The Threat and Opportunity of Kurds in Syria

This is the moment to shed the ghosts of 1916 by affirming citizen rights in Arab lands, not to perpetuate them by bowing to the dictates of failed authoritarian powers.

The complex situation across all of Syria has become ever more challenging with the recent announcement by major Kurdish parties that they are moving ahead with a plan to unite several disconnected areas across all of northern Syria into a semi-autonomous area within a federal system. The idea has been widely rejected by most other Syrian parties, including the government and the mainstream opposition, and the Arab League has now weighed in with its own opposition to the move, claiming it would result in the partition of Syria.

The specificities of Syria and its people are fascinating in their own right, but the wider issue at play here that impacts all the Arab world is the vexing matter of why no Arab state has been able to credibly reconcile such fundamental concepts as national identity, statehood, citizenship rights, ethnic and sectarian group identities, and national integrity. These issues remain unresolved—even unaddressed—in virtually every Arab country, a century since the birth of the modern Arab world.

Syria grapples with finding a formula that would maintain the external boundaries of the state while renegotiating internal territorial divisions, citizen rights, and identities. This occurs five years since the start of a violent series of conflicts that make it very difficult to return to the pre-war norm of a central government that dictated life, values, and power in every corner of the land. Similar situations pertain in Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and Somalia.

The Syrian Kurds now control three non-contiguous areas in the northern border areas adjacent to Turkey, where several different Kurdish groups operate in association with a variety of local and foreign allies. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is organizing the discussions among Kurdish and other minorities in the area who wish to govern the desired semi-autonomous entity that would be part of a federal system in post-war Syria. The United States and Russia have largely backed the Kurdish aims, just as the United States helped to bring about the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq a few decades ago.

The Kurds probably have more right to an independent state than most existing countries in the Middle East, on the basis of a distinct national identity within a defined historical homeland. Their struggle for self-rule these days occurs exactly a century after great power machinations denied them that goal around World War One. I suspect the Kurds will continue to enjoy their autonomous status in northern Iraq and Syria for years to come, and eventually some formula will be found that allows the Kurds in Turkey and Iran to feel they are associated with their fellow Kurds in these Arab countries. Iran and Turkey are much more formidable and durable nation-states than Syria and Iraq have proven to be, so they will not lightly or easily accept their own Kurdish citizens and territories breaking away to govern themselves.

These difficult issues of identity, autonomy and independence within the Arab world can best be resolved through a negotiated process that allows citizens to exercise their right to self-determination. Southern Sudan went through such a process, with unhappy results today, due largely to factional and political tensions within the raw southern state. Syria and Iraq, along with Yemen and Libya, offer opportunities for citizens of those countries to devise a credible and legitimate formula that allows the citizens of the land to determine how they wish to relate to one another and, if they so wish, to their single federal or confederal state.

The Arab League has opposed the Kurdish plan for autonomy within a federal Syria because the Arab member states oppose the breakup of Syria, or so they say. That decision should be made by the Syrian people, and by nobody else, when conditions allow them to determine such issues. As the noted Lebanese historian Fawwaz Traboulsi said in public lecture in Beirut earlier this week, in the century since the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 shaped the states of the modern Arab world, the elites of our countries have primarily generated authoritarian states that offered neither credible citizen rights nor sustained, equitable national development.

So for the representatives of today’s mostly authoritarian states in the Arab League to deny Syrians the right collectively to determine their own future seems quite vulgar. This a vote to maintain false unity that has been imposed at the price of Arab citizen rights and genuine national stability anchored in the legitimacy of the governing authority. Syria’s destruction today reveals what happens when legitimacy, self-determination, citizenship rights, and equitable national development are absent—which is why these four elements should be the goals of the ongoing attempt to end the war and transition to a new governance system in Syria. This is the moment to shed the ghosts of 1916 by affirming citizen rights in Arab lands, not to perpetuate them by bowing to the dictates of failed authoritarian powers.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @RamiKhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global