Syrian Kurds And The Divisions That Plague Damascus' Enemies

A Kurdish fighter in Syria
A Kurdish fighter in Syria
Cale Salih

The mainstream Syrian political opposition failed for nearly two years to draw in the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a muddled coalition of 16 Syrian Kurdish political parties. In what was hailed as a breakthrough, the KNC finally decided to join the Syrian National Coalition (NC) last month.

Yet the decision will have little practical impact on Arab-Kurdish relations in Syria. Its impact will primarily play out abroad, giving both the KNC and the NC a boost in international credibility, rather than inside Syria. The NC was eager for the Kurdish bloc to join its ranks in order to address a common criticism that it has not sufficiently reached out to minorities. The KNC, desperately looking for a way to stay relevant as a rival Kurdish party establishes dominance inside Syria, hopes to use the NC as a platform to boost its international credentials.

KNC’s motivations

The KNC famously stormed out of an opposition meeting in Cairo in 2012 when Arab participants refused to use the term “Kurdish Nation” in the meeting’s final statement. Subsequent negotiations between the two hit dead ends over disagreements regarding Kurdish autonomy and symbolic wording details. Now, the Kurdish group has changed its course, opting to formally join the opposition. Yet little has changed since the Cairo meeting in terms of the KNC’s relationship with Syrian opposition leaders, and the latter’s willingness to concede to Kurdish demands for decentralization.

The Kurdish coalition’s decision to join the opposition was not a result of a change of heart on either side. Rather, it was prompted by a growing need for the KNC to find ways to compete with its increasingly powerful Syrian Kurdish rival, the Partiya Yeketiya Demokratiya (PYD).

In the past two years, the PYD has grown from being a relatively unknown party in Syria to becoming the most powerful Kurdish political and military force inside the country. It has pulled off masterful diplomatic acrobatics, balancing opportunistic relationships with elements of both the regime and the opposition based in Syria, and has asserted military control of key Kurdish cities. The party recently gained newfound popularity, earning the role of “protector of the Kurds” in its latest battles with extremist Sunni groups. In some cases, it has even outperformed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). While ISIS has made alarming gains against FSA-aligned groups in Azaz and other parts of Syria, the PYD has successfully ousted the jihadist group from some Kurdish villages.

Meanwhile, the KNC has proven unable to compete, despite significant financial, diplomatic and even military support from its Iraqi Kurdish patrons. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), an Iraqi Kurdish party led by Massoud Barzani, has trained a number of Syrian Kurdish army defectors that could serve as the military wing of KDP-friendly parties within the KNC. Yet KDP-trained Syrian Kurds remain based in Iraqi Kurdistan, unable to move into Syria where they could face PYD retaliation. The PYD has explicitly threatened that it would reject the arrival of an external Kurdish armed force.

Unable to take on the PYD inside Syria, the KNC is trying its hand in the international arena. The KNC’s decision to join the NC is a play on its only viable card against the PYD – the bid to gain international legitimacy. The PYD is a sister party of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Turkey. These links preclude it from establishing working relations with powerful Western nations, and with the Western, and especially Turkish-backed NC. PYD leader Saleh Muslim declared that he does “not accept” the KNC’s decision to join the NC, and the party’s armed wing went further, implying that the NC, and therefore the KNC, supports anti-Kurdish extremist Sunni groups.

Though the PYD has some representatives based in Europe, it has not, like the KNC, enjoyed official invitations to Washington and NC courtship. Joining the Syrian opposition gives the KNC access to international donor money, and a global political platform that the PYD cannot compete with. Yet, it is unlikely to boost the KNC’s ability to play a role inside Syria, especially given that the NC itself has weak ties to groups working inside the country.

The NC’s motivations

The NC has long been desperate for a significant minority bloc to join its ranks, as one of the most common criticisms it faces, especially from Western nations that fund the coalition, is that it is too Arab- and Sunni-dominated. The KNC’s new membership may therefore boost the NC’s legitimacy in the eyes of international backers, and possibly draw in more foreign donor money. Yet it is unlikely to improve the NC’s standing among Kurds in Syria, especially given the PYD’s hostility towards the NC. Given the KNC’s inability to compete with the PYD on the ground, it is unlikely to be able to act as a vehicle for NC influence in Kurdish parts of the country.

Moreover, the KNC-NC agreement addressed mostly symbolic points of contention, postponing the wrangling over the most divisive issues at the heart of mistrust between the Kurdish and Arab communities. While the deal affords a KNC leader the position of third vice president in the NC, and drops the “Arab” from the official name of the country, the Syrian Arab Republic, it did not outline an agreed-upon understanding of decentralization. The KNC seeks decentralization, though it has only vaguely defined the extent to which this would imply Kurdish autonomy, and the NC is careful to insist on the territorial integrity of Syria. Trust between the two sides has been severely damaged by suspicions among the Arab community that Kurds are merely waiting for an opportunity to secede, and beliefs among the Kurdish community that Arabs aim to suppress their political rights. The symbolic concessions outlined in the KNC-NC agreement do little to resolve this mistrust.


The KNC’s decision to join the NC is a way for both sides to boost their international legitimacy, but is unlikely to have a practical impact on Arab-Kurdish relations inside Syria. Neither group has strong enough links to players inside Syria to achieve this result. The union is in line with the NC’s trend of drawing in groups and individuals that are disconnected to the decision-making activists and armed groups working inside the country.

“It’s symbolic, and it’s way too late,” said Syrian journalist Sirwan Kajjo. “The PYD has already determined how the newly established Syrian Kurdistan will be. For the NC, the KNC is the best example to gain more popular support inside Syria. But they’re not aware of the fact that the KNC has lost a lot of its popularity within Kurdish Syria.”

It would be fallacious to conclude that the Kurds have committed to the Syrian opposition. A fragmented coalition of Kurdish parties, periodically on the verge of collapse and politically and militarily irrelevant inside Syria, joining a disjointed Syrian opposition umbrella group based in exile, is at most a precarious start to making the Syrian opposition a more legitimate representative of the anti-regime movement in Syria.

Yet if the NC and the KNC gradually improve their ties to groups working on the ground, they may eventually be able to play a role in reconciling the deep grievances and mistrust between Arabs and Kurds that have taken root since the conflict started two years ago.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!