The autonomous districts recently declared by many of Syria’s Kurds—who with some 2.2 million persons make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population—have potentially important implications for the deadlocked Syrian civil war that has been raging for almost three years. This struggle has increasingly drawn in the United States and Russia, as well as various regional parties, such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, among others. In addition, Syria itself has degenerated into a Hobbesian war of all against all as the various opposition factions—increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadists from abroad—have begun fighting among themselves as well as against the Assad regime. Through all this the Syrian Kurds have claimed to be following a third, more neutral path that does not identify fully with either the regime or the opposition.
However, the Syrian Kurds themselves are notoriously divided, both among themselves and in their affiliations with outside parties—mainly the more radical Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Turkey and the more moderate Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Out of this disorder, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—supposedly headed by Salih Muslim Mohammed, but actually controlled by the PKK—has emerged as by far the most powerful group. It was this group that actually declared autonomy, despite opposition from most of the other small Kurdish parties in Syria as well as Turkey, the KRG and practically all other interested actors, including the United States. The fact that the PYD was not invited to the Geneva II talks regarding Syria’s future indicates the range of this opposition and bodes ill for Syrian Kurdish prospects, but even more for finding any solutions to the raging civil war.
Unlike the geographically contiguous Kurdish region in Iraq that the United States, the United Kingdom and France supported with a no-fly zone after defeating Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, Syria’s Kurdish regions largely consist of three noncontiguous areas in the north of the country, provinces that also contain large numbers of Arabs and other minorities. Nor is anybody seeking to protect the Syrian Kurds by providing a no-fly zone. Indeed, outside actors have simply stood by and watched while foreign jihadists have sought to overpower the Syrian Kurds. Only the battle-hardened PKK fighters along with those of the PYD have mostly managed to fend off this jihadist challenge.