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Syrian Kurds Agree to Side with Opposition in Geneva Talks

ERBIL, Iraq , Dec 26 2013 (IPS) - Despite an atmosphere of deep mutual distrust, two major rival Syrian Kurdish bodies have agreed to attend an expected international conference on the fate of Syria, known as Geneva II, on the side of the Syrian opposition forces, Syrian Kurdish sources told IPS.

That is contingent on the possibility that only two sides will be allowed to sit at the negotiating table: the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition groups.

Although the decision represents a significant change of direction on the part of the deeply-divided Syrian Kurds, there are serious doubts as to whether the agreement between the Western Kurdistan People’s Council (WKPC) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) will actually be implemented.

While the WKPC is perceived to have some sort of understanding with Assad’s regime, the KNC is close to the rest of the Syrian opposition groups.

The Geneva II conference, scheduled to be held on Jan. 22, is backed by the western powers, Russia, the United Nations and the Arab League.

The international community hopes that the conference will pave the way for an interim government and end the bloody conflict in Syria that has claimed over 100,000 lives so far, according to U.N. figures.

There is no concrete agreement yet on whether Syrians will take part in the conference in the form of two or more negotiating groups.

But if there will be more than two Syrian sides at the Geneva II conference, then Kurds will seek to participate as a separate independent bloc, IPS has learned from Syrian Kurdish sources.

“Geneva II is an important station where the future of Syria will be determined,” Abdulsalam Ahmed, the co-chairperson of the WKPC, told IPS.

He was in Erbil for eight days of intense talks with KNC representatives over participation in the Geneva conference and a possible power-sharing deal between the two Kurdish bodies to administer the Kurdish territories of Syria.

The WKPC is close to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose military wing, known as the People’s Defence Units (YPG), controls much of the Kurdish areas in the northern and northeastern parts of Syria.

“As Kurds we are an important actor on the ground and need to be represented,” added Ahmed, who warned that the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved until the Kurdish question is addressed.

For Kurds, the Geneva II conference bears more significance than merely an attempt to end Syria’s civil war, which they have largely managed to avoid getting involved in.

It has resurrected memories of rather similar international gatherings in France’s Sevres and Switzerland’s Lausanne at the turn of the last century that brought about disastrous results for Kurds and subjugated them to the harsh rule of governments in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

“Geneva II, as an international gathering, is a new Sevres [Treaty in 1920 in France] and Sykes-Picot [treaty], and we cannot afford to be absent from that meeting,” said Nuri Brimo, a leading official of the KNC, much of whose senior leadership is based outside Syria, mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Sykes-Picot was a treaty between Britain and France to draw the map of the new Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.

“Syria will either survive as a united country or be further fragmented after the conference… In any case, we will have to be present there,” added Brimo.

“Our message to the international community is that we as the second-largest ethnicity in Syria want our rights to be recognised… We don’t want Syria to be fragmented. We need to be a major player in the Syrian equation and the country’s future.”

Syria’s Kurdish politics

The Kurdish political scene in Syria is deeply fragmented and highly complex. The WKPC and KNC each represent a number of often loosely-allied groups. The two bodies have been at odds with each other since the start of the Syrian uprising nearly three years ago and often trade harsh accusations over the other side’s loyalties and agenda.

The KNC charges that the WKPC and its major component, PYD, have struck a deal with Assad’s government and as such have betrayed the opposition’s cause of toppling Assad.

Until the March 2011 uprising, the Assad regime denied Syrian Kurds basic cultural and ethnic rights, and tens of thousands of them were even denied citizenship.

The root of suspicions toward the PYD lies in the manner of its military takeover of the Kurdish areas of Syria in the summer of 2012.

While the PYD and its supporters claim they “liberated” those areas following military confrontations with the Syrian army and security forces, the KNC and Syrian opposition groups say Assad handed over control of those areas to the PYD in order to use his troops to fight rebel groups in other parts of the country.

They argue that as Turkey’s support for Syrian rebel groups, including Islamists, increased, Assad conceded de facto control of much of the Syrian Kurdish regions to the PYD in an effort to counterbalance Turkish intervention in Syrian affairs.

The PYD is widely seen as close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that has been fighting the Turkish government for Kurdish rights for around three decades.

PYD and WKPC supporters, on the other hand, are quick to point out that the KNC is close to the Sunni-Arab dominated Syrian opposition groups, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani.

The non-Kurdish Syrian opposition groups are largely loath to state their position vis-à-vis Kurdish rights in the future Syria.

The PYD also accuses the KNC of advancing the agendas of Barzani and Turkey and not the genuine interests of Syrian Kurds.

This state of deep divisions and mistrust that has overshadowed the intra-Syrian Kurdish relations has led many Syrian Kurds not to place much hope on any deal between the WKPC and the KNC.

In the past, small skirmishes have taken place between PYD forces and supporters of parties within the KNC ranks, resulting in some casualties.

“The situation [after the recent Erbil talks] is going to be like before. The conflict between them [i.e. PYD and KNC] continues,” said Siruan H. Hussein, a Syrian Kurdish journalist and director of ARTA FM, a community radio station based in the predominantly Kurdish town of Amuda in Syria.

“The PYD is not going to share military power and financial resources and… control of the self-rule administration with the KNC.”

The PYD recently declared the establishment of an autonomous administration to manage the areas under its control.

Despite the rising fortunes of al-Qaeda-allied Islamist forces in Syria, the PYD has successfully battled those groups and wrestled control of chunks of territory from them.
As many parts of Syria have experienced heavy devastation as a result of the conflict there, PYD-controlled areas have been spared much of the destruction.

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