Kurds in Syria are making advances towards their long-coveted goal of consolidating self-rule as the brutal six year war in the country grinds on.

In northern Syria, Kurdish groups have carved out self-governing regions since early in the civil war, and now control around twenty-five percent of the country. Last month, Kurdish-held regions in Syria held the first elections in a three-phase vote to establish a federated Kurdish government.

Earlier this year, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, dismissed the planned elections as a “joke”, saying the central government will eventually assert control over Kurdish-held areas.

Bashar al-Assad has long vowed to take back control of the entire country, including northern territories controlled by Kurdish groups. But in the run-up to Iraqi-Kurdistian’s historic independence referendum on September 25, which secured an overwhelming ninety-two percent ‘yes’ vote, Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, appeared to strike a conciliatory tone, suggesting the issue of autonomy was “open to negotiation” once ISIS was defeated.

Kurds in Syria have long insisted they are not seeking secession, but only self-rule as part of a decentralized Syria. Over the last few years, the chances of realizing this dream have increased.

The Kurds hold key territory and have received backing from the U.S. government in their fight against ISIS. In fact, the United States has set up multiple military bases in Kurdish areas, indicating long-term interests in the region. Just two years ago, ISIS militants nearly destroyed the Kurdish-majority town of Kobani in northern Syria. Now, with ISIS driven out and facing collapse, a new university is set to open in the town, the first in the autonomous Kurdish areas and the first in Syria to teach Kurdish.

“In Rojava, we have a federal project. In (Iraqi) Kurdistan, it is the long awaited state. The two complement one another in realizing the Kurds’ aspiration for a dignified life,” a Syrian-Kurdish man named Hassan, who will be a professor at the university, told The Associated Press.

Despite opposition from the Assad regime, a formula for Kurdish self-rule in Syria, where the cultural and ethnic identity of Kurds has long been suppressed, is taking shape.

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