Rival Kurdish factions in Rojava missed the chance to unite. In the wake of the Turkish invasion, the renewed opportunity to unite and preserve the achievements of the Kurdish people in Rojava cannot be missed again.
Throughout the years of the Syrian Civil War, the Kurdish movement in northeastern Syria (Rojava) suffered from acute division along the lines of two main sides: the Autonomous Administration (NES), which is backed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the Kurdistan National Council (ENKS), which is supported by the ruling government of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish people in Rojava paid the cost for this division when they were occupied and displaced.
Before the occupation of Afrin by Turkish forces (alongside extremist and terrorist armed groups for which the Turkish-backed Syrian Coalition provides political cover), there had been Kurdish efforts, led by President Masoud Barzani, to establish unity among Kurdish ranks in Syria. President Barzani wanted this unity to evolve into a united political front that would work towards solving the Syrian question in general and the Kurdish question in Syria in particular.
These efforts initially succeeded – the two Kurdish sides signed multiple joint agreements. However, they were soon killed because both sides of the division failed to grasp the responsibility on their shoulders, misread political developments in Syria, and lacked independence in their decision-making. Additionally, many international and regional powers held negative views towards increased Kurdish unity.
Prior to the Turkish “Operation Peace Spring” invasion of Kurdish-controlled areas of Northern Syria, which ended with Turkey overtaking the two border towns of Sari Kani (Ras al-Ain) and Gire Spi (Tel Abyad), there were American and French efforts towards rapprochement and understanding between NES and ENKS.
A French initiative, coordinated with the Americans, was presented, but the initiative did not succeed due to the Kurdish sides’ complacency as each side had illusions of its own. The NES leadership was deluded into thinking that America would accept their monopolization of power on the side and would also stave off any Turkish encroachment in areas of east of the Euphrates. That illusion was despite the fact that America had threatened the Kurdish authorities at one point that they would give Turkey free reign if the authorities did not implement certain American demands, which would have put the US in a much better position with regards to pressure from Turkey.
The other side, the Kurdish National Council, was also deluded. Due to their membership in the Turkish-backed Syrian Coalition, ENKS leadership thought that America would intensify its pressure on the NES to impose ENKS as their partner in Syria.
However, the recent Turkish occupation of Sari Kani and Gire Spi changed the political equation in northern Syria. Besides the direct Turkish occupation, this intervention opened the door wide open for Russian and Syrian Government Forces to enter territory held by the NES, dramatically decreasing the political options available to the NES and all Kurdish political parties operating inside and outside of the Autonomous Administration. The occupation subjected the NES to an existential crisis, waking it up from its delusions. Now the NES has become flexible to respond to international pressure and efforts emanating from the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq geared towards uniting the two rival Kurdish factions in Syria.
Shortly after Operation Peace Spring commenced, high-level calls between the Kurdistan Region leadership and the leadership of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took place. The calls increased in frequency, leading to decreased hostility between the Kurdish sides. Rhetoric became calmer, allowing for negotiation. Eventually, Mazloum Abdi, commander in chief of the NES-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces, spearheaded an initiative to unite the Kurdish political ranks. This effort was complemented by moves on the part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (CJTF-OIR).
Recently, an international delegation visited both the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Autonomous Administration of northeast Syria. Led by James Jeffrey, the US Department of State Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, a delegation met with the major leaders of the Kurdistan Region Government in Erbil. Jeffrey’s chief of staff also led a CJTF-OIR delegation to northern Syria, where they met with the Kurdish National Council and the Kurdistan Yeketi Party while communications with the political and military leadership of the Autonomous Administration continue.
On Monday, Mazloum Abdi stated on his Twitter account that SDF efforts to achieve Kurdish unity in Western Kurdistan continue, praising the positive stance of the Kurdish leadership in the Kurdistan Region with regards to this matter. He also revealed confidence-building steps that would be undertaken in the coming days. A day later, an Interior Commission of the Self-Administration announcement confirmed the confidence-building steps. The steps include allowing ENKS to continue its activities and open offices in northern Syria, for legal cases against the leadership and cadres of the council be dropped, and the formation of a committee to negotiate about a list of ENKS members who have been arrested by the NES government or who have disappeared entirely.
This statement constitutes a positive step and a logical starting point to meet the legitimate demands of ENKS. Both sides need to deal in good faith, and be patient while building on these first steps. Kurdish and international efforts, and a positive response on the side of the Syrian Democratic Forces, indicate the existence of serious joint efforts to reformulate the political process in Rojava. This will be in the interest of our people and our cause, and it should neither be wasted nor killed. The opportunity should not be lost again, especially now that the area is witnessing a transformation from the current political landscape, and a change in the map as the spread of military forces in northern Syria becomes more intertwined and very complex.