The Kurdish political scene in Syria is led by two opposing parties, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC). While the PYD holds territorial control over a part of Syria and leads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the local partner of the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS—it does not enjoy international recognition and a seat in negotiations over Syria, in contrast to the KNC. Parties’ ideologies, in addition to interference from regional and international actors are main factors behind this intra-Kurdish disharmony. Despite so, recently both sides have taken steps to reconcile through direct negotiations.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD) was established in 2003 in Northern Syria on the ideology of democratic federalism, established by leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan. The relationship between the PYD and PKK is a matter of dispute. The Syrian PYD enjoys close ties with the Turkish PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. However, individual PYD officials deny this connection and insist that the PYD is an independent party despite its participation with the PKK in the so-called Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), an alliance of Kurdish forces and parties from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran that follows the approach of democratic federalism under the leadership of the PKK. Mazlum Abdi, the chief commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), confirmed the existence of PKK fighters in north Syria, but said they came to defend Kurds against ISIS advances. The PYD did not join the main Syrian opposition platforms such as the Syrian National Council, the Syrian Coalition for the Forces of the Revolution, or even the Free Syrian Army.
Politically, the PYD currently leads the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM), an alliance of several parties including the Assyrian Union Party, the Democratic Peace Party of the Syrian Kurds, the Kurdistan Liberal Union Party. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the military arm of the PYD and leads the SDF, a military alliance between various armed factions and is a partner of the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
The KNC was established in October 2011 in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Originally, the council consisted of 11 Kurdish parties, but its number rose to 15 in 2012 when other parties and movements joined, and later decreased again to 13 in 2018. Most of the parties within the Kurdish National Council follow the ideology of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which governs the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The council includes left-wing Kurdish parties and youth movements, some of which were established after the start of the Syrian revolution. The KNC is considered one of the founders of the National Coalition for the Forces of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition in 2012, and the members of the Council participate in the leadership of the coalition, the High Negotiation Committee and the Constitutional Committee.
The KNC considers the Rojava Peshmerga the military wing of its council. The militia was formed in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in 2012 and consists of Syrian Kurdish fighters, some of whom have defected from the Syrian army and sought refuge in the Kurdistan region. It is militarily-affiliated with the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The militia is estimated to consist of between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters. Since its establishment, the Rojava Peshmerga has not participated in military operations inside Syria, but rather, alongside the Iraqi Kurdistan Peshmerga forces in the battles against ISIS. The dispute with the PYD is the main driver behind its absence from the battlefield in Syria.
History of negotiations
The first serious negotiations between the PYD and the KNC began in June 2012 when the two parties signed the Erbil Agreement I, motivated by rapid advances by the opposition across the country. This agreement established the Kurdish Supreme Committee (DBK), in addition to three joint-committees (Political Committee, Military Committee, Services Provision Committee) and required the parties to cease any provocation or tensions. The DBK met for the first time in July 2012, but it immediately faced several challenges in establishing its committees and in implementing its demands. The post-Erbil Agreement I phase was characterized by the PYD’s consolidation of control and management of Kurdish regions in north and northeast Syria, in addition to a number of security incidents such as the PYD cadres ’assault on KNC supporters. Perhaps the most important of these incidents is what is known as the “Amude massacre” where six people were killed and dozens were wounded when PYD forces dispersed a demonstration against the arrest of activists in the city. In reaction to this incident, the KNC suspended its membership in the DBK.
In December 2013, preparations for the Geneva II talks between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime began, and the Presidency of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq called for the Erbil II conference in order to establish a Kurdish consensus that could be represented in the Geneva negotiations. The two sides agreed on several key points, including the participation of the KNC in the Geneva II negotiations under a shared common vision, ceasing the media provocation between the parties, and establishing committees to release detainees belonging to KNC and to investigate the events occurred in Amude. However, the two sides did not reach any agreement regarding the administration of Kurdish regions or security issues where the PYD continues to extend its control, holding full authority in its hands.
One month after the Erbil Agreement II, and one day before the start of the Geneva II negotiations, the PYD announced the establishment of the Autonomous Administration in Western Kurdistan (later changed to Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria). This announcement angered the KNC, which considered that “the division of Syrian Kurdistan into cantons will cause the division of Kurdistan, its land and its people, and will be considered a strategic threat that no political party has the right to impose,” adding that “the Autonomous Administration does not represent the KNC and it is not legitimate.”
In October 2014, ISIS took control of large areas of Kurdish-majority northern Syria, including the city of Kobani. After this, the KNC and PYD met in the Iraqi city of Duhok under American auspices as the U.S. prepared to provide military assistance to the YPG to fight ISIS. The two parties agreed to form the “Kurdish Political Authority,” a 30-member body—12 representatives from each party and six from independent parties and movements. In addition, it was agreed that the KNC’s parties would integrated into the Autonomous Administration, and both sides would developing plans for defending northern Syria against ISIS.
However, differences returned when attempting to form this joint Political Authority, due to an internal dispute within the KNC over representation of individual member parties. In February 2015, the Autonomous Administration organized municipal elections in the areas it controlled without participation from the KNC, leading to the collapse of the Duhok Agreement, especially after the Autonomous Administration imposed compulsory recruitment in its areas of control in November 2014.
The current path of negotiations
In August 2019, France launched a new initiative for Kurdish dialogue aimed at building confidence between the parties and at establishing a unified vision to participate in the political process in light of Turkish threats of a launch of military operations in northern Syria. However, the initiative did not succeed due to disagreements over the KNC position on the Turkish military operation in Afrin, in north Aleppo.
After the start of the Turkish military operation “Peace Spring” in the eastern Euphrates region in cooperation with the Syrian National Army in October 2019 and upon the American withdrawal from Syria, Chief Commander of the SDF Mazloum Abdi launched a new initiative for dialogue between the parties and pledged to make it successful with the support of the U.S. Both Abdi and U.S. Envoy William Robak met with Kurdish parties, including those of the KNC in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in November 2019. Abdi’s proposal included allowing all parties to open offices inside Syria without licenses in addition to forming committees to investigate violations against parties to the Council.
The first phase of direct negotiations began in April 2020, and after four rounds of talks, the two parties agreed on a joint political vision for Syria, the Kurdish issue, and the federal government. In July 2020, the second phase began and it was agreed that the Kurdish Political Authority would be revived with the same makeup as established before.
In September 2020, the third stage of negotiations began, which was supposed to address the most controversial issues between the parties including conscription, the return of the Rojava Peshmerga forces to Syria, the full and clear disengagement of the PYD from the PKK, and the contentious educational curricula imposed by the Autonomous Administration. These negotiations reached a dead-end. Several reasons can be numbered for the deadlock of the third stage of negotiations, including the retirement of U.S. envoy James Jeffrey—a strong proponent for intra-Kurdish dialogue, —and the emergence of his substitute Joel Rayburn, in addition to approaching of U.S. presidential elections.
In late December, the co-chair of the PYD and a member of the dialogue delegation, Alder Khalil, accused the KNC of trying to thwart dialogue. In an interview with the Xeber24 network, Khalil made fiery statements describing the Rojava Peshmerga forces as “mercenaries” and expressed his full rejection of disengaging from the PKK as proposed in the dialogue sessions, in addition to rejecting parity between the parties in terms of authority and any attempts to amend the social contract. These remarks angered officials of the KNC and the KRG. Attempts to re-launch a stage of negotiations failed after KNC parties requested official apologies from Khalil and his expulsion from the negotiation sessions. However, neither an official apology nor a clarification of the statement was issued by the PYD.
Motives for negotiations
The motivation for and progress of such negotiations go well beyond external support from the U.S. and the KRG. Indeed, both sides have specific internal motives toward taking part in dialogue.
The PYD and the SDF consider the negotiations a way to obtain greater international recognition and a possible seat at the negotiating table on Syria in Geneva or within the Constitutional Committee, despite Turkey’s opposition. However, negotiations after Operation Peace Spring in 2019 began as reaction to the threat of a Turkish operation targeting areas under the PYD control, such as Qamishli and Kobani. Contrastingly, now, with the Biden administration and the return of Brett McGurk— seen as a supporter of the SDF—to the Middle East file, the PYD does not anticipate the U.S. to allow Turkey to launch a new military operation inside Syria and will ensure its continued support to the SDF and its presence in Syria, according to statements by U.S. officials. This leaves the PYD with less of an incentive to negotiate than it did in years prior.
