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The Kurds in Syria, a Struggle for Self-Determination

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The Kurds in Syria, a struggle for self-determination

Thiebald WoudaS2556790IRIO Academic Skills 2Research PaperDrs. H. Sportel27-01-2014Amount of words used: 2378 |

Table of Content


Chapter 1
Setting up an own state_______________________________________________5

Chapter 2
The Kurds in Syria and their claim for an own state_________________________7




The Kurds have always dreamed of their own state which they call Kurdistan. Kurdistan is located in the Middle-East and is divided over 4 countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In 1920, the Kurds were close to establishing their own state because the foundation of a Kurdish state was mentioned in the Treaty of Sevres. However, after some discussion of other involving parties, the Treaty of Sevres was replaced in 1923 by the treaty of Lausanne, in which the Kurds were neglected. This excluded the establishment of a Kurdish state. Years of revolt went by and although the Kurds have tried to become independent, an own internationally recognized state was never established. Syria was no exception, the Kurds were suppressed by the Syrian government. For example on 23 august 1962, when as a result of a decision of the government, 120000 Kurds lost their Syrian citizenship.

But then, in 2010 the first protests in Tunisia started and these demonstrations turned out to be the beginning of wider protests within the Arab countries. After Tunisia, protests followed in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The Arab spring in Syria began 15 march 2011 with huge demonstrations against the current regime of the Baath-party of Assad. The Kurds did not immediately support the demonstrations because they were afraid of the intentions of the opposition. The Kurds were caught in the middle. With this in mind, along with the fact that the Kurds have been suppressed in the past, a new Kurdish call for independence seemed logical. And this is exactly what happened.

With the lack of a real authority and an effective central government the Kurds took over the northern part of Syria, the region where most of the Kurds have always lived and the region that is part of Kurdistan. Now that the Kurds took over control in this part of Syria a claim for an own independent state became plausible. This paper will analyze whether this claim for an own independent Kurdish state is a rightful one.

Therefore, it is important to look at which requirements are in general needed in order to set up an own independent state. Not every single nation can set up their own state, there are certain requirements which need to be fulfilled. Within International Law, there are certain requirements mentioned, so it is important for a state to fulfill these requirements because it helps a state to be internationally acknowledged. This paper will elaborate on these requirements and put them in perspective. After pointing out these requirements this paper will analyze to what extent these requirements are fulfilled by the Kurdish people in the northern part of Syria which they have claimed. By combining the requirements so set up an own state with the current situation in Syria this paper will answer the question whether or not the Kurdish people have a rightful claim for independence in Syria.

Setting up an own state

Before a nation can set up its own state, it is important to fulfill certain requirements which are internationally recognized. Nations who do not fulfill these requirements are having a hard time to get international acknowledged and therefore to become a successful and viable state. Not only is it important for a state to be internationally acknowledged, their internal sovereignty has to be described as well because a state that does not possess any internal sovereignty cannot govern a state since they will not be able to implement their policy. This chapter will analyze these requirements.

In accordance with the convention in Montevideo in 1933, a state must have a permanent population, an effective and working government, a defined territory and a state must be capable of entering into relations with other states. A permanent population is needed because a state needs people to govern. Without people to govern setting up a state would be useless. It is important that there is a permanent population, meaning that there are enough people when setting up the state but also within the next years in order for the state to be viable and to be acknowledged. There are no restrictions regarding to the ethnicity of the population meaning that there can live several ethnicities within one state.

The second requirement is that a state needs to have a functioning government. A functioning government means that the government gains sovereignty within its borders. The sovereignty of a government within a state is crucial in order for the government to implement their policy without worrying about having resistance of the inhabitants or the internal parties. A government needs to be acknowledged by surrounding states as well. Economically this is important because acknowledgment means that trade is possible between the state itself and the neighboring states and this is the easiest market access. ’

A defined territory is another feature to set up an own state. In order to define the territory, three stages can be described. The first is that there must be an agreement on the description of territory, than the delimitation takes place and finally the results of the delimitation should be put down in a treaty. There is not a minimal geographical needed in order to set up a state.

When these three requirements are met, a state is de facto. However, if a state meets the fourth requirement which is entering into relations with other states a state can be acknowledged as de jure.

Independence cannot be seen apart from self-determination. Self-determination is the principle whereby the future of the inhabitants is determined by the wishes of the inhabitants in a certain area. In most cases self-determination is linked with statehood. Self determination is also mentioned in the UN Charter. Article 2 of the UN Charter states that one of the purposes of the United Nations is to create a healthy relationship between states based on the right of self-determination. Furthermore, there are examples of states which lacked one of the requirements mentioned in the Montevideo treaty but still were recognized as states. Sometimes, the right of self-determination prevails over one of the requirements so set up a state. David Raič even claims that the right of self determination is an additional requirement for statehood.

