The Kurds of Syria were an unknown factor within the Syrian civil war. That all changed after IS turned its focus on the Kurds and international media reported on the situation in the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani (named Ayn al-Arab in Arabic). How paradoxical as it might in the long term sound, this might be beneficial for the position of Syria’s Kurds.
The Syrian Kurds are not a singular political entity. The group is fragmented and consists of about sixteen different political parties (depending on how you count, some factions operate under the same name, but act like different parties). Of these parties the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat; Kurdish Democratic Party) is the most powerful. Syrian government troops largely left the three Kurdish areas in 2012 in what is considered a strategic withdrawal. Previous negotiations – initiated by the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani – to create Syrian Kurdish unity thus far failed in the implementation phase. In October 2014 Barzani started new negotiations between the Syrian Kurdish parties. The threat the Islamic State (IS) poses, might make the Syrian Kurds aware of the need to act as one. Previously, parties accused each other of cooperating with the Assad regime. Now, there is no doubt anymore: No Kurdish political party will collaborate with IS and they need to cooperate to survive. The so-called Dohuk Agreement between the Syrian Kurdish parties was reached on 22 October.
Apart from the internal Kurdish process, international actors appear more willing than before to support the Syrian Kurds. Before, the Syrian Kurds lacked external support due to the ideological connection of PYD with Turkish Kurdish PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan; Kurdistan Workers’ Party). PKK is still considered a terrorist organization by the European Union, Turkey, and the United States and this seemed to reflect on PYD, making potential supporters reluctant to help.
Now that IS threatens to expand even further and the Syrian Kurds are in the vanguard of the fight against IS, the attitude towards Syria’s Kurds appears to change, becoming more supportive. Even Turkey – reluctantly and under huge international pressure – now permits Kurdish reinforcements to cross border into Syria. Of course, Turkey might calculate to benefit from a fight between what it considers two potential enemies; The longer IS and the Kurds fight, the weaker they might become.
Although the situation in Kobani causes terrible human suffering, in the long term the Syrian Kurds might benefit from this crisis though. Apart from its unifying effect on Syrian Kurdish politics, it might lead to (more) international support for the Syrian Kurds, thus eventually strengthen the position of the Syrian Kurds.