The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have liberated Raqqa from the Islamic State, replacing dead bodies that hung from railings with yellow and green flags and marking the end of ISIS’s control over its self-proclaimed capital. This allows the SDF and their parent group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to nearly complete their unification of a region of northern Syria they refer to as Rojava, which the PYD declared autonomous in 2016.
While the liberation of Raqqa represents a triumph for the most efficient forces fighting against ISIS, it leaves open the question of the population of Rojava’s relationship with that of the greater Syrian state as well as that of the government of the Syrian Kurdish region itself. The recently-elected co-chairman of the PYD, Shahoz Hassan recently stated “we are open for a dialogue with the central government. We do not want the partition of Syria, do not harbor plans of separating from the country and do not want to set up an independent Kurdistan. Such rumors are not true” and that he supports inclusion of the Kurds in any negotiations regarding the continuing Syrian civil war. The Syrian government has also indicated that they are open to granting the Rojava region greater autonomy, an offer that has generated great enthusiasm from the PYD. However, Hassan has stressed that the PYD does not intend to follow the leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and move towards independence and the Syrian government has denounced the Iraqi Kurdish referendum as illegal.
Autonomy continues to be an exciting possibility for the Syrian Kurdish population, the question remains as to what a Syrian Kurdish regional government would look like during peacetime. Much like in Kirkuk in Iraq, where Arabs and Turkmen reject the idea of being included in the Iraqi Kurdish region while Iraqi Kurds claim Kirkuk as an essential part of the region, Kurds and Arabs in Rojava continue to experience conflict and division. The PYD have evacuated or destroyed Arab villages in northern Syria and drafted young men into the SFD, something that the Sunni Arab population protested. Furthermore, the curriculum of schools in Rojava worsens the division between Kurds and Arabs in the region. In Raqqa, where the majority of the population is Arab, teachers use the official Syrian government textbooks, just with the pictures of the Assad family torn out. However, in Kurdish majority cities, the PYD instituted a separate curriculum more in line with their left-wing perspective. Despite the problems inherent in the current situation, however, other Kurdish activists such as Mehmet Aksoy, who was killed in September by ISIS forces, have worked to unite the multiethnic population in Rojava utilizing a model called Democratic Confederalism.
Even though there is the potential for fracturing between different groups located within Rojava, evidence exists that such an arrangement may be possible and that the current government of the region may be capable of uniting the various factions within the area. While they were overshadowed by the independence referendum next door in Iraqi Kurdistan, local elections were held in Rojava on September 22nd that were seen as acceptable by most of the population of the region. Furthermore, the SDF recently reclaimed Syria’s largest oilfield from ISIS, giving them leverage in any potential negotiations concerning future autonomy.
After the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa and its decline throughout the region, a variety of paths remain open for Syria’s Kurdish population. While many believe it to be likely that, without the uniting force of a common enemy, the population of Rojava may fracture, others hope that the gains made towards autonomy and the leverage the SDF currently has against the central Syrian government may pave the way for a more peaceful and still united Syria.