The breakdown of the Syrian state has been a political boon for Kurdish groups. Failed governance, civil war, jihadi threats and external support have enabled the Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD)—an affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)—to advance its leftist-nationalist agenda. Since 2011, the PYD has created new facts on the ground in Syria by expanding territories, assuming de facto control over oil fields, creating three autonomous cantons, and declaring a so-called federal Kurdish region. The PYD has also benefitted from both U.S. and Russian backing in the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), support that has bolstered and semi-legitimized the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). These trends have heightened regional concerns of an emergent independent or highly autonomous Kurdish entity that will undermine Syria’s territorial integrity and could partition the country along ethno-sectarian lines.
Yet a deeper look at local and regional dynamics reveals a different scenario. Syrian Kurdish territories may have expanded since the war broke out in 2011, but they remain landlocked and dependent on external patronage, tacit support from Damascus, local Sunni Arab alliances and open borders. A significant decrease in these avenues of support could directly undermine the Kurdish political project. International backing for the PYD is also tactical and tied to the anti-ISIS campaign and regional proxy conflicts, and not a long-term strategic alliance or support for an autonomous Kurdish region. These constraints are compounded by the transborder nature of Syrian Kurdish politics and internal power struggles that preclude the emergence of a monolithic Syrian Kurdish nationalist agenda. What are the implications of these complex dynamics on regional stability, Kurdish leverage in Syria, and Syrian end-states?
Syrian Kurdish Nationalist Politics: A Transborder Phenomenon