Iraq Kurdish vote may benefit Syrian Kurds, say their leaders

Top Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed takes part in a conference of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria's Kurdish-controlled northern regions, in the town of Rmeilan, Hasaka province, Syria September 27, 2017

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence could bolster Syria’s own Kurds if it pushes the Syrian government to negotiate over autonomy, Syrian Kurdish leaders said on Wednesday.

Top Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed told Reuters that officials from Syria’s Kurdish-led regions had already met with the Damascus government twice, but the Russian-brokered dialogue went nowhere.

Damascus has opposed autonomy plans that have grown during Syria’s six-year-old conflict. But this week, the foreign minister said the government is open to talks with Kurds after the fight against Islamic State militants ends.

“The impacts, if they continue like (these) comments… then they will be positive,” said Ahmed.

Monday’s referendum in Iraq could also drive Kurdish authorities there to open routes with the autonomous regions that Syrian Kurds and their allies have set up in northern Syria, she added.

Iraqi Kurds held their referendum in defiance of their U.S. ally, the Baghdad government, and neighbouring Turkey and Iran. The vote delivered a resounding “yes” to split from Iraq, but is not binding.

Across the border in Syria, Kurdish leaders say they do not want secession. The Kurdish YPG militia and its allies have carved out cantons in the north since 2011. They have seized vast territory from Islamic State with U.S. help, although Washington opposes their autonomy plans.

With the YPG as a military backbone, the main Syrian Kurdish parties now hold nearly a quarter of the country, and say they seek autonomy as part of a decentralised Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pledged to take back every inch of the country as his army has captured land from rebels and militants with the help of Russia and Iran.

“We have always sent messages… that we are ready for talks,” Ahmed said. “We have informed the Russians that they should convince the regime to negotiate.”

At both meetings, Damascus “did not appear serious” about talks over the future of the autonomous regions and the demand for a federal system for Syria, she said. “Autonomy does not mean separation.”

TENSIONS

Another senior Kurdish politician, Fawza Youssef, said the Iraqi referendum likely had a hand in Damascus adopting a more conciliatory tone towards Syria’s large Kurdish population.

“This is a positive step. And our struggle in the past six years… our military and political victories” play the major role in pushing the Syrian government to negotiate, she said.

Kurds in northern Syria support the Iraqi Kurdish right to decide their own future, but do not look to follow the example of this week’s vote, Youssef said.

“The reality in Syria and Iraq is not the same,” she said. Still, she added, “if there will be exclusion of the Kurdish people, stripping them of political and cultural rights… of course with time this would lead to secession.”

Youssef and Ahmed are both senior members of the Kurdish-led authority running the cantons in northern Syria.

Damascus and the YPG have mostly stayed out of each other’s way in the war. But tensions have surfaced as both sides with their allies race to capture Deir al-Zor province in eastern Syria. The YPG has been battling Islamic State under a U.S.-backed alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes Arab and other combatants.

The territory the SDF has captured in Deir al-Zor so far serves as a breadbasket and a route for imports into Syria, said Ahmed, who co-chairs the force’s political wing.

“So if (Damascus) wants to continue with threats, there will be no benefit from this… But if they understand that dialogue is the right way, that would be the better position.”

Tensions in eastern Syria might also fuel a shift in the government stance as Damascus might be wary of opening yet another battlefront, she said.

MEND TIES

Kurdish-led authorities held elections in northern Syria last week for local community leaders, part of a process that will culminate with electing a parliament.

Syria’s Kurdish region borders Turkey and the Kurdish government of northern Iraq, which are both hostile towards the YPG. Ankara views the militia as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency inside Turkey.

Youssef and Ahmed said the vote next door could lead to mending ties with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) if Iraqi Kurdistan faces more pressure.

Turkey and Iran have threatened to impose a blockade. They warn the referendum will spark regional chaos, and fear the spread of separatism among their own Kurdish populations.

“If they shut the roads, (the KRG) will have to open a route,” fix relations, and possibly trade with northern Syria, Ahmed said. “That would be good of course.”

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