The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party which controls vast areas of northern Syria, marked its 15th anniversary on September 20. The party’s achievements, notably those of the past six years, have undoubtedly placed the Kurds of Syria squarely on the map.
The anniversary comes at a delicate moment in the Syrian war as the regime consolidates a series of brutal victories over its opponents and comes closer to ultimately deciding its policy on Syrian Kurdistan, also known as Rojava.
Marking the anniversary on its official website, the PYD extolled its achievements, honouring those who died in the battle with ISIS. The “safe areas” it was able to carve out stand in stark contrast with other parts of Syria, “which are areas of violence and destruction,” it said.
The statement also celebrates the party’s ideology of democratic confederalism, which calls for greater decentralization of power – a view promulgated by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Ocalan. The century-old borders drawn by world powers remain the chief obstacle to peace in Syria and the wider region, it says.
PYD-led Rojava has certainly achieved a lot since 2012. Its rapid emergence from hitherto obscurity is aptly captured by author Michael Gunter, who named his 2014 book on the subject ‘Out of Nowhere’.
After liberating swathes of territory from the grip of ISIS, in coalition with the United States, these Kurds cannot easily be subjugated by Damascus, or anyone else, for the foreseeable future.
Founded in 2003, the PYD’s first nine years saw few concrete achievements – owing to the brutal effectiveness of Damascus in quashing political entities in Rojava. A brief uprising in March 2004 was quickly repressed by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The PYD’s decision not to join the 2011 uprising against Assad gave Rojava de-facto autonomy, as Damascus withdrew the bulk of its forces to fight the uprising elsewhere.
The PYD’s armed wings, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), captured the world’s imagination with their sacrifices in the ISIS war – in which they were, by far, the most effective ground force.
The PYD’s record has not always been glorious. It has arguably ruled Rojava with an iron fist, essentially suppressing the Kurdish National Council (KNC/ENKS), a rival organization supported by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
Three rounds of negotiations held in the Kurdistan Region – two in Erbil, and one in Duhok – in 2012, 2013, and 2014 failed to resolve the issue.
These negotiations did nevertheless achieve one thing of crucial importance. The PYD pledged not to attack Turkey. It has also not interfered in the Turkish-PKK conflict, which reignited after a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire collapsed in July 2015. Even after Turkey’s invasion of Afrin and killing of YPG/J forces earlier this year, the PYD did not break this pledge.
Turkey’s invasion of Afrin, which followed hot on the heels of Iraq’s takeover of Kirkuk and other disputed Kurdistani territories after the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum, demonstrates how quickly regional states can move to forcibly repress Kurdish self-determination.
With the Syrian regime emerging victorious in the Syrian civil war, it is unclear whether Rojava can negotiate some form of autonomy loosely resembling the Kurdistan Region of Iraq – or whether it faces the same fate as the short-lived Mahabad Republic (January-December 1946) in Iran.
One historical parallel the PYD prefers to draw with its struggle is revolutionary Catalonia, established during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
In pursuing this analogy, however, one cannot help but wonder whether Rojava will suffer a similar short-lived fate as the Catalan Republic.
In a May 31 interview with Russia Today, Assad hinted his forces could reconquer Rojava if negotiations failed. He would do so “with or without Americans”, referring to the roughly 2,000 US troops stationed in northeast Syria.
Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump said he intends to withdraw US forces from Syria in the near future. This, alongside Assad’s threats, likely prompted the PYD-led administration to open talks with Damascus.
It is unclear whether these talks will win Rojava the autonomy it craves. The PYD’s federal system, declared in March 2016, remains completely a completely unrecognized.
Lawk Ghafuri, an independent Kurdish affairs analyst, says the PYD’s main achievement is its promotion of the Kurdish cause. However, potential cooperation with Damascus, and hints it may back the regime’s Idlib offensive, are major shortcomings.
This is a mistake, he argued, since “the PYD won’t attain anything positive from an alliance with those people.”
Instead, Ghafuri suggests the PYD should work to establish “good connections with Turkey” as the KRG did for its long-term survival. “That could lead to US support for Rojava’s federal region or a semi-autonomous region like that of the Kurdistan Region,” which has secured significant autonomy in Iraq throughout the last 27 years.
Given the present antagonism between the PYD and Turkey, it is unclear how this could be achieved, if at all.