As planned, three days before Iraqi Kurds went to the polls in a referendum over their own political future, elections for local Kurdish communes in northern Syria took place on September 22.
While the latter vote – in which an overwhelming 92% voted in favor of independence – sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East, the Syrian vote passed very smoothly, and Damascus did nothing of any consequence to prevent or obstruct it.
Following elections in their communes, Syrian Kurds plan to vote for representatives to their local councils on November 3. Parliamentary elections for the three Kurdish districts of the Syrian north, which the Kurds are calling the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, are due to happen on January 19.
These back-to-back developments in Syria and Iraq have undoubtedly raised the ambitions of 30 million Kurds throughout the region, whose unconditional support has flooded in.
Meanwhile, authorities in Baghdad are determined to prevent Iraqi Kurdistan – which is already a federal part of the country, with its own flag, government and parliament – from becoming an independent entity. Saad al-Hadithi, an adviser to Premier Haidar al-Abadi, said: “All Iraqis must have a say in defending the future of their homeland. No single party can determine the future of Iraq in isolation from the others.”
As of last Friday, the Iraqi Parliament has suspended flights to and from Erbil and Suleimanieh. Iraq is also threatening to send Shiite troops from the Popular Mobilization Units to secure Kirkuk, the contested oil-rich city located 83km south of Erbil. If that happens, a vicious Kurdish-Shiite war might well break out imminently, taking regional violence to an entirely new level.
“Syrian Kurds want a form of autonomy within the framework of the borders of the state. This is negotiable and can be the subject of dialogue”
Mala Bakhtiyar of the Popular Union of Kurdistan, a party technically still headed by the aged, ailing, and yet highly respected ex-president of Iraq, Jalal Talbani, has appealed to prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, asking him to issue a religious decree prohibiting warfare between Shiites and Kurds. Already, thousands of foreigners have fled the once prosperous region, while most diplomatic missions have closed.
From Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has ordered the halt of oil sales to Iraqi Kurdistan, saying: “Iran considers those who fuel the idea [of an independent Kurdistan] as opponents of Iraq’s independence.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went further, threatening to send his own troops into the contested region while warning that Kurds would “go hungry” if he decided to halt the flow of oil and trucks. “It will be over when we close the oil taps; all their revenues will vanish,” he said.
If Iraqi Kurds realize their own aspirations, this will automatically trigger the ambitions of Turkish Kurds, given that 50% of “historic Kurdistan” needs to be carved out of the modern Turkish republic. Earlier this summer Ankara threatened to overrun Afrin, a Kurdish city west of the Euphrates River that is part of Russia’s fiefdom in the Syrian patchwork. It actually let the Russians re-take Aleppo last December on the one condition that the Kremlin allows it to finish off Kurdish ambitions on its border in the cities of Jarablus, Azaz, and al-Bab.
Damascus is also vehemently opposed to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, siding fully with its allies in Baghdad, but is seemingly open to talks with Syrian Kurds — so long as they drop their demand for a fully independent state in northern Syria.
Speaking to Russia Today in late September, Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem said: “Syrian Kurds want a form of autonomy within the framework of the borders of the state. This is negotiable and can be the subject of dialogue.” However, creating an independent state in northern Syria was completely off-limits, he said, echoing a statement issued by his deputy Faisal Mekdad in early August that “Syria will never allow any part of its territory to be separated.”
Authorities don’t seem to mind accepting a certain degree of de-centralization in Kurdish villages scattered east of the Euphrates, something that would undoubtedly satisfy Syrian Kurds, who accounted for approximately 15% of the population nationally before the outbreak of the present conflict in 2011.
Since the rise of Islamic State in 2014, Kurdish warriors have bravely fought off its advances on Kurdish towns and cities, notably liberating the city of Manbij, 30km west of the Euphrates, in mid-2016, then handing it over to government troops—under the supervision, of course, of the Russian Army.
If war breaks out, either with Turkey or with Iraq — or both — then even limited autonomy might become a dream too big for the Kurds of Syria
Early in the conflict Syrian authorities issued IDs to thousands of stateless Syrian Kurds who had been stripped of their nationality in a controversial 1962 census. The government’s calculation was that their hatred of Turkey would preclude them from joining the Ankara-backed Syrian Opposition.
For their part, Syrian Kurds realize that creating their own independent state is technically and politically impossible. Their cities and towns are dispersed, separated by land and river, and none have a clear-cut 100% Kurdish population – all are dotted with Arabs, Christians, and other minorities. That so many of the residents of the three provinces earmarked for the federal project are not actually not Kurdish explains why cantons are the ambition, rather than statehood.
The first of these would be in Al Hasakah province and would include the Kurdish cities of Al Hasakah and Al Qamishli, both east of the Euphrates. The second lies in the greater Aleppo province, encompassing the Kurdish town of Kobani, south of the border with Turkey, and Tal Abyan, which lies within the Al Raqqa Governorate. The third and last is in Afrin, reaching up to Shahba in the Aleppo countryside.
Much of this depends on what happens in Iraqi Kurdistan. If war breaks out, either with Turkey or with Iraq — or both — then even limited autonomy might become a dream too far for the Kurds of Syria.