Looking at how the dialogue has proceeded, it appears that there are two wings within the PYD and the SDF. One wing, led by Mazloum Abdi, is in favor of the dialogue and consequently does not present preconditions, is open to compromise and concessions, and does not object to the participation of the Kurdish National Council in the leadership of the Autonomous Administration. The second is more hardline and is not interested in dialogue, especially after the arrival of the new U.S. administration, and is not ready to share power and allow the presence of Rojava Peshmerga forces in Syria, in addition to opposing any disengagement from PKK, as clearly stated by Aldar Khalil. Additionally, this hardline wing has signaled its opposition and rejection of any attempts to enter into dialogue by intensifying attacks committed by the so-called Revolutionary Youth (a radical military faction affiliated with the PKK) on the offices of the KNC parties located inside Syria.
On the other hand, the KNC stands to benefit the most from the dialogue and what will result from it, as it is an opportunity to participate in managing the regions of north-eastern Syria to ensure the survival of its political interests and the support of its followers. Since the rise of the PYD in Kurdish-majority areas, the KNC has lost many supporters for several reasons, including the restriction imposed by the PYD on the work of the KNC in Syria, in addition to its fragmentation and division, and the success of the PYD, to some extent, in managing the regions. The Olive Branch and Peace Spring operations, the subsequent violations of the Syrian National Army factions against the local Kurdish population, and the perceived weakness in the KNC’s statements and actions in response to these violations have also contributed to the alienation of many supporters. Additionally, greater international recognition of the Autonomous Administration could push some Kurdish parties in the KNC to participate in the Autonomous Administration independently, therefore weakening the KNC and its cohesion.
The United States has strongly pushed for the success of the dialogue in the past. In this regard, both Jeffrey and Rayburn had worked to conduct negotiations between the Kurdish parties with U.S. diplomats frequently attending meetings in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The U.S. saw the dialogue as an opportunity to satisfy Turkey’s demands of expelling the PKK and its leaders from Syria and denying them a safe haven in Syria, in addition to the ability to utilize these negotiations in order to push for further talks between Arab tribes and the Autonomous Administration. However, after the arrival of the new administration and the suspension of negotiations due to Aldar Khalil’s statements, it does not seem that negotiations are a priority for U.S. officials, as there has not been an attempt to bring the views of the both sides closer together since.
On the other hand, Turkey has not formally opposed Kurdish negotiations, except for a statement from the Minister of Foreign Affairs confirming Turkey’s full opposition to any attempt to legitimize the YPG. However, the Turkish position remains cautious, as removing the PKK from Syria is in its interest. The participation of KNC parties—which are close to Ankara—in the Autonomous Administration also stands to weaken the influence of the PKK’s ideology inside Syria.
The leadership of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, represented by the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani also sees the Kurdish negotiations as an opportunity for its ally, the KNC, to participate in the administration, which would strengthen KRG foreign policy in Syria and the region.
The Assad regime and Russia do not have any interest in the success of this dialogue, because this means weakening the chances of increasing the regime’s control over the oil-rich regions of north-eastern Syria. However, the PYD has not demonstrated itself as completely hostile to the regime, in contrast to the KNC which will complicate any future agreement between the regime and the Autonomous Administration.
Chances for the dialogue to succeed now remain weak. The intransigence of some PYD officials, their reluctance to make concessions for allowing the KNC to participate in the administration, and the issue of disengagement with the PKK are the possible factors that may lead to another deadlock in the negotiations, in addition to the talks not appearing to be a top priority of the new U.S. administration in Syria.
However, the importance of these negotiations stems from the possibility of finally achieving a comprehensive Kurdish reconciliation in Syria and allowing the Kurdish population a greater representation in the Geneva negotiations and within the Constitutional Committee. Therefore, all parties, especially the United States, must pressure the Kurdish parties to return to the negotiating table and also expand participation to include independent Kurdish movements and parties. This must also come in parallel ton negotiations between the Arab groups and the tribes on the one hand, and the Autonomous Administration on the other hand, to reach a comprehensive reconciliation in north-eastern Syria.
On a larger scale, reconciliation would mark the possible beginning of an internal Kurdish consensus after decades of persecution and marginalization by the Assad regime. It would also bring about a push for better Kurdish representation than present. Despite Turkey’s rejection of the PYD’s participation in the opposition, reconciliation would allow for the KNC to place representative and unified Kurdish demands at the dialogue table on Syria.
With regard to Syria, this reconciliation could also be the beginning of a larger reconciliation between the Arabs and Kurds in north Syria after a decade of infighting, oppressions, and human rights violations.