All in all it means that there are several requirements you have to take in account before setting up a new state: A permanent population, an effective and working government, a defined territory and being capable of entering into relations with other states. This is important because these requirements are helping the state to gain internal and external sovereignty.

The Kurds in Syria and their claim for an own state

Because of the crisis in Syria and the lack of a central government, the Kurds saw opportunities to claim their own independent region in northern Syria. The question now is whether they meet the requirements mentioned in chapter one to set up an own independent state. This chapter will analyze to what extent the Kurds meet the requirements by comparing each of the requirements with the current situation of the Kurds in the northern region of Syria.

The first requirement is the need for a permanent population. The Kurdish settlement goes back roughly to the eleventh century and ever since the Kurds have been living in this region. Looking at the current situation, there are approximately two million Kurds living in Syria. This supports the argument of a permanent population, which is needed to set up an own state. Because of the current conflict in Syria there are a lot of Kurds who flee to the neighboring country Iraq. Therefore, a permanent population is not guaranteed when setting up the new state. However, it must also be stated that there are a handful of Kurds who are supposedly training in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to claim independence in Syria.

The second requirement mentioned in chapter one is an effective government. During the Arab Spring in Syria, the Kurdish rebellions in Syria tried to gain as much territory as they could in northeast-Syria. After they gained the territory, they needed a party or person to govern this region. In the summer of 2012, the Kurds declared an autonomous region in northern Syria. Eventually, the Syrian Kurds announced on the 11th of November 2013 a transitional autonomous government for this region. This idea was implemented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The idea of the transitional government is that there should be a temporary government which governs the Kurdish region until the crisis in Syria is solved. There is however a lot of criticism on the government. First there is the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S), this party is affiliated to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani who criticizes this plan because they fear the military power of the PYD and their influence on the elections which were scheduled. This causes distrust between the two major Kurdish parties who are active in Syria. This distrust also has its impact on the inhabitants of the region because it causes a division between those who support the PYD and those who support the KDP-S which makes it even harder for the government to function. The only thing that all the Kurdish parties have in common is that they all want some kind of self-governance in the near future. Furthermore, there seems to be a clear distinction between the old parties and the new young militants and activists which also destabilizes the concept of a functioning government. Also, the government is not acknowledged by other states and reasons to do so are normally because the question is asked whether the state is viable, whether the government is really independent of another state, or if it was established with the use of force while this was prohibited.

There is however, a more or less defined territory. All the areas the Kurdish militants have taken over should be part of the state. The part which the Kurdish militants have taken over covers the northeastern region of Syria which corresponds with the region which the Kurds see as Western-Kurdistan.

For the Kurds it would be difficult to enter into relations with other states. As mentioned before, the government they implemented is not acknowledged by other states yet and a government that is not acknowledged by other state cannot enter into relations with other states. The surrounding states are skeptical of this government as well. The transitional government is opposed by Turkey and by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which is led by Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan. Especially the fact that the KDP opposes the transitional government is a bad sign, since it would be logical for a Kurdish government to get support from a Kurdish party in another state. Turkey does not only fear the government, they fear the Kurdish uprise in northern Syria as a whole. Turkey even built a wall at the border of northern Syria and Turkey.

Self determination is also a factor which is mentioned in the first chapter. The Kurds in Syria have always been suppressed by the regime of the Ba’ath party. For example in 1962, when as a result of a decision of the government 120000 Kurds lost their Syrian citizenship. The Kurds were not allowed to speak their language as well and Kurds who wanted to give their child a Kurdish name were not able to do so since Kurdish names were forbidden in Syria. The Syrian government even replaced Kurdish names of villages with Arabic ones. Besides that political parties were forbidden.’ These are all examples of how the Syrian government ignored the right of self-determination.

Concluding it shows that the Kurds do meet some requirements up to a certain height, but most of the requirements as mentioned in the first chapter still need to be fulfilled. This does not necessarily mean that setting up an own state is impossible, it just means that there still is a way to go before the Kurds have a rightful claim. The one requirement that really strengthens the Kurdish position is the fact that the fight for self-determination can be seen as a requirement for setting up an own state.


It is clear that the Kurdish people in Syria are struggling to meet all the requirements. The northern region of Syria does have the opportunity for a permanent population. There are a lot of people who are still fleeing to the neighboring states such as the Kurdish part of Iraq which means that a permanent population is not guaranteed. The government which is implemented by de Democratic Union Party is not very successful. Though it is the first step towards a functioning government, the way it is implemented and the way the other parties and surrounding states respond to it does not fit within the requirement of a functioning government. The requirement which does give the Kurds a rightful claim is the fact that the Kurds do have more or less a defined territory because the territory which they have claimed is a territory where Kurds have been living for years now. This territory is also known as Western-Kurdistan. Due to the lack of an effective government and the fact that the response of the neighboring states on this government is negative, it is hard for the Kurds to enter into international relations with other states which is also one of the requirements. Turkey even built a wall at the border between Turkey and Syria. This reduces a rightful claim for independence as well. One of the things which the Kurds can benefit from is the fact that, because of their history of being oppressed, other states might feel empathy for them and help the Kurds to built their own state and the fact that the right for self-determination can be taken into account when setting up an own state contributes to a rightful claim as well. The research of this paper has revealed that the Kurds do meet, up to certain height, some of the requirements however, some of the requirements needed to become independent are only partly met up, some requirements are not fulfilled at all, by the Kurds and they still need to improve a lot of things before they have a rightful claim for independence.


