Once on the peripheries of state view, the Kurdish populations across the region are now in full sight.
BEIRUT – Syria’s Kurds, whose Afrin enclave in the north of the country has been bombarded for the past week by Turkey, spent years carefully building a stable system of self-rule amid the chaos of war.
They have largely stayed neutral in the conflict raging in Syria since 2011 and successfully turned decades of marginalization into partnerships with world powers.
Decades of discrimination
Concentrated in the north, Kurds make up around 15 percent of Syria’s population.
Most are Sunni Muslims, though there are some non-Muslim minorities and many Kurds consider themselves secular.
After a controversial census in 1962, they were stripped of their Syrian nationality and have since suffered marginalization and oppression by the ruling Baath party.
Similar to Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, they have been denied basic rights and self-governance by ruling parties for decades.
Neutrality, then autonomy
When Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, the Kurdish population generally sought to adopt a position of neutrality.
President Bashar al-Assad made conciliatory gestures towards the Kurds from the earliest days of the conflict, granting citizenship to 300,000 people after half a century of waiting.
In 2012, government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in the north and the east, paving the way for Kurds to consolidate control on the ground.
They have since established self-rule in many of these zones and have sought to prevent rebels and regime forces from entering them.
In 2013, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — the political branch of the powerful People’s Protection Units (YPG) — announced the establishment of a semi-autonomous region.
And in 2016, Kurdish authorities announced the creation of a “federal region” made up of those semi-autonomous regions.
It would include three cantons: Afrin in Aleppo province, Jazira (Hasakeh province) and Euphrates (which includes parts of Aleppo and Raqqa provinces).
The initiative looked like de facto autonomy, provoking hostility from Syria’s mainstream opposition forces and neighbouring Turkey.
At the end of 2016, the Kurds gave themselves a “social contract” — a Constitution for the “federal region”.
And in 2017, inhabitants of the regions voted in “communal” elections to elect town councilors.
Kurdish fighters have proved to be the most effective anti-ISIS force in Syria and Washington’s best ally in the fight against the group.
At the start of 2015, Kurdish forces supported by US-led coalition strikes ousted ISIS from Kobane on the Turkish border after more than four months of fighting.
In 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish fighters and Arabs, captured the city of Manbij from ISIS.
And in 2017, they overran ISIS’ de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa.
At the start of 2018, the coalition announced it was working to create a 30,000-strong border security force in northern Syria, around half of whom would be retrained SDF fighters.
The SDF alliance would be made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters and immediately raised the wrath of the Turkish presidency.
Ankara accuses the SDF and affiliated YPG of being the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). PKK has waged a three-decade rebellion in Turkey’s southeast in response to the government’s intense oppression of Kurdish citizenry and repression of their ethnic identity.
In what may be a response to the announcement of the border-security force, on January 20, Turkey launched an air and ground operation against the YPG protected enclave of Afrin in northern Syria.
The local authority has called on the Syrian regime to intervene to prevent Turkish warplanes from entering the country’s airspace and to protect Afrin.