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Syria: Kurdish Group Calls for Autonomy

Publication of draft proposal for Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria highlights emboldened campaign for Kurdish rights in the Middle East.
By Dalit Halevi and Ari Soffer
First Publish: 9/11/2013, 5:33 PM

Kurdish fighters in northern Syria
Kurdish fighters in northern Syria
Reuters

The People's Council of Western Kurdistan (also known as the PYD) has released a draft proposal calling for Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria - along similar lines to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) which currently exists in northern Iraq.

The introduction to the proposal stipulates that it is not calling for a complete "split" from the rest of Syria, and stresses that such an autonomous region would not pose any threat to neighboring states. Rather, it is meant as a vehicle to achieve stability and security for Syria's Kurdish population, as a first step towards a free and "pluralistic" Syrian state.

Among other items, the proposal - launched jointly with Kurdish officials in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli - outlines plans to establish an independent committee to draw up a draft constitution, as well as for the establishment of interim social, economic and security institutions in Kurdish-held territories.

Under the proposal, democratic legislative elections would take place six months after the establishment of an interim Kurdish government, allowing half a year for the drafting of a constitution.

Kurdish Spring?

Regional upheaval in the Middle East and the weakening of post-colonial state boundaries has emboldened calls by Kurdish groups for autonomy.

The Kurds are the largest indigenous Middle Eastern nation without a state. Their homeland, Kurdistan, is currently occupied by Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, although Kurds in Iraq enjoy autonomy under the KRG, with their own police force and armed forces (known as peshmerga). Kurds in Syria make up around 10% of the population, and are concentrated largely in the north of the country.

The proposal comes as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was until recently engaged in an armed struggle for Kurdish rights in Turkey, called a halt to the withdrawal of its forces from Turkish territory. As yet, however, a ceasefire between the two sides appears to be holding.

The withdrawal was being conducted as part of peace talks with the Turkish government, but Kurdish officials claimed the government was not living up to its side of the agreement.

Not long after the start of the uprising against the Assad regime, government forces pulled out of Kurdish areas to focus on attacks by Sunni Arab rebels against major regime strongholds.

Kurdish militias quickly moved in to take control - in particular the YPG's military wing, the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) - declaring their opposition to both the regime and the rebel movement, both of whom they say aim to continue a process of discrimination and "Arabization" against local Kurds.

Arab groups within the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) initially made a grab for Kurdish areas but were beaten back. In recent months, however, Islamist groups - some of them linked to Al Qaeda - have led a concerted and violent campaign to install their own independent "emirates," or Islamic mini-statelets in the region. That was met with fierce opposition by Kurdish forces, who responded by ejecting Islamist forces from the border town of Ras al-Ain, near the Turkish border, among other areas.

Battles have continued since then, amid claims of war crimes by Islamist forces against Kurdish civilians.