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[ 1 ]. Meho Lokman, The Kurds and Kurdistan : a selective and annotated bibliography (Westport. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997) chap. 4.
[ 2 ]. David McDowall, A modern history of the Kurds (New York : I.B. Tauris, 2004), 3rd ed. Chap. 7.
[ 3 ]. David McDowall, A modern history of the Kurds (New York : I.B. Tauris, 2004), 3rd ed. Chap. 7.
[ 4 ]. Infoplease, s.v. ‘‘Kurdish History Timeline,’’ accessed January 20, 2014,
[ 5 ]. Virginia Sherry, ‘The silenced Kurds,’ Human Rights Watch, October, 1996, accessed January 20, 2014,
[ 6 ]. Ted Carpenter, “Caught in the Middle: Syria’s Kurdish Population—and the U.S.,” Gulan Media, February 4, 2013, accessed January 20,2014,
[ 7 ]. Roy Gutman, “Assad hands control of Syria’s Kurdish areas to PKK, sparking outrage in Turkey,’’ McClatchy, July 26, 2012, accessed January 20,2014,
[ 8 ]. Abdulla Namo “Inside America Are we witnessing the Kurdish Spring in Syria ’’ YouTube video: 3:43, Posted by “11noumenon,’’ August 6, 2013, accessed January 24,2014, http //www youtube com/watch v=XptoYOu2uwY
[ 9 ]. Rebecca M.M. Wallace and Olga Martin-Ortega, International Law, 7th ed. (Sweet and Maxwell, 2013), 64.
[ 10 ]. Rebecca M.M. Wallace and Olga Martin-Ortega, International Law, 7th ed. (Sweet and Maxwell, 2013), 64.
[ 11 ]. Charlotte Mathilde Louise Hille, State building and conflict resolution in the Caucasus (Leiden: Brill,2010), Chap. 2.
[ 12 ]. Charlotte Mathilde Louise Hille, State building and conflict resolution in the Caucasus (Leiden: Brill,2010), Chap. 2.
[ 13 ]. Valentino Piana, ‘’Trade with thy neighbor,’’ economics web institute, accessed December 11, 2013,
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[ 15 ]. Charlotte Mathilde Louise Hille, State building and conflict resolution in the Caucasus (Leiden: Brill,2010), Chap. 2.
[ 16 ]. Rebecca M.M. Wallace and Olga Martin-Ortega, International Law, 7th ed. (Sweet and Maxwell, 2013), 65.
[ 17 ]. Charlotte Mathilde Louise Hille, State building and conflict resolution in the Caucasus (Leiden: Brill,2010), Chap. 2.
[ 18 ]. Rebecca M.M. Wallace and Olga Martin-Ortega, International Law, 7th ed. (Sweet and Maxwell, 2013), 69.
[ 19 ]. David Raič, Statehood and the Law of Self-Determination(Kluwer Law International, September 25, 2002), First edition, chap. 8.
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[ 27 ]. Joe Lombardo, “The Kurdish Question in the Syrian Arab Spring,” Amandla Magazine (November 13,2013) accessed January 23, 2014,
[ 28 ]. Charlotte Mathilde Louise Hille, State building and conflict resolution in the Caucasus (Leiden: Brill,2010), Chap. 2.
[ 29 ]. “PYD announces establishment of Western Kurdistan autonomy with legislative and executive powers,” Nationalia, November 13,2013, accessed January 23, 2014,
[ 30 ]. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, ‘’Syrian Kurdish Party declares transitional government,’’ Al Monitor, November 12, 2013, accessed December 14,2013,
[ 31 ]. Constanze Letsch, ‘’ Turkey's new border wall angers Kurds on both sides of Syrian divide,’’ The Guardian, November 8, 2013, accessed December 14, 2013,
[ 32 ]. Perveen Ali and Pary Karadaghi, ‘’Foreigners in their own land,’’ New York Times, February 14, 2006, accessed December 15, 2013,
[ 33 ]. Radwan Ziadeh, “The Kurds in Syria Fueling Separatist Movements in the Region?,’’ United States Institute of Peace (website), accessed January 23,2014,
[ 34 ]. Kurdish Human Rights Project, The Kurds in Syria : the forgotten people (Londen: Pluto Press, 2005) chap. 9.

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