Rise of the Kurds in Syria


Map showing spread of Kurdish populationsFormer US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' in politics. As the situation in Iraq evolved into several civil wars between various groups, the US and its allies found themselves in the latter territory of 'unknown unknowns'. However, the situation in Iraq was less complex than what is going on in Syria. An interesting development has been the effect of the conflict on the Kurds in Syria.

Historically the Kurds faced repression from the Syrian regime. Kurds were denied Syrian citizenship in 1962 but this was changed in 2011 and they can now obtain Syrian citizenship. It is estimated that about 9 per cent of the population, around 2 million people, are Kurdish in Syria. Kurds were prevented from using their own language and Kurdish protests and celebration of their new year (Newroz) were suppressed by the Syrian military.

The regime held the Kurds under control with large number of troops being stationed in the Kurdish area. Kurds are mainly in the north western area adjoining Iraq. However the current conflict has created opportunities for them.

The intensity of the conflict in Syria meant that the regime has moved the military from the Kurdish areas to the fighting in Damascus and Aleppo. A consequence has been the Kurds are left to run their own area in a way similar to the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1992 after the no-fly zone was created.

Initially the Kurds in Iraq fought among themselves, but eventually a united Kurdish front was presented. That resulted in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), established after 2003 and now well entrenched. Kurdish is the main language in the KRG area of Iraq. The president of Iraq is a Kurd, and the new Iraqi passports have Kurdish, Arabic and English script. In the Kurdish parts of Syria, the Kurds are only just starting to set up control.

The growth of Kurdish autonomy has long been a desire of the Kurds, who are spread through Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It is estimated there are around 20 million who identify as Kurdish and this would make the Kurds the largest nationality without an independent homeland.

Iraq repressed the Kurds brutally under Saddam, and the gas attacks on Halabja by Saddam's regime were the first use of gas to defeat an uprising since the British did so in Iraq in the 1920s. With the establishment of the KRG, Kurds set up their own regional government and effectively were independent.

In Iran, the Kurds were suppressed by the regime and many fled Iran as refugees. The same happened in Syria. In Turkey, a long running war between the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish government left many dead and although the PKK leader Occalan is in prison, the PKK is still active. In fact, the PKK was known to have bases in the Kurdish areas of Syria as well as parts of Iraq.

Now, the Syrian regime is encouraging the PKK's opposition to the Turkish government as retaliation for the Turkish government's support of the Syrian opposition.

This is potentially a dangerous scenario where the Syrian regime is encouraging Kurdish separatists in Turkey, risking Turkish reprisals as happened in Iraq a few years ago when the Turkish military bombed suspected PKK bases in northern Iraq. Already there have been exchanges of fire across the border.

If it becomes more intense, the trigger for NATO intervention occurs because a NATO member, Turkey, will be defending itself against aggression and call on the other NATO powers to support it. This was the reason used for NATO involvement in Afghanistan, the attacks on one NATO member (the US) leading to NATO intervention.

NATO in Syria would not be favourably viewed by Russia, which already sees NATO encroaching on traditional areas of Russia's sphere of interest in eastern Europe and in Georgia. Syria is a long term Russian ally and Russia is unlikely to dump such a loyal ally especially to NATO.

Russia has a naval base in Syria. While Russia is unlikely to use military power against a member of NATO, Turkey, the mere prospect may be enough to prevent the conflict spreading from Syria to Turkey. But the situation in Lebanon is not so secure.

While the conflict continues in other parts of Syria, the Kurds are establishing their own armed security in their areas. Previously the Syrian regime would have suppressed this ruthlessly, but the Assad regime has more pressing concerns in Aleppo and Damascus from the various rebel groups. It is ironic that a group that potentially benefits from the Arab Spring are not Arabs, but Kurds.

An old joke goes, is someone tells you they understand Middle East politics, then it has not been explained to them properly. The unknown unknowns are still considerable as the Syrian conflict continues to become more complex and even more brutal. 

Kerry Murphy headshotKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers.

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, Kurds, Syria



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article Kerry. A question of clarification. In the third last paragraph I am confused by the comment about the situation in Lebanon.

Peter Hanley | 10 October 2012  

Peter, the Lebanon comment perhaps needed more elaboration, but as it is not directly related to the Kurds, I left it. What I meant was that Lebanon is also in a precarious situation with the war in Syria. The subject of another article next time!

Kerry Murphy | 10 October 2012  

Thank you for this timely and interesting exposition of the situation in Syria. Sigh...

Patricia R | 10 October 2012  

Thanks for this article on the politics of the Kurdish people in the Middle East!
The Kurdish people have been fighting for self-determination for a very long time and I recommend the films of Bahman Ghobadi, who I think is a Kurd from the northern part of Iraq; these films provide a good insight into the Kurdish struggle for self-determination and some of them are: 'A Time For Drunken Soldiers', 'Turtles Can Fly', and 'A Time For Persian Cats'.

Mark Doyle | 16 October 2012  

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