Middle East, World — January 21, 2013 11:47 pm

The Plight of the Syrian Kurds

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Syria kurds

From 1986 to 1989, the Kurds of Iraq suffered through one of the grizzliest genocides in human history.  It was the First Gulf War, and Saddam Hussein was executing his al-Anfal campaign –a psychopathic bid to rid an ethnically fractured nation of its ‘Kurdish problem.’  Through the use of chemical weapons, the ‘concentration’ of Kurds into hellish, un-provisioned camps, and the deployment of a smorgasbord of other, equally diabolical methods, he managed to slaughter 180,000 of his subjects. Western journalists documented the gruesome, suppurating wounds of those hundreds of thousands merely maimed. The lush, rolling homeland of the Kurds was largely deforested, entire cities were depopulated, and by 1991 –when the Iraqi Kurds mounted a rebellion –many feared that they were to be relegated by the Hussein regime to the bloody, chemically seared dustbin of history.

That was until the United States stepped in.

There are few instances in which the American army can be thought of, almost unqualifiedly, as the ‘good guy.’  The establishment of a no-fly zone in Iraq in 1991 and the subsequent caesura of Kurdish oppression was, however, one of those instances. And even if American motives were purely strategic, the results were also unarguably humanitarian.

As a result of their American-enforced protections until 2003, and later as a result of the weakened central government in Baghdad after Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Iraqi Kurds were left to govern themselves for 22 years, from 1991 to present.  During this period, the Kurds have literally lifted their corner of Iraq from the ashes, establishing not only one of the most prosperous polities in the region, but also by far the best approximation of secular democracy that the Middle East can currently offer.

The average Iraqi Kurd has several newspapers from which to choose, many of which offer their content online in a variety of languages, and almost none of which shy away from criticizing the government.  The Internet is alive with Kurdish commentary; bloggers are not imprisoned or tortured, and many write their dissents in one of hundreds of Internet cafes in major Kurdish cities, such as Erbil and Sulaymaniya.  Though the government tolerates free speech to a far greater extent than do the governments of neighboring countries, it does not do so because it lacks governing capacity; during the American occupation, zero soldiers died in Kurdish Iraq compared to more than 4,400 in the Arab part, and everywhere the Kurds have control, Islamist militant groups such as al-Qaeda are unable to operate openly.

The Kurds have not embraced the seemingly paradoxical idea of Islamic democracy.  As Kurdish Studies Network coordinator Welat Zeydanlioglu made clear in an interview with the HPR, their governance is overwhelming secular in nature.  Even laws pertaining to blasphemy apply to deities of all religions rather than to just those of Islam.

There have been plenty of complaints, many of them founded, that the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, has grown increasingly authoritarian under current president Massoud Barzani.  But with competitive elections, a feisty press, and robust opposition, the KRG is, without doubt, fundamentally democratic, far more so than any other government in the region.

It seems that when the Kurds are not being repressed, they are as capable a people as any of building and maintaining a secular democracy.  To deny this would be to deny the accomplishments of the Kurdish Regional Government over the past two decades. But whereas the Iraqi Kurds have managed to escape their oppressors and establish a place on the sunnier side of history, their Kurdish brethren across the border in Syria are facing the prospect of a plight only slightly less grim than that of the genocide in Iraq, 24 years prior.

Though the Syrian Kurds are teetering on the edge of a humanitarian crisis, you won’t often hear of their struggle, as they do not fit into the black and white, good versus evil, democracy versus dictatorship version of the Syrian Civil War.  They are anti-Islamist and anti-Ba’athist.  They seek only their autonomy within a new Syria, and they rightly see the anti-secularist forces of the Free Syrian Army to be as much of a threat to their ambitions as the authoritarian forces of the crumbling regime in Damascus.

Though their goals are noble and, if the experience of the KRG is any indication, quite attainable, the Syrian Kurds have garnered quite a few ignoble enemies, and these enemies have conspired to hermetically seal them away from the outside world.  As a result, the Kurds of Syria now face a severe shortage of food and other basic supplies, as well as a general health and security situation that the Middle East Information Project has called “critical.”

