Kurdish YPG fighters battle ISIS in Syria (file)
Kurdish YPG fighters battle ISIS in Syria (file)Reuters

The Syrian Kurds have gained de facto autonomy in the crumbling Syrian landscape. With a large portion of Kurdish-majority territory tucked away in the northeastern corner of the country far away from the main habited zones around Damascus, the coast, Aleppo or along the Euphrates River, the tiny al-Hasakah province has been more focused on just holding the line against repeated pushes from Islamic State (ISIS) or regime loyalists in the area.

But it is more complicated than that, Sherkoh Abbas, the Chairman of the Kurdistan National Assembly (KNA) and the organization’s representative in Washington D.C., told Arutz Sheva.

Besides arguing that Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) stretches much further than al-Hasakah province, he says that Syrian Kurds should only be so lucky to think their current de facto government is diametrically opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Abbas starts off defining where this Kurdish region would be. There are maps littered across the internet that try to approximate Kurdish settlement in Syria. According to Abbas, traditional Kurdish territory stretches from the sea all along the modern border with Turkey.

“It stretches from Jabal al-Akrad,” in the Nusayri Mountains, “north of Latakia up and then toward eastern Syria. Unfortunately, many of those Kurds have been Arabized.”

When asked if recent reports that indicate Kurdish forces control three pockets of territory around the cities of Afrin, Kobane and al-Hasakah were an accurate reflection of Kurdish regions, he said that those three pockets on the map are just fractions of territory that is inhabited by Syrian Kurds.

“Along the whole Turkish border is Kurdish. A pro-Assad group came out of nowhere and created a massive flood of refugees of 1 million Kurds from those areas. Those areas are not free.”

Abbas says that in a Syria affected for so many decades by Arab nationalism and diminishing of alternative identities, “many people do not acknowledge they are Kurdish.”

Still, he is optimistic that “those Kurds who exist there would revert back to their Kurdishness” if given the opportunity. Abbas emphasizes that Kurdistan would be significant for far more Syrians than people often think.

“Fully a third of Syria was Kurdish. Over the years, thanks to the Arabization policy and people hiding their identity to keep their homes and their jobs, Kurds today are thought to be only 10% of the country. The number is really closer to 25% of Syria.”

“Many of them who do not speak but people who retain language and culture along the border are at least 25% of Syrian people."

Finding an Alternative to the YPG

However, he sees a much more difficult issue – the lack of substantive material support for an alternative to the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia that has been reported to have reached understandings with the Assad regime and foregone any goals of Kurdish independence - much less creating a solely Kurdish federal region.

According to Abbas, between his KNA and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) there are 20 organizations and parties who work together, only maintaining separate organizations because his own group is more focused on external relations while the KNC on working with other Kurdish groups, particularly the KRG in Iraq.

“They are ready to work,” Abbas says of other forces on the ground in Kurdish northern Syria. “But unfortunately, the White House and State Department always want us to forget about this and they want us to focus on ‘democracy in Syria’ and only then to focus on rights for Kurds. They wanted us to work with Assad lieutenants. We cannot accept these same people.” 

“It doesn’t mean the KNC and KNA don't have resources. At the moment, we can't put them into the field because we don't have the resources to sustain the people who already have training and weapons. But we’re not in a position to help because we're isolated.”

“The best thing is to do is stay neutral in the meantime.”

There were reports in early 2014 that the YPG had struck a deal with the Assad regime, which Abbas indicates is correct. He accuses the YPG of abandoning the Kurdish cause and reaching an understanding with Bashar al-Assad, much to the Syrian Kurds’ detriment.

“The YPG is completely an Assad tool. There are major flights everyday between Qamishli (in the al-Hasakah province) and Damascus. The oil is still flowing. There are groups behind the scenes trying to facilitate a divide-and-conquer strategy against the Kurds."

But he says that Rojavans are not oblivious to this and have been agitated by the alleged collusion between the YPG and Damascus.

“They don't have more than 12,000 troops at the moment,” says Abbas, who suggests the number is probably closer to 10,000 members of the YPG. He says that when word got around that the connection with Damascus was strong, it had a polarizing and demoralizing effect on a significant chunk of the organization’s ranks.

“A third abandoned them when they realized they were serving Assad's interests. At least 80% of Kurds support our views,” says Abbas, referring to his own Kurdistan National Assembly.

“The PYD and YPG do not raise Kurdish issues and do not promote Kurdish autonomy or stand for anything Kurdish in their platforms. They are facilitating the creation of isolated Kurdish pockets.”

Abbas divides the PYD and YPG into several different constituencies. Without regard for those recruits he said have abandoned the force, he says a substantial number of fighters are PKK members, perhaps up to 3,000 of the alleged 10,000 members. There are also true idealists fighting Kurdish autonomy, people simply defending their homes and still others who are opportunistic and looking for cash.

“People are presented with a false dichotomy of 'me or ISIS.’ The regime says 'look at ISIS, they'll cut off your heads. Is that what you want?' I can cite many (independent) groups in Northwestern Syria begging the KRG and international community to get more international support. The world is faced with a choice when it comes to ISIS – work with Assad or work with the Kurds.”

“I don’t doubt there are many benefactors behind these groups,” asserts Abbas. “Yet, the main beneficiaries are Assad, Iran and Russia who empower ISIS to send a message to international community.”