• Ola Rifai

The battle of Tal Rifaat and Azaz; A tipping point for the Kurdish question in Syria?

The two tiny towns of Tal Rifaat and Azaz in the very north of Syria occupied the headlines for the last couple of days, and further became the focal point of what some dub a ‘reduced World War’. The fighting between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces on the ground, supported by Russian jets, and the Arab troops (from the Syrian opposition), supported by Turkish bombardments, to control these towns marks a milestone in the Syrian conflict and seems to turn the geopolitical table by mixing the cards between all players. Tal Rifaat and Azaz are middle-sized towns with an Arab majority located right in the middle of the Kurdish enclave in Syria that is spreading into the northern territories. Therefore, if the PYD seized these towns, a Kurdish de facto geopolitical monolithic entity will see light. Surely, the outcomes of this fighting will produce a new reality and new maps on the ground that would have a trans-border effect. Moreover, the outcomes will draw out the Kurdish future and determine the identity question for the post-Assad Syria. More importantly, one immediate outcome of the fighting is the fuelling of Arab/Kurdish identity clashes in war-torn Syria. These clashes are not new, they are rooted in Syria’s modern history and were hidden under the ashes until the 2011 uprising brought them (alongside other identity clashes) to the surface.

Historically, political, social and cultural exclusion accompanied the Kurdish identity since the birth of present day Syria in 1946. Throughout the Assad rule, Kurds were dominated by an Arabism ideology that excluded them from all circles of power and banned them from expressing any symbolic feature of their identity; Kurds could not name their children with Kurdish names neither were they allowed to speak their language or to celebrate Newroz. What's more, they often were seen as traitors, outsiders and separatists in the eyes of their fellow Syrians; Arab Syrians. Hence, it is not astonishing that the uprising of 2011 provided them with a window of opportunities for empowerment. Arguably, they cannot be blamed for that.

In essence, the Syrian regime had successfully instrumentalised Kurds for self-interest, as in July 2012 when the regime forces completely withdrew from the Kurdish areas and henceforth granted them a quasi-state in which the PYD was allowed to fill the political and security vacuum. The regime’s logic behind this realpolitik was twofold. First and foremost, the regime wished to contain the Kurdish threat. Second, was to fragment the opposition as it encouraged the growth of factions not just amongst Kurds themselves but between the Arabs and the Kurds as well. Also, a vital motive for the regime was to challenge Turkey since the Kurds have long been a thorn in the throat for the latter. Consequently, PYD emerged as the hegemonic actor in the Kurdish theater, and was able to construct a solid power triangle composed of military, economic and public support. This it achieved through its productive mobilisation of various social strata under its umbrella, and becoming the de facto governor of Kurdish affairs. Governing with an iron fist, by which it succeeded to eliminate its foes among the Arabs and also among those Kurds who did not approve of the PYD agenda.

In this context, although the fragile Syrian opposition included some Kurdish representatives among its members - who are deemed to be powerless on the ground- it failed to contain the Kurds instead it opted to confront them. Many clashes took place between PYD forces and various opposition militias as early as 2012 that widened the gap between both actors. Besides, ironically enough, the opposition followed a similar approach toward the Kurds to that of the Assad regime during the pre-2011 era, by excluding them and treating them as outsiders. Supported by Turkey, the opposition openly, rejected to drop the word Arab from the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’ and neglected political, social and cultural rights for the Kurds. Indeed, the opposition did not have any strategy to address the Kurdish question. Yet, today there is a serious necessity to do so. Furthermore, there is a historical and one final opportunity for Syrian Arabs to address the Kurdish dilemma for a better post-war Syria. Instead of fighting them, the opposition should develop a productive approach to rebuild the lost trust between the Kurds and the Arabs of Syria. Realistically speaking, regional and international powers play key roles in this fight, without which neither the opposition nor the Kurds would be able to advance their goals. Nevertheless, they should bear in mind that although their short-term survival depends on the help of particular international and regional entrepreneurs, their future is in the hand of Syrians, all Syrians.

Indeed, copying the example of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - an alliance of Kurdish, Sunni Arabs and Christian fighters established in October 2015 to mainly fight ISIS in different parts of Northern Syria would be a promising step to enhance the Arab-Kurdish relations. In addition, empowering Arab/Kurdish charitable networks and youth movements, which operate at the grassroots level -such as those in Tal Abbyad and Kobani - will minimise the gaps and strengthen the affiliation with Syria and Syrians over other trans-border affiliations for both Arabs and Kurds. Let aside the fact that PYD has tens of thousands of fighters on the ground who will not simply hand in their arms, rapprochement with the Kurds is a key factor for a healthy post-conflict Syria which should include all Syrians on board.

Here, I recall what a Kurdish friend told me in Damascus in the summer of 2012 when I asked whether he considers himself as a Syrian Kurd or a Kurd Syrian, he passionately replied:

“I have always been asked to answer this question. But I cannot, and I consider it senseless. It is as if you are asking me who I love more, my father or my mother? I am a Syrian and I am a Kurd, why do I have to select one of them to come first?”.

The opposition should come to understand that the pre-uprising centralised Syria proved to be very fragile, and that the slogan of ‘we are one people, we are all brothers’ proved to be far from reality, and was applicable only by the use of force. Establishing a sense of nationalism and unity among Syrians is a challenging mission to the post-war leaders, and needs time to evolve. Certainly, Kurds have the right to express their political, social and cultural identity which should not conflict with the Syrian identity though. Hence, in order to construct this identity balance the Kurds and the Arabs on the other hand must make some compromises, and the battle of Tal Rifaat and Azzaz should take this into account.


© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies