With a population of 2 million, the Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, comprising around 10% of the country’s population. Although the Kurdish population in Syria is relatively small in comparison to the Kurdish population in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, they have proven themselves to be a formidable force when fighting against opposition.
Kurds in Syria mostly live in the countries far north-eastern region, which covers the greater part of the Al-Hasakah Governorate. The main cities in this region include the capital city Al-Hasakah, Al-Qamishli and Kobanî. Syrian Kurdistan is commonly referred to as Rojava, and gained autonomy in 2013 as a part of the on-going Rojava revolution that has been aiming to establish a society based on principles of direct democracy, gender equality and sustainability.
Although major advancements have been made in the Syrian Kurds’ struggle for autonomy, the nation has been under perpetual attack by a number of outside forces, mainly comprising of militants fighting for the Islamic State. The Kurdish population in Syria has been fighting against ISIS for territory in the Al-Hasakah region since the onset of the Syrian Civil War. The first battle erupted between the Kurds and the Islamists during 2012 in the city of Ras al-Ayn when local Kurds aided the Free Syrian Army in an attempt to take control of Islamist-controlled areas in the governorate of Al-Hasakah.
During September of 2014, ISIS declared the start of the siege of Kobanî, where the headquarters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main armed service of the Kurdish Supreme committee, are located. During the Siege, 350 Kurdish villages were captured by ISIS, which generated mass migration of around 400,000 Kurds who fled across the border to Turkey. The YPG were joined by Free Syrian Army reinforcements and also backed by the launch of American and Arab airstrikes. By January of 2015, the city of Kobanî had been fully recaptured and by February, Islamic State had withdrawn from all the villages it had captured in the region.
Many other territorial battles have taken place between the Kurds and ISIS over the past few years with some battles continuing into 2015. Most recently, Syrian Kurds were reported to have increased their offensive on the Islamic militants and announced plans to liberate the Syrian-Turkish border town of Jarabulus, which is the last Turkish border crossing point held by the Islamists. The YPG believe that the act of seizing border territory will prevent Jihadists from outside of the region reaching Islamic State strongholds.
Earlier in 2015, the Kurdish militia and their allies had already been seen capturing the town of Sarrin, which lies on the Euphrates River that crosses the 550-mile border with Turkey and is considered to be the last major ISIS stronghold in the Kobanî countryside. Syrian Kurds have also been discussing a broader contest for influence in Syria with Moscow and Washington. General Commander of the YPG expressed “We can work together with Russia against IS…We want air support against IS. We want weapons support.”
The advances being made by Kurds in north-eastern Syria, both in terms of territorial gains and their success against ISIS, have concerned Turkey, which worries that the expansion of the Kurds in Syria may ignite separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish minority. Concerns were highlighted during mid-2015 when Turkish military and security commanders held several meetings to discuss the latest developments in northern Syria and the effects they may have on their Kurdish population’s desire for independence.