Kurds set to declare federal region in northern Syria

Meeting of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other ethnic groups seeks "new ruling system" for Kurdish-controlled areas.

Amer Al Halloush, a member of the Syrian Democratic Council, an alliance formed in December as the political branch of the Kurdish-Arab fighting force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, heads out of a meeting of more than 150 delegates from Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other parties in the town of Rmeilan, in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province, on March 16, 2016. Delil Souleiman AFP

GAZIANTEP, Turkey // Syria’s main Kurdish party is expected to declare a federal region in northern areas under its control on Thursday following talks with other ethnic groups, pre-empting any outcome from ongoing talks in Geneva for a political solution to the country’s civil war.

Representatives of the Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian communities and other ethnic groups began meeting in the oil town of Rmeilan in north-eastern Hassakeh province on Wednesday to talk about declaring a federal region.

“The gathering will try to develop a new ruling system in northern Syria,” said Sihanuk Dibo, a consultant to the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, Syria’s most powerful Kurdish faction. “All the suggestions are now headed towards federalism.”

The move would further unite three Kurdish-run cantons in northern Syria and seems to indicate that Syria’s Kurds want some level of autonomy and separation in any post-war scenario.

“A federal state for ruling all of Syria is the best way to protect Syria from being divided up, because there is major distrust among the different sides,” said Ibrahim Ibrahim, a PYD media official.

The PYD has enjoyed de facto autonomy in areas under its control since since 2012 when Syrian government forces began abandoning a number of Kurdish-majority towns. But it has not formally declared independence or suggested federalism in Syria.

The declaration would come as representatives of the Syrian government and opposition hold UN-mediated peace talks in Geneva, and as Syria’s Kurds face an increasing threat of military action from Turkey.

Coming after a two-week ceasefire that has been extended indefinitely and an announcement that Russia is drawing down its forces in Syria, there is an optimism that the talks are the best chance yet for a diplomatic settlement to the civil war.

But for Syria’s Kurds, there is one major problem: the PYD was not invited to the talks after Turkish and Syrian opposition demands that they be excluded.

Left without a say in Syria’s political future – or potentially even their right to decide their own future – one of the most united and able fighting forces in the war has decided to take another step toward autonomy and away from a unified Syria.

Russia has suggested that a federalised state could be a model Syria, but the government and rebels have insisted on a unified post-war state.

Over the past four years, the PYD’s territory has grown from just a few pockets of land to the majority of the area along the border with Turkey thanks to the prowess of their militia, the YPG. The YPG is also backed by the United States and has proved to be the US’ most effective ally on the ground in the fight against ISIL. But the group is largely mistrusted by Turkey and Syria’s rebels.

The PYD push for a federal region has been dismissed domestically and internationally.

Syria’s ambassador to the UN Bashar Al Jaafari said the Kurdish move would not work. “The Syrian Kurds are an important component of the Syrian people ... So betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure,” he said.

The US state department said Wasington would not recognise any self-ruled, semi-autonomous zones in Syria.

Syrian rebels, many of whom have long been wary of the Kurds and believed them to be secretly fighting on behalf of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, also fiercely opposed the move.

“If anybody tries to make a federal state, we will raid the area,” said First Lieutenant Abu Iskaner of the Free Syrian Army, who was formerly with the rebel grouping’s failed US-trained and equipped Division 30. “We will come as raiders, not in peace.”

Another rebel, a former Farouk Brigade commander who now works with the Free Syrian Army leadership and goes by the nom de guerre Abu Azzam, accused the YPG and allied Arab rebel groups of coordinating with Russia and using Russian air strikes and regime offensives to capture territory.

“They are not rebel groups,” he said. “They are mercenaries.”

In recent weeks, the PYD has also faced building pressure from Ankara, which is at war with its sister organisation in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – or PKK, and has long feared the appearance of an independent Kurdish state along its borders.

While the PYD stresses that it is a different organisation than the PKK, Ankara views them as the same group with different names. Despite the bureaucratic delineation, the groups both share an ideology and many in the YPG’s ranks are PKK fighters.

After YPG forces took advantage of Russian air strikes and regime offensives to capture territory from fleeing rebel groups and launch attacks on others north of Aleppo last month, Turkey began shelling YPG positions. Increasingly, Turkey spoke about the need to confront the YPG in Syria and raised the possibility of intervening on the ground to confront the group.

Turkey has continued to build its case against the YPG, blaming the group for a car bomb that ripped through a government district of Ankara February 17, killing 29, despite a claim of responsibility from the small militant faction called the Kurdish Freedom Falcons. When another car bomb struck Ankara on Sunday, Turkey said a female suicide bomber who had been trained by the YPG in Syria was responsible.

The declaration of a federal region is likely to exacerbate these hostilities.


* with additional reporting from AP and Agence France-Presse​