The announcement of a new transitional authority in Syrian Kurdistan marks a key point in the ethnic group’s moves towards self-rule, but experts say disunity and war could still scupper their hopes.
Tuesday’s declaration of a temporary autonomous administration in Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Syria, a plan initially mooted in July, came after Kurdish forces made territorial gains against jihadists.
But it was marred by several major Kurdish groups failing to sign on to the announcement.
That lack of consensus, coupled with the raging Syrian civil war that has killed more than 120,000 people since 2011, could undermine Syrian Kurdish efforts to gain an unprecedented level of autonomy and emulate the successes of their Iraqi Kurdish neighbours.
“If it succeeds, it will be a very important turning point for the Kurds in Syria, from a state which rejected giving them even citizenship to having a self-ruling area inside Syria,” said Asos Hardi, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and analyst in Sulaimaniyah, the second largest city in the northern autonomous region.
“But I am cautious about the reaction from different sides — I am cautious that a fight may happen, and Kurdish citizens may pay the cost of this.”
Hardi pointed in particular to the reactions of other Kurdish groups and Arab-dominated parties opposed to the rule of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, both of which criticised the decision.
Currently, the transitional authority is formed by the powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and several other smaller groupings, but not the Kurdish National Council which includes a broad spectrum of parties.
KNC members called the declaration “rushed” and “one-sided”, and expressed concern that the move will become a long-term obstacle towards ending the Syrian war.
Arab groups have said the decision threatens the country’s long-term unity.
“The formation of any local administration in the Kurdish areas in West Kurdistan is a must,” said Bahjat Bashir, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, referring to Syria’s Kurdish areas by the oft-used West Kurdistan name.
“But it has to meet the conditions of success, and the first of those is the participation of all of the active political powers.
“Apparently the brothers in West Kurdistan rushed in announcing this government,” Bashir said.
“The management of the region cannot be done by a single party without the agreement or coordination of the Syrian opposition.”
Turkey says declaration ‘not possible’
Turkey, which has supported opposition groups in Syria and sought to make progress on its own long-term dispute with its domestic Kurdish population, has also expressed reservations.
“The PYD claim to declare an autonomous administration is not possible,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the private NTV television in an interview late Tuesday.
“We told them to avoid any attempt to declare a de facto administration which would split Syria.”
He added: “I hope they will change their stance.”
Kurdish regions of Syria have been administered by local Kurdish councils since forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew in the middle of 2012.
Kurds, mostly concentrated in the north, represent about 15 percent of Syria’s population.
The redeployment was seen as a tactical move by Damascus to free up forces to battle rebels elsewhere and encourage the Kurds to avoid allying with the opposition.
In recent weeks and months, though, Kurdish forces have had their hands full battling jihadists keen to secure a wider corridor between Syria and Iraq to ensure more regular supplies and reinforcements.
Last month, Kurds finally seized a crucial border point with Iraq, providing some respite from regular clashes, and the announcement followed weeks later.
“I was happy and unhappy,” said Mahmud Othman, a Kurd member of Iraq’s parliament in Baghdad.
“Happy about the fact that there is an administration running the daily work of citizens, and unhappy because some parties are there and some parties are not.”
Othman worried that Syrian Kurdish groups would copy their Iraqi Kurd brethren and quarrel internally despite having a common goal, referring to Iraq’s two main Kurdish factions fighting a brutal years-long civil war in the 1990s.
“Here, also, parties fought each other,” he said. “I hope they will not run through that experience.”