Can Syria’s Kurds avoid their Iraqi brethren’s fate?

Kurdish local elections in northern Syria are likely to succeed despite potential opposition from the central government, analysts say.

Organised by Kurdish authorities, the vote on Friday to elect local council representatives is the second part of a three-phase process that began in September, when voters elected leaders for about 3,700 “communes”.

The attempt to gain greater autonomy is aimed at establishing new governing institutions to shore up regional sovereignty. The final phase will conclude in January with an election for an assembly that would act as a parliament for a federal system of government, as part of a decentralised Syria.

Although the central government in Damascus opposes the ambitions of Kurdish groups, Aron Lund, a Syria expert and Century Foundation fellow, said there is no imminent threat facing the country’s Kurdish population.

“They have already created institutions and there’s nothing to stop them from developing these further,” Lund told Al Jazeera.

Creating a viable and lasting economy is the actual challenge, he said.

“Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria has a lot of profitable resources in the form of oil and agriculture, but it will remain dependent on Damascus for many financial and infrastructural needs and for access to the outside world,” Lund said.

Kurdish groups have established autonomous rule since 2011, when Syria’s civil warbegan, and have reiterated their wishes to steer away from the example of northern Iraq.

Walid Muallem, the country’s foreign minister, said in September that Syria is open to discussing the idea of granting the Kurds more power once the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) ends.

But whether Damascus and the Kurds would be able to come to an agreement depends on various factors, including American, Turkish and Russian policies, and how each side “decides to use its leverage over the other”, Lund said.

“Officials in Damascus are totally intransigent on the issue of state sovereignty over all of Syria, but obviously that’s more of an ambition than a realistic prospect at this point in time … Whatever flexibility they advertise now might disappear quickly if the post-Islamic State period sees a shift in the balance of power,” he said.

Reservations persist

The political structures expected to emerge from this process are inspired by the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who is in jail in Turkey for leading a three-decade rebellion.

Turkey labels the PKK as “terrorists” and views the political rise of Syria’s Kurds as a threat to its own national security. It has been engaged in an armed conflict with the PKK for decades, mainly in the country’s south.

Whether the Kurds in Syria will succeed in forming a viable parliament also depends on other Kurdish parties that have reservations about the new system established by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its allies. This includes the PYD’s main rival party, the Kurdish National Council – a coalition of smaller parties that advocates for a more integrated approach.

Kurds in Syria accounted for 15 percent of the country’s population prior to the civil war, which has killed around 465,000 people and displaced more than 12 million. The dominant Syrian Kurdish political groups say their system is a multi-ethnic one that is inclusive of all ethnic and religious groups in the region.

During the early years of the civil war, ISIL fighters gained a foothold in Raqqa. The YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, worked with other forces on the ground to regain large swaths of land from ISIL.

Tensions have mounted between the YPG and Syrian regime and allied forces as the battle has pushed towards Deir Ez Zor province.

But if the Kurds succeed in gaining greater autonomy, analysts say, it is unlikely that they will face military resistance from the Syrian regime.

“[The YPG is] organisationally and operationally more effective than the Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan,” who were defeated last month by Iraqi forces in the disputed city of Kirkuk, said Ranj Alaaldin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Qatar’s capital, Doha. “Its battle-hardened fighters have been engaged in intense conflict for more than six years … and will be better positioned to stave off external challenges to its authority.”

The YPG currently has a relationship of interdependency with the Syrian regime and international powers, including the United States and Russia, making them an “indispensable ally” to the regime, Alaaldin said.

The Iraq model

In neighbouring Iraq, a bid for Kurdish independence in the north has spurred an escalating dispute after a controversial September referendum on Kurdish secession, which Baghdad declared illegal. The non-binding vote led to a military confrontation between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi government forces in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which was ultimately retaken by Iraqi forces.

Although Syria’s Kurds do not want a model similar to that of their Iraqi counterparts, the Syrian government “might feel emboldened more to take harsh positions after they saw the US not doing much when Iraqi forces took over the disputed territories” in Iraq, said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an expert on Kurdish politics in Syria.

Since Damascus is not an ally to Washington, the US would more likely side with the Kurds in Syria, Wilgenburg told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, in an effort to diminish its involvement in Syria’s civil war, Russia has been facilitating talks between the Kurds and the regime.

An Assad-Kurd alignment would be a “quick way” to resolve one aspect of the Syrian conflict and help to revive the country’s shattered economy, Lund said.

While it is unclear how the next phase of the elections will pan out, analysts say the only way that a Syrian Kurdish autonomy could last would be if the US supports their bid for some form of federal governance – a move that would require a “shift in American policy”.

“So far, the United States has shown little interest in spending the time and resources necessary to build up a Kurdish region that could stand on its own apart from Damascus,” Lund said.



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