As negotiations ramp up at the Geneva 2 conference, one group conspicuously absent from the proceedings — aside from Iran — is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful Kurdish political party in Syria. The PYD controls of a large swath of northeastern Syria (including a substantial portion of Syria’s oil fields), heads a fully functioning civil society, and boasts a collection of battlefield victories against jihadi groups. So why exactly are the Kurds on the sidelines while Luxembourg has a delegation?
The 3 million Kurds in Syria constitute about 15 percent of the total population and make up the largest ethnic minority in the country. They were notoriously oppressed by the Bashar Assad regime, and even mounted their own failed rebellion in 2004. Since the revolution started, they have fought battles against both the regime and the opposition, who Kurds accuse of refusing to accept Kurdish identity. Mainly concentrated in the northeast of the country, Kurds have focused on creating a burgeoning civil society in the areas they control.
The PYD originally requested a separate Kurdish delegation to discuss the Kurdish agenda at Geneva 2, but this was rejected. “The West didn’t accept any separate Kurdish delegation in the conference, arguing that the Kurds need to negotiate their status with the rest of the Syrians instead of imposing a unilateral Kurdish administration,” said Wladimir Van Wilgenberg, a journalist and prominent analyst of Kurdish affairs.
The PYD has been spurned by Western diplomats since the start of the revolution. The PYD is affiliated with the Kurdish insurrection movement known as the Kurdistan Works Party (PKK), which has been classified as a terrorist organization Turkey, the UK, and the US. The PYD has found western backers hesitant to meet with them despite proving to be the only successful force combatting advances made by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups.
Adding to the confusion, a separate Kurdish party, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), is attending the conference as a part of the Syrian National Council. The KNC, however, has little power on the ground.
“It’s pointless — whatever they (the delegates at Geneva 2) decide, nobody is going to consider it an agreement,” Kovan Direj, a Kurdish journalist and activist, told VICE News from the Kurdish-held area of Syria. “If you don’t include the people on the ground who are controlling, what are you going to accomplish with people staying in hotels in Istanbul?” Meaning, the KNC.
Despite that group's participation, many Kurds feel alienated. They point to a continuing lack of overtures by the international community, both in regards to the Syrian conflict and in general. Kurdish distrust of and disappointment in the international community is nothing new, the a product of a long history of failing to be consulted as decisions about their future are made.
PYD co-chairman Saleh Muslim, among others, has compared Geneva 2 to the Treaty of Luasanne. The treaty, the result of a 1923 peace conference in Switzerland, split up the Kurdish population among four different countries and ignored a prior promise for a Kurdish homeland.
Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst based in Washington DC, expressed incredulousness over the fact that Western parties had still not made overtures to Syrian Kurds. “Somebody asked me, ‘What do the Kurds have to offer?’" he said, then rattled off a list of accomplishments in Syria: a secular society with equal rights for women, the establishment of civil structures, protection for minorities, and the cleansing of jihadis in the Kurdish-controlled region. “It’s a wonderful model for Syria, yet you exclude these people,” he said. “They are fighting your enemy, so how come you don’t provide them with weapons, you’re not acknowledging their efforts, and you’re not recognizing them, and on top of that you’re going to exclude them!”
Last week, the Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union (KCK), of which the PYD is a member, released a statement criticizing the international communities for leaving the Kurdish question off the agenda. The statement also reiterated the Kurdish claim for federalism of the sort that carve out the Kurdish territory in Iraq, stating, “Syria has so many different ethnic and religious communities that it can no longer be ruled by a central state authority.”
The statement said that the KCK would not recognize anything decided in Geneva 2. It also lashed out at the Syrian opposition, who has so far reacted to Kurdish gains with hostility, saying, “Their attitude is no different from that of the Baath regime.”
A century of broken promises, however, have left the Kurds unwilling to wait on the international community. In November, the PYD had already declared self-rule in the areas they controlled. Since 2012, there has been de facto self-rule in most Kurdish areas in the northeast, with a few regime holdovers, and some jihadi presences that were eventually forced out.
The night prior to the commencement of Geneva 2, Kurds in Syria further solidified their autonomy in the northeast of the country with an official declaration of autonomy. A provincial government including a municipal council was established, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Elections are to be held in four months. Celebrations were held all over Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria.
The declaration will only further entrench hostilities between the PYD and the Sunni Arab-led opposition. The Kurds are unwilling to put their trust in the opposition unless they're guaranteed rights related to Kurdish identity, and the opposition is fearful of what they see as Kurdish plans for secession.
“The only thing Kurds can realistically expect from Pan-Arabists like Assad and his SNC foes is genocide,” said Resho Bistuyek, a Kurdish activist. “Kurds will continue on their own path.”