Dozens of Syrian street activists met in Istanbul and other venues in Turkey in recent weeks to discuss unity within the opposition Syrian National Coalition. Their goals were to present a united front to potential donors of the Friends of the Syrian People umbrella group and to effect regime change.
Gokhan Bacik, an associate professor of political science and directer of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Zirve University in Gaziantep, Turkey, has been watching the struggles of Syria’s opposition groups. He pays special attention to as many as 17 groups of ethnic Kurds who look to Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan for support and governing models. Bacik says all of Syria’s moderate opposition groups attended the meetings vowing to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, but beyond that many of the activists have conflicting agendas.
Bacik concludes that while Turkey favors the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), some Kurds in Syria may prefer links to Massoud Barzani’s Iraqi Kurdistan. Out of these political choices, Bacik says a kind of federalism is likely to emerge from a post-Assad Syria — not exactly a federal state, but something that offers autonomy to at least two regions: the Kurdish northeast and an enclave of Alawites along the western coast near the Mediterranean.
Here are highlights of an interview with Bacik, conducted by senior reporter David Arnold.
Kurds with different visions
There are some kinds of common points … but I don’t think there is a common conclusion. Each group still has its different visions. This is very simple to explain why these groups failed to create a common vision because each group is acting as a proxy of another country. For example, thinking about post-Assad Syria, Turkey somehow supporting moderate Ikhwan-style groups to replace Assad regime over there, which is understandable. Some parts of the Free Syrian Army, which are led by some Turkoman people, who live on northern Aleppo, for example…. Each side is going to support their own proxy. I don’t want to use this term, but it’s a good term to analyze the situation… Iran will be against any kind of Ikhwan in Syria. Iran will be happy to see remnants of the regime along with the Alawite community… the Kurdish agenda is not to, let’s say, liberate Aleppo or Damascus, it is more to creating an autonomous region in northeast Syria.
Government by smugglers or teachers in Azaz
I am expecting an intra-opposition tension. For example, let me give you a very interesting case. There is a very small village which is very close to the Turkish border, maybe 20 kilometers. Its name is Azaz. So, the Assad officials left the city actually three or four months ago, but the people are against the Free Syrian Army so there are two local groups who are in competition to rule the city. One group is mainly composed of smugglers. The other is a kind of union organized by teachers working in Azaz. So, the smugglers union and the teachers union is in competition to rule Azaz. This is a typical case in Syria.
Autonomy for Kurds
The fact is, the first goal is the Assad regime. The second is creating autonomy…. We’re expecting a kind of federalism in Syria as it happened in Iraq. I mean, I’m not saying Syria is going to disintegrate but the option will inevitably be to support each group to be part of Syria which may end up with a kind of federal-like system… with areas for Alawites and Kurdish people … thinking ethnically, it is the Kurds. Normally, the problem is PYD (Democratic Union Party) which is the more organized group in northern Syria and unlike other Kurdish groups they have a militia…. It may lead the Turkish politics towards a more federalistic demand, I think that is happening right now.
Autonomy for Alawites
There are some risks after Assad because after 40,000 people are killed, there might be some reactions to Alawites, unfortunately, but… when you go to Latakia, Sunni people are the majority of the people, but in the rural areas there is an Alawite majority.
Follow the Iraqi or Lebanon model?
To me the question is, so far, post-Assad Syria could become Iraqi-like, but even right now it is reminding us of the Lebanese situation. If post-Assad Syria could be like Iraq, it’s good. If it’s going to be like the Lebanese case, it is the worst scenario…. In the Iraqi model there are many problems but at least we know where the Kurds live. They have an economy. But in Lebanon it is very, very difficult…. Their system is not territorial, it is depending on ethnic or sectarian quotas – the Christians, the Shiites, the Sunnis. They don’t have territories. It’s not federal…. Because the Lebanon system lacks this territorial base, if civil strife breaks out, it is very deadly.
Listen to the full interview with Gokhan Bacik (21 minutes)
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.