Earlier this week, US special representative for Syria Jim Jeffrey floated
the idea of a no-fly zone for parts of Syria. He pointed to the success of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq established in the late 1990s that protected Kurdish areas from Saddam Hussein and ultimately contributed to the creation of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region.
As war has waged for more than seven years in Syria, Kurds in the north have carved out a self-autonomous region and, hand-in-hand with local Arab partners, they now control more than a third of the country. They have established local administrations and built a formidable armed force that is battling ISIS.
But their region is under threat – from Turkey which considers the Kurdish groups (the armed Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and the political party Democratic Union Party (PYD)) as terrorist groups with ties to the PKK, and also from the regime of Bashar al-Assad who is looking to bring the whole country back under his command.
Could the Kurdistan Region model be a solution for northern Syria?
“This would be a desirable outcome. Whether it’s realistic is a more complicated question. My own view is that it is possible and realistic – in the longer term. Not immediately,” said David Pollock, Bernstein Fellow at The Washington Institute.
The biggest task would be convincing Turkey it’s a good idea. And the way to do that is for the PYD and YPG to distance themselves from the PKK.
The PYD has already made some progress in this regard, Pollock argued, and it should continue on this path – emphasize its coordination with other ethnic groups in the ground, make room for other Kurdish parties, and “stop talking about Ocalan.”
Abdullah Ocalan is the jailed founder of the PKK. His political theories have been the inspiration for the governing system the PYD has developed in northern Syria.
Pollock believes it is possible to one day see Syrian Kurds and Turkey sitting down together at a negotiating table, pointing out that the PYD’s Salih Muslim publicly met with officials in Turkey just three years ago.
“If it could happen then, it could happen again… I don’t think that this is an impossible task,” he said.
Is Turkey's blessing necessary for whatever entity emerges within the borders of Syria?
“It would be a lot better, safer, easier to come to an agreement with Turkey. I actually would go so far as to say that’s essential,” said Pollock.
But there is another relationship that could play an important role, and that is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) itself.
“The potential for economic cooperation and political understanding between Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds is still mostly unfulfilled,” said Pollock.
Relations across that border have been rocky and there is some long-standing animosity, primarily between the PYD and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). But they have also worked together – famously joining forces to defeat ISIS in Kobane.
And Pollock believes the relationship is “getting better.”
“This would be good for everybody. It would be good for us as Kurds. It would be good for Turkish-Kurdish relations. It would be good for American policy. And it would be bad for the Assad regime and for Iran and Hezbollah and its supporters who are no friends of the Kurds, either in Iraq or in Syria,” he said.