News / Middle East

Syrian Kurds Defeat Islamists, Declare Autonomy

Syrian Kurds Defeat Islamists, Declare Autonomyi
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Henry Ridgwell
November 15, 2013
The most powerful Kurdish faction in Syria has declared self-rule over the territory it controls in the north-east of the country. The announcement further complicates the civil war in Syria, and presents a complex problem for neighboring nations. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.

Syrian Kurds Defeat Islamists, Declare Autonomy

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Henry Ridgwell
— The most powerful Kurdish faction in Syria has declared self-rule over the territory it controls in the northeast of the country.  The announcement further complicates the civil war in Syria, and presents a complex problem for neighboring Turkey and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.  

In recent weeks, Kurdish militia in Syria have ousted Islamist fighters from several villages close to the Turkish border.

The victories prompted the main political group of Syria's Kurds, known as the PYD, to declare autonomy.

At a press conference in Paris this week, the head of the PYD Saleh Muslim discussed why the Kurds were able to defeat the Islamists.

“Because in the end, they are fighting for money, as I mentioned.  There are about 3,000 people killed from them.  At the beginning, they were strong, but now they are not strong enough," said Muslim.

Opposition groups in Syria accuse the Kurds of colluding with Syrian government forces - a claim the PYD strongly denies.

There was some coordination over the withdrawal of government troops from Kurdish areas last year - but they remain historic enemies, says Robert Lowe of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

“Maybe the regime has been buying time and it’s one area of Syria they would prefer not be fighting at the moment.  But I think the regime will be unhappy that the Kurds have gone as far as to declare a full autonomous government because contemplating any break-up of Syrian territory is an absolute red line for a regime built on Arab nationalism," said Lowe.

Kurdish gains in Syria pose a complex problem for Turkey.

The border has long been porous; Turkish attempts to build a frontier wall are being met with violent protests.

Ankara also is trying to negotiate a peace deal to end the decades-long war against Kurdish separatists known as the PKK, which is closely allied to the PYD in Syria.
But the move towards autonomy for the Kurds - already in northern Iraq, and now increasingly in Syria - could benefit Turkey, says Ibrahim Sirkeci of Regents University in London.

“Independence of Kurdistan in either of these countries perhaps will be conducive to establish a more peaceful solution which may appear in Turkey as well in the medium to long-term," said Sirkeci.

Kurds in northern Iraq already enjoy much autonomy.  Statehood for all Kurds may be a long held dream, but Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government will be wary of the developments in Syria, says Robert Lowe.

“The party, the PYD which has declared autonomy, is not an ally of the Kurds in Iraq.  And also partly because it upsets Turkey, which is a very, very important partner for the Kurds in Iraq," he said.

But more broadly, the regional momentum is towards Kurdish independence, says Ibrahim Sirkeci.

“It may appear in a federal system, a confederal system or whatever, but it seems at the moment there is nothing against that. The environment is quite conducive," he said.

Analysts say the Kurdish gains further complicate the ongoing civil war in Syria, which is witnessing the splintering of opposition forces.

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