Recent comments by the Assad regime’s ambassador to Russia, Riyad Haddad, appear to indicate that Damascus and Moscow are preparing to cut loose the Rojava Kurds, who they have heretofore been attempting to cultivate as proxies. At issue, predictably, is the Kurdish demand for regional autonomy and a federal solution for Syria. “The Kurds are an integral part of the Syrian people, they have the same rights and obligations as the rest of the Syrian people,” Haddad said in comments before the Russian Federation Council, quoted by Kremlin state media outlet Sputnik. “I would like to stress that many Kurds are actually strongly opposing any form of division, either a federation, or cantons, or other forms. That is why we keep on saying that Syria is capable and ready to settle the crisis alone, without interference from the outside.” Of course the invocation of non-interference is hilariously ironic in light of massive Russian military intervention in Syria. And the “many Kurds” who supposedly oppose autonomy are conveninently left unnamed.
In reporting the remarks, the independent Kurdish agency ARA News recalled that Bashar Assad himself in October similarly denied that the majority of the Kurds want autonomy. The embattled dictator told Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that “only part of them” seek federalism. “The majority of them, no, they don’t ask for [federalism].”
For a reaction to Assad’s statement, ARA News turned to Bader Mustafa, a member of the Kurdish Youth Movement (TCK), which is actually a dissident faction opposed to the Rojava region’s ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD). Mustafa evidently agrees with the PYD on the autonomy question, saying: “It is the same delusion he has been living for, for years. It is not Assad’s decision anymore.”
“Assad is [telling] the Kurds that his regime can prevent what the Kurds want, which is a federal system and an end to the dictatorship of the Arab majority,” Mustafa added. “I think it is not the right of any majority to decide for the minority. We as Kurds are not a er voluntarily, but due to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which prevented us from having one Kurdish state. It is obvious that the Kurds do not want a centralized state in Syria.”
Talk of abandoning the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Britain and France carved up the Fertile Crescent, more or less along the lines of its current official borders, has been exploited by plenty of ugly political elements—ironically including both jihadis and neocons. But it is a fact that the Kurds got literally written off the map in the agreement, and if further balkanization of the Middle East is to be avoided, there has got be some flexibility on recognizing their autonomy. Brittle, centralized, monocultural states clearly have no future in the region.
We have been following the tragic reality of the Rojava Kurds being drawn into a de facto alliance with Russia and Assad. But the context for this must be recognized: they are desperate to keep alive their autonomous zone, in a pincer between Turkey and ISIS. The recent decision by the Kurdish autonomous administration in northern Syria to drop its official use of the regional name “Rojava” seeed aimed at appeasing Assad. These new comments by the regime’s mouthpiece suggest this appeasement is viewed by Damascus as insufficient.
If leftist partisans of the Rojava Kurds have been largely ignoring the fact that the PYD is collaborating with both Russia and the US, partisans of the Free Syrian Army and Arab-led opposition to Assad have been too quick to simply portray the Rojava Kurds as pawns of Moscow and Damascus. The reality is considerably more complicated. If there is any prospect of rebuilding Arab-Kurdish unity against ISIS and Assad alike, both sides are going to have to recognize that.