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Kurdish self-governance in Syria: Survival and ambition


  • Syria’s Kurds have emerged at the forefront of the battle with self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), gaining them support from the United States even as tensions between them and the Syrian opposition have increased. Their strategic gains have been significant, but remain fragile.
  • Ideological and tactical divisions between Syrian Kurdish political movements have manifested in their response to the Syrian uprising. The ascension to power of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) signalled a pragmatic approach in which tacit agreements with the regime have been sought in order to obtain greater autonomy from the central government.
  • The Syrian opposition has consequently criticized the PYD as no more than a regime proxy. But the reality is more complex. The PYD’s relationship with the regime should be seen as an ambitious survival strategy adopted in the circumstances of the Syrian civil war.
  • The PYD’s local legitimacy, while not uncontested, stems from its success in combating ISIS and its ability to deliver a localized form of governance. The governance model adopted by the local administration, the PYD-led Rojava Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), remains insufficient, and at times heavily dependent on the central government in Damascus.
  • The Syrian government’s ruling elite is split over these developments: some believe that the new model in Rojava can work in parallel with the Syrian government, and that convergence between the two will be a natural result of their simultaneous survival. Hardliners continue to insist that the accommodation with the PYD is a temporary measure, arguing that power will be centralized again once the war the government is waging in other parts of Syria winds down, and warning of the potential for future confrontation.
  • TEV-DEM should be cognizant of the dangers associated with overreach. It would do better to focus on strengthening the local administration in areas it already controls rather than continuing to expand into areas of Sunni Arab majority. Such expansion threatens to sow the seeds of ethnic conflict and place unmanageable burdens on TEV-DEM capacities and resources. Over-reliance on the support of the anti-ISIS coalition would be unwise given the fickle support of the United States to date for its allies on the ground in Syria.