Syria’s Kurds, hostile to a regime that has oppressed them and suspicious of the opposition, are putting aside differences to unite and manage their own region in the face of an uncertain future.
They have engaged carefully with the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but have also kept the rebel Free Syrian Army out of their regions, for fear of attracting the violence that has engulfed much of the country.
In recent days, the Syrian army has pulled back from northern Kurdish areas where fighters close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been deployed.
That has fuelled suspicions among some of collusion with the regime, and angered Turkey, which considers the PKK a terrorist organisation and has criticised the presence of the PKK-linked Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) along the border.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned this week that Turkey would not hesitate to go after members of the PKK, which took up arms in 1984 and has bases in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, inside Syria.
“That’s not even a matter of discussion, it is a given,” he said, describing the establishment of PYD posts near the Turkish border as aimed directly at Ankara.
The traditional parties of Syria’s Kurds have been largely suspicious of the PYD, particularly following an influx of Kurds from northern Iraq to the area.
But despite the differences, the region’s communities signed an accord on July 11, under the sponsorship of Massud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
Since then, the Kurdish National Council, which groups around a dozen traditional Kurdish Syrian parties has joined the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), a PYD offshoot, under the banner of the Supreme Kurdish Council.
“The agreement was extremely positive because we feared violence inside the community with the PYD, which previously backed the regime,” Havidar, a Kurdish journalist in northern Syria, told AFP.
“It seems that the Syrian Kurds have decided to work together,” said Ignace Leverrier, a former French diplomat who spent part of his career in Syria.
The PYD “has perhaps started to understand that the regime is finished,” he said.
The People’s Council of Western Kurdistan denies any cooperation with the regime.
“We have peacefully cleansed our areas of the presence of government forces,” a spokesman for the council, Shirzad Izidi, told AFP.
He said the group had formed “popular Kurdish units,” a kind of Syrian version of the famed Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, who are helping keep order in the region.
And while these fighters are believed to be the only ones carrying arms in the Kurdish region for now, Barzani recently revealed that Iraqi Kurds are training their Syrian counterparts in northern Iraq, most of them deserters from the Syrian army.
The Kurdish community, largely concentrated in the north, represents around 15 percent of the 23 million population in Syria, according to French geographer Fabrice Balanche, a Syria specialist.
The community has long complained of discrimination at the hand of the regime’s ruling Baath party and advocated for recognition of their cultural and political rights.
And it has had difficult relations with the opposition Syrian National Council, accusing it of seeking to marginalise Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities, even though the council’s head Abdel Basset Sayda is himself Kurdish.
But the Kurds insist they are not seeking autonomy like their Iraqi counterparts.
“We want our rights to be clearly recognised in the next constitution,” said Bahjat Bashir, a leader of Syria’s Kurdistan Democratic Party.
“We want to be full partners in the new Syria and we are committed to the unity of the country.”