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The Kurds of Syria, from marginalization to ‘de facto’ autonomy in the north

Ⓒ AFP – Delil Souleiman – | Syrian Kurds demonstrate in the city of Amuda against the military operation in Turkey on January 21, 2018

The Kurds of Syria, who adopted a “neutral” position towards power and the rebels at the beginning of the conflict, took advantage of the chaos of the war to establish a de facto autonomy in the territories they control in the Syrian north and northeast.


Installed mainly in northern Syria, the Kurds, who are mostly Sunni, with some non-Muslim minorities and often secular political formations, account for 15% of the Syrian population, according to some estimates.

They were marginalized for decades and oppressed by the Baath Party, in power; while still demanding the recognition of their cultural and political rights.


At the beginning of the conflict, in 2011 with the violent repression by the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of the demonstrations against him, the regime has a gesture with the Kurds.

President Al Asad naturalizes 300,000 “stateless” Kurds who had lost their nationality after a controversial census in 1962.

The Kurds try to stay away from the conflict and adopt a “neutral” position on power and rebellion. They try to prevent the rebels from entering their region to avoid reprisals by the regime.

In mid-2012, government forces abandon their positions in the north and east and are resumed by the Kurds. That withdrawal seems destined to incite the Kurds not to ally themselves with the rebels.


In November 2013, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), of which the Popular Protection Units (YPG) are the armed wing, proclaims a semi-autonomy.

In March 2016, the semi-autonomous territories announced the creation of a “federal region” composed of three cantons: Afrin, in the province of Aleppo (north); Yazira, which corresponds to the province of Hasake (northeast); and the Euphrates, in part of the provinces of Aleppo and Raqa.

This initiative resembles a de facto autonomy and the Kurds are going to get into trouble with the opposition, in addition to the hostility of the neighboring Turkey.

In December 2016, they are endowed with a “social contract”, a Constitution for their “federal region”.


Since 2014, the YPG are one of the main forces fighting against the Islamic State (IS) group with the aerial support of the anti-jihadist coalition led by the United States.

In January 2015, the Kurdish forces supported by the coalition from the air expel the IS from Kobane, on the border with Turkey.

In August 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces (FDS), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, expel the IS from their Raqa fiefdom.


On January 14, 2018, the international coalition announced the creation of a border “force” in northern Syria of 30,000 troops, mainly composed of members of the SDS, dominated by the YPG.

Turkey considers the YPG the extension in Syria of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish organization that fights Ankara since 1984.

On January 15, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, affirms that the Turkish Army is willing “to launch an operation” at any time “against the bastions of the YPG in Afrin and Manbij (north).

On the 19th, Turkey bombs Afrin.

On January 20, the Turkish army announces the launching of a ground and air offensive against the YPG.

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