By Geoff Moore
Today the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria “voted to create an autonomous federation” in northern Syria, known to Kurds as Rojava. This comes after at least two days of meetings between the PYD and communities leaders. The timing of the vote is notable, not only because peace talks are currently taking place in Geneva, but also because yesterday, March 16th, marked the 28th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on the town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi and Syrian Kurds are both sensitive to the importance and symbolism of that date.
The Long Kurdish Memory
Another widely known date in Kurdish regions is July 24th, 1923. That day marked the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, which killed the possibility of a sovereign Kurdish state in the aftermath of the First World War. The failed Treaty of Sèvres, which preceded the Treaty of Lausanne, promised a Kurdish territory between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It would be a mistake to overlook the importance of Kurdish historical memory as Syrian Kurds claim autonomy.
The Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC) is the entity representing Kurds in the opposition, but the relationship between the KNC and PYD (as well its armed wing, the YPG) is complicated. The PYD/YPG have no representation in Geneva, and neither the regime nor the opposition were invited to the meetings in Rojava to discuss federal autonomy. In a strange twist of fate, the Kurdish declaration has actually become a point of agreement between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. Ten days ago the head of the opposition, Riad Hijab, voiced his opposition to a federal system in Syria which would be “the prelude to the partitioning of Syria.” Likewise, the Syrian state’s news agency said the move will “encroach on Syria’s territorial unity.”
Autonomy vs Syrian Unity
It is richly ironic that the two main groups representing opposing forces in Syria’s civil war agree on the sanctity of a united state. On the ground, Syria is anything but united. The geography of the Euphrates literally divides the Kurdish territory from the rest of Syria, and the Islamic State holds much of the land around the river itself. However, a federal system will not work based purely on geography, and it is unlikely that a group not involved in the Geneva talks will change the position of the regime or opposition. On the other hand, the Kurds will not easily give up what they believe they have fought for and earned in places such as Kobani. They will have to negotiate at some point with a transitional government if they are not eventually added to the Geneva talks.
Turkey and the United States
There is a danger of the Kurds overplaying their hand. Although it currently appears that they have nothing to lose by declaring a federal autonomous region, they will need to tread lightly with Turkey and keep the United States on their side. Turkey’s opposition to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey (PKK) makes it very skeptical of a federal Kurdish region in Syria because of past coordination between the YPG and PKK. Turkey even accused the YPG of responsibility for the bombing in Ankara on Monday. A US State Department spokesman said the US “won’t recognize any self-rule autonomous zones within Syria,” instead favoring negotiations and a decision by the Syrian people.
 Read more about the PKK here: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/europe/turkey-cyprus/turkey/219-turkey-the-pkk-and-a-kurdish-settlement.aspx ; http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/syrian-kurds-planning-declare-federalism-160316091206786.html
Image from: http://www.nationalia.info/new/10719/syrian-conflict-escalation-between-turkey-west-kurdistan