|Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dohuk.|
The fierce competition between the proxies of the two mainstream Kurdish factions in Syria's Kurdish areas, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) may sabotage Kurds' best opportunity to achieve self-rule within Syria in a century.
Although the PYD's popularity isn't alone sufficient to rule those areas, recent developments have largely benefitted them. Since the Syrian uprising against the 13-year rule of the country's embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, turned violent, the Syrian army has handed over these areas to the PYD in a secret deal that would deny these territories to the rebels. The PYD is not quite denying that such an agreement exists. In a recent interview with a Kurdish newspaper, Saleh Muslim, the PYD's chief, said, “We don't have an agreement with the Assad regime, but we are in contact with them and we have had meetings with them.”
In response to the PYD's unilateral steps, Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader and president of Iraqi Kurdistan, called on all other Syrian Kurdish political parties to gather in Erbil. The result of the gathering was unifying all the pro-Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) parties under one umbrella called the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
Although the KNC is favored in many places with 50 percent of popularity at times, they have little capability to act on the ground because of the PYD's control. Like its umbrella party, the PKK, the PYD has strong authoritarian tendencies: They don't tolerate any other faction working in areas under their control and remove them if their authority is challenged.
To avert any possible armed conflict between the KNC and the PYD, a meeting was held in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil under the auspices of Barzani. The two sides agreed to cooperate on the ground, establishing the High Cooperation Council. According to the agreement, the two parties share all responsibilities in the Syrian Kurdish territories, but the agreement has so far failed to achieve its goals.
However, the PYD is not the only party to be blamed. The leaders of the KNC are deliberately trying to defame the image of the PYD on regional and international levels. To provide an example from my own experience, Abdulhakim Bashar, one of the top leaders of the KNC as well as Barzani's trusted man in Syria, accused the PYD of confrontation in a forum in İstanbul recently. Furthermore, in meetings with US and European officials, KNC leaders have labeled the PYD as a “gang that belongs to the PKK,” which they listed as a terrorist organization.
In addition to the KNC's psychological war against the PYD, the Iraqi Kurdish party is also constantly pushing the KRG, more specifically the KDP, to punish the PYD by closing the border crossings between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdish areas that are controlled by the PYD's YPG units. The most significant fallout of this policy was a mass punishment of civilians, most of whom need to cross the Iraqi border for medical and other humanitarian purposes.
Border crossings are indeed becoming a dangerous point of conflict between the PKK and KDP and it seems they have little, if any, concerns over the humanitarian consequences.
Three weeks ago, in an article in the Azadya Welat daily, the co-chair of the PKK, Cemil Bayık, accused the KDP of shutting down the border while impoverished people are waiting in Syria to cross it and not letting any aid cross the border from the KRG region to Syria. In response, the KDP denied the border closure and accused the PKK of controlling all the aid that crosses the border. That was the first direct confrontation between the two.
A week after this wrangle, the KRG decided to open the border gates wide to allow a safe passage for Syrian Kurds fleeing clashes in the war-torn country. Soon after the border crossing was opened, a mass exodus from Syria as a result of violence and poverty in the country started to flow into Iraq. Many, including Barzani and Bayık, warned against the mass influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees entering into the KRG region. The number of Syrian Kurdish refugees in the KRG is at staggering 200,000 and they are harmful for the future of Kurds in Syria because they already have an identity crisis in the country.
On the regional level, Turkey's role is surprisingly positive. Although Turkey has had a harsh stance against any attempt to create a Kurdish region within Syria, Turkey's position has softened and actually shifted toward that of the Kurds after the initiation of the peace talks with the PKK and meeting with the PYD leaders. If the PYD inches closer to Turkey, it would be to the benefit of Kurds because Turkey has already had good ties with the KNC thanks to Erbil's good ties with Ankara; that can be helpful.
On the other side, Iran is also trying to get closer to the Syrian Kurds. In the last two months, Iran has invited both the PYD and the KNC separately to Tehran to convince them to back the Assad regime. Iran has promised both parties to support them with money and arms in the event that they back Assad. Iranians have promised even more; they made promises to both parties to support a Kurdish region in Syria if they agreed to accept Iran's demands.
Although heavyweights Turkey and Iran are trying to attract Syrian Kurdish factions to their sides, this isn't what threatens the future of Syria's Kurds or, as Kurds like to call them, Kurds of Rojava. Kurds are the worst enemy of themselves. The PKK, which emerged in Turkey, and the KDP, born in Iraq, are ready to break each other's bones only to widen their leverage over Syria's Kurds.
The worst is yet to come. The real confrontation seemed to have been delayed to the post-Assad era. KNC official Bashar once said in one of my interviews with him that a civil war in Syria's Kurdish areas is a possible scenario if the PYD refuses to share power with the other Kurdish factions.
The PYD doesn't seem to be ready to share power. When asked whether they will let other Kurdish militias emerge in the PYD-controlled territories, Muslim said,“Its not up to us to accept any other Kurdish armed groups to emerge, it's up to the people.” This is a clear sign that they will not let them.
The Guardian has described Kurds as Syria's only winners but they seem to be misplaying their cards in using the best opportunity in a century to build a region of their own in northeastern Syria. If the PKK and KDP don't stop their proxy war in Syria and compromise, the Kurdish ambitious dreams may well turn out otherwise.
This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here: