With the escalation of the Islamic State insurgency in Syria, the Kurds in the country’s north have been, to say the least, an important asset in the war against the terrorist organization. With the help of coalition airstrikes, Kurdish fighters have retaken significant portions of northern Syria from IS, together with some crucial strategic locations. The Kurds are fighting to protect their people, but they’re also taking a historic opportunity in a war-torn Syria, namely to create an autonomous Kurdish region. The pursuit of a functioning independent society is already underway, but can the project be fulfilled?
Looking at recent developments it seems clear that the Islamic State in Syria is being undermined. The terror organisation has been losing a lot of ground in the country. In recent months, IS has slowly been pushed out of cities and areas it’s been terrorising for years. The most notable progress has been made by the Kurds of northern Syria in what is currently the self-proclaimed autonomous region of Rojava. Aided by the US-led coalition, the Kurdish forces YPG (People’s Protection Unit) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Unit) have – with impressive success – fought to protect their lives and freedom and liberate fellow Syrians. The land of Rojava has seen a remarkable increase in size, and is now stretching over more than 400 kilometers along Turkey’s border.
But what is at stake for the Kurdish people? The Kurds are one of many indigenous peoples to Syria (along with Iraq, Iran and Turkey), inhabiting parts of the Middle East for centuries. They have historically been pushed into increasingly smaller areas of the region, struggling to uphold their cultural identity and heritage in the states they inhabit. While the Kurdistan regions in Iraq and Iran have in recent decades maintained stable relations with their states as well as autonomy, Syrian Kurds have suffered continuous setbacks at the hands of Syrian regimes. But as the war against IS has progressed, the Kurds have made serious advances in northern Syria while working to establish an autonomous regional government.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish opposition party in Syria, has been at work in Rojava to create a society unlike anything the region has seen before. The uniqueness of it lies in a federal direct democracy system aiming to be equally representative for the many ethnic and religious communities inhabiting the region. The Kurd-dominated area is home to – among others – Assyrians, Armenians and Arabs of mixed Christian and Muslim faith. The vision of Rojava is to integrate and create coexistence between these communities. Gender equality is another unique aspect of this new state: Looking at the soldiers of the YPG and the YPJ’s all-female branch, who fight alongside each other on almost entirely equal terms, one can see a precedent being set for a future social order. This equality is likewise reflected in Rojava’s civil life, where women have gained increasing access to politics and male-dominated occupations. This society is of course not without its shortcomings, but it is nevertheless a rare system which has attracted international attention.
As the Kurds and their allies slowly let the project unfold, obstacles to the dream might eventually come in their way. As the civil war in Syria rages on, the future of the Syrian regime remains uncertain. The prospect of Rojava thus lies very much in the hands of the Syrian government, and it is questionable whether any ruling body would easily negotiate the large and strategic piece of land. After all, the Kurds are making demands on what is officially still Syrian land. The Bashar al-Assad regime, not appearing keen to let go of power anytime soon, has not recognized a Kurdish autonomous state or shown interest in the matter. Even if the regime’s stance would change, it is questionable whether the Kurds would easily trust Assad’s cooperation, seeing as the regime has broken promises before, and regularly suppressed the Syrian Kurds. Rojava also remains unrecognized by the UN and NATO.
Another major obstacle to the autonomous Kurdish region is Turkey. As the Turkish government continues to deal with a Kurdish rebellion led by the PKK (branded a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the US), there is little reason to believe they would allow the existence of a stronger unified Kurdistan. Turkey has raised concerns that a Kurdish initiative in Syria would further provoke an insurgency in the country’s southeast; an insurgency they fear could find strong support in Syria’s north. As the PYD has been found to be affiliated with the PKK, Turkey’s concerns might not be without cause. The northern neighbor’s worries are further expressed by its military hostility towards Syrian Kurds. Since 2014, Turkey has regularly targeted Kurdish forces near their border as a response to a perceived geopolitical threat. Finally, some speculate that Turkey’s recent military activity in Syria (Operation Euphrates Shield), officially aiming to drive IS back from its borders, is instead meant to prevent Kurds from gaining ground.
The Kurdish land claims in Syria continue, and for the country’s regime there are undeniably other matters to prioritize. Turkey is becoming increasingly wary of the situation, but even they have had a lot on their plate in recent months. So while the Kurds are successfully seizing the opportunity of the circumstances, there is no telling what an end of the war would mean for Rojava. For now, simply keeping a safe haven might be as good as anything.