A handout picture released by the Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad

The long-oppressed Kurdish minority in Syria has begun an experiment in self-rule that will shake up the balance of power in an already volatile Middle East and potentially complicate Geneva peace talks to end the country’s civil war.

Last week, Syrian Kurds declared the establishment of the semi-autonomous region of Rojava, the Kurdish name for one of three departments in the oil-rich Jazeera, the northwestern corridor wedged between Iraq and Turkey. They named 22 cabinet ministers to a regional government based in the city of Qamishli, where hundreds of revellers poured into the streets for a flag-waving celebration on the eve of the Geneva talks.

“This declaration is considered a historical event,” said Nawaf Khalil, spokesman for the Democratic Union party, known by the acronym, PYD, which is the driving force of the self-rule experiment. “While many regions in Syria are witnessing a major increase in brutality that has reached the stage of civil war, Kurds along with [other ethnic groups] succeeded in collaborating and declaring an autonomous government.”

The formal establishment of Rojava challenges the calculations of several key players: the Syrian regime and the opposition Syrian National Coalition, or SNC, now negotiating in Geneva; the hardcore Islamist fighting groups vying for control of the country’s north; and Turkey, which is nervous about the nationalist aspirations of its own large Kurdish minority.

It also marks a significant step in what many have seen as the fragmentation of Syria, an amalgam of Arab Sunni, various Shia sects and Christian denominations as well as ethnic Kurds and Assyrians.

“It’s extremely significant and it could be a harbinger of things to come, not just in the Kurdish region but elsewhere,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “For well over a year, the country has been de facto partitioned. When you start getting this kind of autonomy you get de jure partition, because you actually have parties that are declaring autonomy, and this is extremely controversial because that makes it more like the Balkans.”

Kurds, numbering about 2m in Syria and up to 30m from the Caspian to the Mediterranean seas, have a language and culture distinct from the Middle East’s Arabs, Persians and Turks. They have suffered under the rule of the Assad clan, especially Bashar, who tightened restrictions on their traditions, language and political rights.

“They were always suppressed and used by Assad and other Kurdish parties for their own aims and interests.” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish specialist at the Jamestown Foundation think-tank. “Now they’re playing their own role. Now they have their own television, radio stations and armed forces.”

Officials of the autonomous government insist they are not seeking to break away from the country but to create the nucleus of a future federal democratic Syria embodying the original spirit of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Its leadership includes Christian and Muslim Arabs as well as Kurds, and among its aims is fending off the advances of extremist Islamist groups that make up the core of the armed rebellion against Mr Assad.

“This new government is made up of different ethnic and religious backgrounds,” said Mohamed Saleh Kado, secretary-general of the Left Democratic party and the spokesman for the new government, in an interview from Qamishli. “Rojava means for me unity because it is a gathering of Syrians from different backgrounds. We have no intension to divide Syria or to become an independent entity.”

Mr Khalil described the Jazeera region, which includes both Rojava and the 100,000 barrel-a-day Suwaydah oilfield, as the heart of Syria’s economy. “It represents more than 60 per cent of the country’s oil production,” he said. “In addition, the agricultural sector is one of the most prosperous of Syria, and according to our data, the new autonomous region will be able to sustain itself economically.”

But the declaration also adds yet another dimension of complexity and uncertainty to the multifaceted civil war and international efforts to end it. The PYD is considered an arm of the powerful Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK, the guerrilla group that has been fighting Nato member Turkey for decades.

Kurds have long opposed Mr Assad but they have clashed with the Sunni Arab-dominated opposition, sometimes violently. Many Kurds have grown wary of the SNC, which has at times accused Kurds of collaborating with the regime and at other times tacitly endorsed attacks on Kurds by extremist Islamist groups. Fighting between Kurds and rebel groups exploded frequently over the past year, empowering the PYD and its militia, the People’s Protection Units.

Most regional experts say there is an informal non-aggression agreement between Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime, but no collaboration.

“Over the arc of 2013, the jihadis spent more time fighting the Kurds than they fought Assad,” said Kirk H. Sowell, founder of Uticensis Risk Services, a political risk consultancy based in Amman, Jordan. “You also find mainstream SNC figures refer to the PYD as part of the regime.”

Qamishli and the surrounding Hasaka province declared autonomy after Kurds were denied their own seat at the table at Geneva; they were welcomed only under the auspices of the SNC. The Syrian opposition abroad includes a Kurdish contingent largely loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic party, the dominant political and military force among Kurdish Iraqis, who are also being drawn into the Syrian conflict.

Experts say Iraqi Kurdistan increasingly serves as a base for Syrian Kurdish factions looking to that economically booming and increasingly powerful region as a role model. “At a minimum, it’s providing very clear logistics and political support,” said Mr Sowell.

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