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Democratic Union Party [PYD]

On 17 March 2016 Syrian Kurds declared a federal region in areas they control in the northern part of the country, a move that was immediately rejected by both the Syrian government and an opposition group. The declaration also complicated Syrian peace talks underway in Geneva. The autonomous region, known as Rojava, includes Jazira, Kobani and Afrin - three distinct enclaves, or cantons, under Kurdish control.

Representatives of Syria's largest Kurdish party said in March 2016 they planned to declare an autonomous federal region for the areas they control in the northern part of the country. Kurdish leaders in Syria say other ethnic and sectarian groups, including Arabs and Turkmen, will be represented in the regional grouping. As Syrian Kurdish militiamen continued to battle other opposition factions in the north of Syria, their political leaders said they were preparing to declare an autonomous federal region. Three Kurdish-controlled autonomous regions would unite under the Kurdish plan being reviewed.

A US State Department spokesman 16 March 2016 issued a statement saying, "We have not and will not recognize any "self-rule" semi-autonomous zone" and that, "We remain committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria."

The Democratic Union Party [PYD - Partiya Yekitiya Democrat], the most powerful Kurdish faction in Syria, declared self-rule in November 2013 over the territory it controls in the northeast of the country. The announcement further complicated 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 had ousted Islamist fighters from several villages close to the Turkish border. The victories prompted the main political group of Syria's Kurds to declare autonomy.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces withdrew from Syrian Kurdish regions on Turkey’s border in mid-2012, allowing the Democratic Union Party [PYD] to take control of much of the area. Some Kurdish activists accuse the PYD of collaborating with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The PYD is affiliated with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. Syrian-Kurdish nationalists with support from Kurdish separatists north of the border formed the PYD in 2003. Though it has been hostile to the Assad government, the PYD militants has been keen to keep other rebel groups out of Kurdish towns.

The Kurdistan People’s Congress (KGK, formerly the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, PKK) is a Kurdish separatist group primarily active in part of northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Composed mostly of Turkish Kurds, the group in 1984 began a campaign of armed violence, including terrorism, which has resulted in over 45,000 deaths. In addition to its stronghold in northern Iraq, the KGK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has increased its presence in northern Syria along the border with Turkey by establishing control in Kurdish areas, resulting in concerns of a heightened threat to Turkey and increased tensions along the border.

Kobani is the third Kurdish city of Syria and was the first Kurdish city to be liberated from the Assad regime on July 19, 2012. Kobani is also the center of one of the three cantons (with Afrin and Cizre) that established themselves in"democratic autonomous regions" from a confederation of "Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turkmen, Armenian and Chechen" as stated in the Preamble of the Rojava's (name of western or Syrian Kurdistan) Charter. Experiences of self-administrations in these regions are very interesting, particularly regarding the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities. Some contradictions nevertheless exist, especially regarding the authoritarianism of the PYD forces.

By July 2013 Kurdish fighters had seized control of Ras al-Ain, a Syrian town on the border with Turkey, and were battling Islamist rebel groups linked to al Qaeda for control of the oilfields in the northeast of the country. The fighting was further evidence that the conflict between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad's forces that has engulfed Syria since early 2011 had splintered into turf wars that had little to do with ousting him. Turkey's foreign minister voiced concern over the spillover of violence from the war in neighboring Syria and called again on the United Nations Security Council to act. The alarm stemmed from the fighting near the border between Syrian Kurds and Islamist fighters of the al-Nusra Front.

When Syrian Kurds announced their intention to declare an autonomous state, Ankara reacted with anger and threats and deployed its army along the border. But in a remarkable change in stance, in July 2013 it met with the leader of the Democratic Union Party the Syrian Kurdish group it had earlier labeled a terrorist organization. The Turkish foreign ministry made headlines when it hosted PYD leader Salih Muslim for a series of high-level meetings in Istanbul. Both sides described the meetings as positive.

The fact that it happened at all was significant, because for the longest times, the Turkish government has been keeping the PYD and its leader at arm's length. They claimed the PYD was no different from the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and therefore suggests that they, too, are terrorists. These suspicions were further heightened when the PYD announced plans to declare autonomy in a region that bordered areas populated by Turkey's own restive Kurdish population. The Turkish government had repeatedly warned it would never allow such a move, describing it as a “red line” - a term used to indicate a limit or critical point.

A key factor in Turkey's more pragmatic approach to the Syrian Kurds could be an awareness that it is powerless to stop the PYD. Although the Turkish army massed forces along the Syrian border following the PYD’s announcement it was planning to declare autonomy, Ankara was unwilling to intervene militarily.

The Kurdish capture of Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, was a serious blow for the Al-Qaida affiliated Islamist rebels. The town and its border post are of high strategic importance, allowing whoever is in control to determine what supplies can cross the border. Bribes and taxes also can generate considerable revenue for the group that oversees the crossing.

The Democratic Union Party announced plans in July 2013 to set up a transitional authority in northeastern Syria. Its spokesmen said it was holding talks with rival Kurdish factions about the shape of a local administration and possible elections in three months’ time. Leaders of the Democratic Union Party denied that transitional self-government for Kurds was part of an effort to establish a separate, autonomous Syrian Kurdish state. They said self-government would merely be temporary. “This is not a call for a separation; it is just that for a year now we have been on our own in our own territories and people have needs, they want some kind of administration to run their issues. They cannot be left like that,” said Saleh Muslim, the PYD leader.

There was an uneasy relationship between Syrian-Kurds and the rebels, though some Kurds have fought alongside Free Syrian Army rebels when their interests coincided. But many rebels – jihadist and secular – complain that the Kurds are only interested in opposing Assad when it fits their agenda. Kurdish relations with the jihadists had been especially fraught.

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Page last modified: 07-08-2016 15:20:11 ZULU