After Turkey’s operation against the YPG in Syria’s Afrin started, the Syrian regime aligned with the YPG against Turkey. Here's the history of Kurdish relations with the Syrian regime through the lens of a Kurdish activist who long opposed Assad.
When Syrians took to the streets in 2011, Kurdish people were among those who revolted against the Syrian regime. Mustafa Radeef, a Syrian-Kurd and lawyer, was one of them. He defended the dissidents of the ruling Baath party who were jailed by the regime, and advocated for the rights of Kurds.
“Kurds have suffered from the regime’s injustice for two reasons. The first is being a Syrian, and the second is being Kurdish,” he tells TRT World.
“Historically, there wasn't any discrimination among the people from different components like Arabs, Kurds, and even Turkmens. Racial policies come only from the regime, like blocking the use of our language and the culture, blocking the celebrations, and also racist projects like not giving citizenship to Kurds.”
In the light of the Syrian government's policy that led to a census that denied citizenship to at least 120,000 Syrian Kurds in 1962, Kurds lacked protection, and faced barriers to access basic services due to the lack of identity papers.
Researches say, their lack of officially recognized identity put them in a vulnerable position, such as being criminalised. It often meant restrictions on travel and not being able to seek asylum. Those attempts mostly resulted in arrest.
Frustrated by the insufficient Kurdish representation in the country, Radeef and many other activists started to look for alternative civilian Kurdish movements. Mashaal Tammo, a prominent Kurdish politician and activist, established the Kurdish Future Movement in Syria in 2005, while Radeef became the head of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights in Syria. When the uprising started in 2011, they both became members of the mainstream opposition establishment, Syrian National Coalition (SNC).
“I was subjected to many arrests and many other things for opposing the regime ... The regime broke into my house many times, so I had to hide in the villages and that was at the beginning of the revolution, when it was peaceful,” he says.
“But when I compare those to the mass arrests and oppression that our people have been living after the revolution has begun, I feel shy to talk about it a lot.” Indeed, Tammo, whose movement both angered the regime and the PKK’s Syrian affiliate PYD, was assassinated in 2011 when a direct order was given by the regime leader Bashar al Assad. A leaked assassination list had been circulating before Tammo’s death, but it remained unverified.
For Radeef “assassination of Tammo proved that it was a serious list and the threats were real.”
PKK has been designated as a terror organisation by Turkey and has been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years. When Turkey started to publicly support opposition groups against the Assad regime, Assad let the PYD, and its armed wing, the YPG, to control some areas of northern Syria on the Turkish border, without any clashes reported.
The move angered the opposition, who thought the PYD's priority was to control a territory in Syria instead of fighting against Assad.
Kurds in Syrian civil war
“After the beginning of the uprising, these incidents started to escalate, and took a different lead,” Radeef says.
Concerned about participation of the Kurds in the anti-regime protests growing in momentum across the country, Syrian regime has given a concessionary measure. More than 50,000 stateless Kurds have obtained Syrian nationality in 2011. However, some Kurds who were deemed “unregistered” were barred from applying for citizenship.
“The regime started [its plans to consolidate power on minorities] with the Kurdish minority and had agreements with the PKK/PYD to undermine the Syrian revolution cause,” Radeef says.
As the PYD started to show its presence in the Kurdish-majority areas of northern Syria, Radeef says he was forced to leave his hometown Kobani, a Kurdish majority town in the outskirts of Aleppo.
“While receiving direct death and arrest threats from the regime, I also started to receive threats from the PKK/PYD and fled Syria with my family,” Radeef says. Shortly after the Syrian regime withdrew from Kobani and left control to the PYD in April 2012, while continuing its fight against the main opposition.
With aspirations of setting up cantons and eventually creating self-administered rule within Syria, the PYD has been rejecting alignment with the main Syrian opposition. The fact that the PYD was enemy to both Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition and was not hindered by the regime as it sought control of territory in northern Syria brought the PYD closer to the Assad regime.
“PKK actually didn’t have that much power at the beginning of the revolution in Syria. They suggested us [the Kurds allied with the SNC] to set up a coalition with the condition of giving 20 percent of territory [gained by the opposition] and we refused that,” Radeef says.
Choosing the PYD as an ally among historical opposition groups also meant the Assad regime would weaken the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the other party which initially had wider influence than the PYD in Kurdish majority areas in the beginning of the revolution. The KNC was supervised by the Kurdish Iraqi leader Masoud Barzani and later became a part of the main opposition, SNC.
“We consider the authority of the PYD militia in the Kurdish regions as, what I call an “agency authority." It means the regime has granted some of its authority to this militia temporarily until suppressing the revolution and creating a division among the Syrian community [to consolidate power],” Radeef says.
Daesh and the PYD
The Syrian regime’s policy of not interfering with PYD/YPG ambitions led them to have more influence in the north. And with the emergence of Daesh in Syria in 2014, the YPG had an international legitimacy. Bringing together a coalition to fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the US established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-led alliance in Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) reacted to the decision, saying the YPG's priority was not to fight against the regime but to claim the territory from which they defeated and cleared Daesh.
The decision to use PKK’s Syrian affiliate, YPG, instead of the main Syrian opposition militia, the FSA, angered Turkey, too. The PKK is not designated as a terrorist organisation only by Turkey, but the US and the European Union as well.
Enjoying the YPG’s fight against Daesh, which became another threat after the moderate opposition, the Assad regime occasionally supported the group. It made YPG a more tolerable threat to Assad compared to Daesh and the main opposition.
Regime assistance to YPG against Turkey
Regime forces, in March 2017, created a buffer zone between the YPG and Turkish-backed FSA in western Manbij, in order to protect the YPG from any possible FSA moves. They did the same in September 2017 in Afrin.
Assad’s stance towards the YPG changed after Daesh was defeated from urban areas of Syria in late 2017. Assad began calling the YPG “the traitors,” and rejected any US-backed forces on Syrian soil.
But it shifted again in January 2018, when Turkey began its operation in YPG-controlled Afrin in Syria. Opposing Turkey’s and the opposition groups' presence in Syria, Assad allowed movement of YPG militias for reinforcement through the regime-controlled areas. Iran-backed Shia militias, who fight along with the regime forces, are also based in those areas.
But it is now unclear how long Assad’s support will continue to the YPG, or if he will support the group’s desire to rule the areas they capture from Daesh in the long term.
For Radeef, the regime’s policy of helping PKK/PYG in Afrin isn’t surprising.
“The regime previously gave the regions that have Kurdish majority to the PKK/PYD, and used PYD militias who ruled with iron fist. But while doing so, he also paved the way for Daesh and Al Qaeda to declare all Kurdish people infidels,” he says.
“These three groups have contributed mainly [allowing] the regime to strengthen, and started fueling racist conflicts within the Syrian community by ruining the relations between the different components. We believe that all these policies have served and are still serving the Syrian Regime,” he says.
Radeef now lives in Turkey with his family. It has been more than six years since he fled. He continues his work on human rights and advocacy as vice president of the independent Syrian Kurds Association, an organisation bringing Syrian Kurds who still consider themselves part of the opposition.