Syrian Kurds proved successful in fighting an external enemy this past July when Kurdish fighters successfully pushed out al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic extremists from the small border crossing town of Ras al-Ayn. But resolving intra-Kurdish disagreements and conflicts may prove a far more difficult task. However, a resolution to these disagreements is vital for Kurds, because although the outcome of Syria’s conflict is unclear, one thing is certain: Syrian Kurds have an unprecedented opportunity to establish political autonomy. 

However, major political divisions within the Syrian Kurdish community and their respective regional and political patrons may undermine their chance for autonomy. Rivalries between Syria’s main Kurdish factions—the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (KPDS), the Progressive Democratic Party (PDK), and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—run deep and have stood in the way of a coherent vision for their future. These divisions reflect intra-Kurdish rivalries throughout the broader region—in particular that of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. And in turn, these groups' agendas reinforce the divided political allegiances of Syria’s Kurdish parties. 

One of the main Kurdish players in Syria, the KDPS, with support from Massoud Barzani’s KDP in Iraq, has been leading an effort to unify the political parties representing Syrian Kurds. Six months after the start of Syria’s revolution, most Kurdish political parties agreed to create a quasi-united body, the Kurdish National Council (KNC). The council also includes the powerful PDK, supported by Jalal Talabani’s PUK in Iraq. In total, the council consists of fourteen parties, women’s organizations, and youth coordination committees, with representative offices in predominantly Kurdish-populated areas in Qamishli, Efrin, and elsewhere. It promises to develop a strong, unified platform for Syria’s Kurds and is an advocate for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, which would guarantee stability for Syria and pave the way for autonomy for the Kurds. However the traditional tensions between the PUK and the KDP, manifesting in the KNC—through their supported parties, the PDK and the KDPS, respectively—have limited the council’s effectiveness in playing a unifying role for Syria’s Kurds. And although the KDPS remains the more powerful within the KNC, the PUK’s support could eventually help the PDK play a stronger role in the conflict, especially if the international community pushes for negotiations with the Syrian regime as an alternative to confrontation. But, as the KDPS positioned itself effectively enough as the party of “reconciliation” and absorbed smaller parties that had spilt from it over the years, it remains the more powerful of the two for the moment. However, the KDPS and even the council are not able, due to their long-standing ideological inconsistencies, to counterbalance the influence of the PYD.

Supported by the PKK in Turkey—and backed by Hafez al-Assad in the 80s and 90s—the PYD controls the most well-organized and well-trained Kurdish guerilla group in Syria, formally known as People’s Protection Units and referred to by its Kurdish acronym, YPG. The PYD has seized control of major Syrian Kurdish towns and key strategic resources. When Syrian military and security forces voluntarily withdrew from most Kurdish areas in July 2012, well-trained fighters affiliated with the PYD—many of whom were former PKK fighters—took over and became de facto rulers. Today, the PYD and its affiliated YPG retain their own power base outside of the Kurdish National Council structure. But despite its militarily power, the PYD struggles to win the support of the Kurdish population in Syria. They have tried to provide services to vulnerable Kurdish residents, distributing gas tanks and heating oil, but their repressive policies toward independent activists and those affiliated with opposing Kurdish parties have resulted in a rift between them and the populace. Though popular in wartime, the PYD has not developed enough infrastructure or popular support, as yet, to extend its political relevance in the post-conflict period. 

Under pressure from their supporters, some groups within the KNC created armed wings in order to prevent the PYD from hijacking their interests. Still, these groups’ influence remains marginal compared to the PYD’s in many Kurdish areas in Syria. Anticipating a possible outbreak of intra-Kurdish violence in July 2012, with dozens of armed battalions and units dividing their allegiances between the PYD and KNC, the KRG pressed for the establishment of the Supreme Kurdish Commission, an umbrella for all Kurdish political forces in Syria. 

Though ambitious, this unification has not met the demands of most mainstream Syrian Kurds, due largely to the rivalry between the PYD and KNC, which continues to plague the commission. As one KNC representative in the KRG said, “The KRG is unhappy about the PYD taking the lead in the Supreme Kurdish Commission, therefore, it has given exceeding power to its allies within the KNC in order to reduce the PYD’s leverage on the commission and to soothe Turkey at the same time.” This imbalance between intended political power sharing and the reality that the PYD is stronger on the ground than regional powers find comfortable threatens to derail any attempts at Syrian Kurdish unification.

Further diminishing the chances of unification (and eventually autonomy) is the re-emergence of groups of independent Kurds, which include “Yekiti” (Unity), “Azadi” (Freedom), the Kurdish Future Movement, and the “Left” party. These groups have long been strong proponents of Kurdish autonomy in Syria, where Kurds are to exercise self-rule. Today, independent parties in Syria’s Kurdish community struggle to retain popularity, particularly without regional political and financial support. Some have resorted to a self-reliance strategy where they function based on local capacity and funding. Others have been following a preemptive policy of appeasement of both major political poles—the KNC and the PYD—in order to guarantee their survival. Aside from this middleman approach, independent parties derive most of their support from younger Syrian Kurds who respect their independence and steadfast advocacy for Kurdish aspirations of equality and self-determination. 

The major political cleavage among Syrian Kurdish parties is the issue of autonomy. Though all sides affirm that integration within a centralized Syrian government is unworkable for Syria’s Kurds, the parties have been neither explicit nor unified in regard to defining their political demands. Their general argument is that decentralization and autonomy for the Kurds boosts Syria’s national unity and establishes a tangible concept of real citizenship. But Syrian Kurds need to provide a simplified explanation of decentralization as an organizing mechanism, one that strengthens the role of local authority, gives more powers to the local population to run their affairs in accordance with their religious and ethnic specificities, and distributes wealth fairly. This would leave foreign policy and defense affairs to a limited central government in Damascus. Though they share the same aspiration, they appear to disagree on the details: the PYD envisions a more independent model and the KNC argues for a system that looks similar to the KRG in Iraq.

Kurdish politics in Syria are anything but local. Regional powers seek to strengthen their own local bases of power within the Syrian Kurdish community, which is small relative to neighboring Kurdish communities in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Historically, Syrian Kurds have found inspiration elsewhere for their political movements; for instance, KDPS, the first Kurdish political party in Syria, founded in 1957, was galvanized by a Kurdish uprising in Iraq led by Mustafa Barzani, the founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq. In addition to ideological support, these parties rely on regional benefactors for long-term survival. In the past, this provided protection against major government repression. In the present crisis, it furthers their division. 

Sirwan Kajjo is a Syrian analyst at Caerus Associates.