, the UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria, said earlier this year.

For their part, the Kurds, who faced decades of discrimination by the state before the war, are unwilling to let go of their hard-won autonomy.

Following recent victories in liberating several northern towns from Isis, but now dealing with advancing Turkish-backed forces too, the Kurds now stand at a crossroads in their history, Mr Sary said.

“There is a danger if they become too expansionist. The model they have currently, of local governance, could be a model for Syria’s future. As long as it’s local, that’s fine - it’s on a large scale it wouldn’t work. There would be too much friction with [the government] in Damascus.”

Since Turkey entered Syria to drive out Isis militants from its border last month, the Kurds’ position has become more volatile: Turkey, which has long fought its own Kurdish insurgency, also wants to stop Kurdish groups from consolidating territory at all costs.

In response, the Kurdish Federation of Northern Syria, which governs Kurdish territory, has said that it will implement a new federal system of government to strengthen their existing administration.

Kurdish fighters belonging to the police force known as the Asayesh drive on the back of an armed vehicle in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on August 23, 2016, after they agreed to a truce with regime forces. (Getty)

In a recent interview, Hadiya Yousef, co-chair of the executive committee of the Kurdish Federation of Northern Syria, reaffirmed that the council is committed to implementing a new constitution in Kurdish-held areas, and that the democratic rights of all ethnic groups and women will be respected.

The Kurdish strategy in the civil war to date has been one of survival, Mr Sary added. “So far, they have listened to criticism from other actors. We must assume good faith and engage them.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the current ceasefire the last chance for a “united Syria”, and the sentiment has echoed in diplomatic circles. While that’s also how the last ceasefire in February of this year was described, Mr Sary is also of the opinion that this opportunity for peace-building may be Syria’s “last hope”.

“If this works, then the Kurds must be bought in from the cold,” he said. “But Syria will be a different beast if this fails.”

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