On Tuesday, Kurdish groups announced the formation of an interim autonomous government in Syria’s Kurdish region, with elections to follow. The announcement comes on the heels of battle successes against Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), among the most powerful of the myriad homegrown and foreign forces fighting the Assad regime.
Since the latest fighting between the Syrian Kurds and Al Qaeda affiliates broke out in July, the dominant Kurdish organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has used its battle successes to burnish its image among Kurds and consolidate its hold over the region.
In October the PYD’s armed wing drove ISIS from the strategic Iraqi border crossing of Yaroubiya, which analysts say has hampered the jihadis’ access to its support network in Iraq and handed the Kurds a vital border crossing.
In recent days it has also made advances in the oil-rich Hasakah Province, and consolidated its hold on Ras al-Ayn, Syria, following several months of intense fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra.
Why has it enjoyed this apparent success against some of the world’s most notoriously ruthless terrorist groups, which have come to dominate the ranks of the opposition?
The PYD commanders are drawn heavily from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), according to Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs analyst affiliated with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. The PKK – which is listed as a terrorist group by the US and European Union – has waged a three-decade insurgency against Turkey.
As a result, unlike most of Syria’s homegrown rebel forces, the PYD can draw from a long-established command structure and 30 years of combat experience.
Most of the PYD's victories have been in Kurdish-majority areas, or places where it has otherwise secured the allegiance of local populations. In Yaroubiya, ISIS had earned the enmity of the town’s population by ejecting the militia of a local clan, according to Mr. van Wilgenburg.
“They were angry because of this, and when the [PYD’s forces] came they stayed neutral. They were able to take it over because [ISIS] didn’t have local support," he says.
The conflict epitomizes the growing complexity of Syria’s civil war. Although the fight is a sideshow to the central aim of Syria’s rebels – the overthrow of the Assad regime – it has the potential to lay the foundations for an autonomous Kurdish state like that in neighboring northern Iraq, perhaps even redrawing the borders of the Middle East.
While ISIS, the more radical of the two Al Qaeda affiliates, aims to create an Islamic caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria, the PYD professes neutrality, only fighting groups that threaten its sphere of control.
“We are facing a big campaign by these fundamentalist groups … [but] have proved we are able to resist and defend the people,” Redur Xelil, a military spokesman for the group, told The Christian Science Monitor, speaking by phone from Syria.
But PYD's critics say it is allied with Assad. Syrians who traveled in the region recently told the Monitor that regime agents and soldiers maintain a visible presence in PYD areas.
The Kurds, who number about 30 million in the four countries between which they are divided – Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey – have long harbored dreams of self-rule.
In Syria, where they make up around 10 percent of the population, many were stripped of citizenship rights in 1962, effectively banning them from owning property or marrying. An anti-regime Kurdish uprising was brutally suppressed in 2004. However, the Assad regime is believed to have longstanding links with the PYD’s close Turkish affiliate, the PKK, which it supported during the 1990s in its insurgency in neighboring Turkey.
The PYD’s critics say it owes its current dominance of the Kurdish region to the regime, which effectively handed control to it when it abandoned the area early last year to concentrate on the rebel insurgency elsewhere in the country.
Since then, PYD forces have clashed sporadically with the regime, but Assad’s Air Force has left the areas they control untouched.
Analysts say that successfully facing off against Al Qaeda has allowed the PYD to strengthen its support among Syria’s Kurds and to sideline other Kurdish groups by portraying itself as the Kurds’ sole champion against a ruthless and antidemocratic enemy.
“We consider that [the jihadis] are fighting the Kurdish people because they are against their democratic aspirations,” said Salih Muslim, the PYD’s leader, in a telephone interview.“We are the first line of democracy against [them].”
Extremists fighting extremists?
The reality may be more complex. Opponents of the PYD, many of them Kurds as well, accuse it of enforcing a ruthless rule, imprisoning and torturing political opponents.
Many Kurds, frustrated at the PYD’s perceived proximity to the Assad regime, have aligned themselves more openly with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.
In July, the United States condemned the PYD for the brutal suppression of anti-Assad protests in the town of Amuda, during which it allegedly killed six people and detained 90.
“I regard them as extremist armed group that works for its own interest and the interest of the Syrian regime,” says Bassam Hajji Mostafa, a Kurdish rebel commander affiliated with the FSA.
He and other critics characterize its fight against the Al Qaeda affiliates as a pragmatic battle over resources and strategic towns. The key flashpoints have been border crossings and oil fields.
“They're not fighting for the interests of Kurds at all. As a matter of fact, they're assaulting all the Kurdish political components,” says Mustafa, adding that his own rebel brigade with anyone fighting under the FSA banner, leading to clashes against both the jihadis, the PYD, and the regime.
The PYD’s perceived closeness to the Assad regime likely explains why its increasingly vocal overtures to the West have gone unanswered.
Last month, Mr. Muslim, the PYD leader, was refused a visa to visit the United States for a Kurdish conference at which he was to be a star speaker. He has had mixed success in Ankara, which he visited twice in July and August this year.
Turkey, fearful of the PYD’s links to its own Kurdish separatist movement, is constructing a wall along its border to stymie aid to the group.
For some Syrian Kurds, the PYD is the lesser of two evils, and that is enough to earn their reluctant backing, says Hefiz Abdulrahman, a Syrian Kurdish human rights activist based in Turkey.
“[ISIS] and Nusra are dangerous for Syria, and the fact that the PYD are fighting them has given the PYD legitimacy among the Kurdish public," he says.
While Abdulrahman himself is a staunch opponent of the organization, he acknowledges that it “has done a good job in preserving the integrity of the Kurdish area and protecting it from jihadis.”
A steady flow of "martyrs" and military gains since fighting with the Al Qaeda groups intensified have also bolstered support for PYD, according to van Wilgenburg.
“A lot of people have friends and family fighting for the PYD and if they have martyrs in their circle of family or friends, respect grows for them,” he said. “If they were not fighting al Qaeda they would have more problems.”
In fact, deaths of Kurds fighting in Syria have helped fuel an old and powerful narrative in which the long-suffering minority are perpetual underdogs fighting for their very survival.
Naif Dundar's father, brother, and uncle all died fighting the Turkish state in the name of Kurdish separatism. Last month, his son Ferit became the family’s latest martyr, killed in fighting in northeast Syria.
“We Kurds don’t care what country we’re in. We are together and we support each other wherever we are,” said Mr. Dundar as he impassively greeted a stream of mourners at his son’s funeral in the Turkish border town of Nusaybin, from which Ferit departed this summer to fight in Syria.
“We have to be strong at every moment,” he said. “They are trying to exterminate us, if we are not always awake and alert they will destroy us.”