On the western and southern borders of Syrian Kurdistan, the Free Syrian Army has been fighting the Kurds since July; moderate factions are offended by the Kurds’ desire for semi-autonomy, and conservative factions are offended by the Kurds’ laid back views toward religion.  (The Kurdish toleration of Jews, Christians, Agnostics, etc., their unwillingness to veil women, and their appreciation of secularism is apparently too much for some Sunni militiamen). As a result of this anti-Kurdish sentiment within the Syrian opposition, any pro-rebel supplies that flow into Syria from the west and south –that is, from Lebanon and Jordan –only worsen the situation of the Kurds.

Turkey, which controls the northern frontier of Syrian Kurdistan, has made the movement of supplies and people over its southern border practically impossible.  Erdoğan’s government in Ankara claims that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most popular political party among Syrian Kurds, is a branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a paramilitary network in Turkish Kurdistan with irredentist ambitions of its own.  Salih Muslim, the head of the PYD, claims in retort that no operational link exists between the PKK and his own party, though he openly admits that the two share an ideological affinity.

Looking at the situation from an objective, third party lens, one cannot deny that an Islamist central government in Damascus would more effectively stamp out the PKK’s presence in Syria than would a regional, Kurdish government.  At the same time, the PYD is certainly not an arm of the PKK as Turkey suggests.  Rather, as Second Lieutenant John Caves wrote in a briefing in December, the PYD is a separate, independent entity, that responds to the will of its constituency and to that of powerful international actors, well before it kowtows to terrorists across the border.  And though PYD officials, like the vast majority of their constituents, are embittered by Ankara’s gross marginalization of the Kurdish people, they do no more than tolerate the PKK; there is no evidence to suggest that the PYD actively supports terrorism in southeastern Turkey, and, as Caves claims in his authoritative analysis, the party “has its own set of interests, which it will prioritize.”  Still, Turkish suspicions and the inevitable ideological comradeship between Kurds of different nationalities have been sufficient to choke off all supply routes flowing into Syrian Kurdistan from the north.

The Turks, further flexing their geopolitical muscle, have even managed to slow the flow of refugees and supplies in between Iraqi Kurdistan and KRG-controlled territory to the east.

In one of the Middle East’s greatest economic ironies, Turkey has become a vital trading partner of the KRG, and has even suggested that it would militarily support Erbil if Iraq’s central government attempted to reassert itself in the north.  The “basic idea,” writes Ofra Bengio in The American Interest, “seems to be that, by giving the KRG something important to lose, Turkish leaders can temper and moderate its behavior.” The Barzani government, cognizant of its need for regional allies given Iraqi Kurdistan’s volatile neighbors and solidly landlocked location, is desperate to please the Erdoğan regime.  Thus, the KRG finds itself in the tricky position of trying to maintain a solid working relationship with a key economic ally without betraying fellow Kurds across the border in Syria.  These competing impulses have led to a contorted balancing act in which the KRG leaves its western border neither fully closed nor fully open, but rather in a state of semi-permeability, punctuated by occasional closure.

freedom and dignityIn sum, economic ambition in Iraqi Kurdistan, geopolitical calculation and subtle racism in Turkey, and a violent mixture of Islamism and neo-nationalist fervor in rebel-controlled Syria, have combined to isolate the Syrian Kurds.  Slowly, inexorably, they are starving. Supplies are running low, entire towns celebrate upon receiving two hours of electricity per day, and though the Syrian Kurds aspire to a democratic and secular future of their own, many, sadly, may have no future on this Earth whatsoever.

The Syrian Kurds, of course, are in a geopolitical situation not so different from that of their Iraqi brethren during the First Gulf War, a situation already discussed at length here.  But whereas the American government acted as a Kurdish savior during the early stages of Iraq’s disintegration, it has joined with the relevant Levantine powers in opposing the Kurds during the disintegration of Syria.

This opposition has been subtle, but it has also been a thematic and consistent component of American foreign policy.  When Hilary Clinton first assembled members of the Syrian opposition for a diplomatic conference early last year, the Kurds were not among those invited.  Even the State Department’s most recent attempt to reconfigure Syria’s disparate opposition into a palatable whole –which resulted in the internationally recognized, but subtly anti-Kurdish, Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) –leaves the Kurds significantly underrepresented.

More harmful to the Kurdish cause than convenient diplomatic arithmetic, however, has been the unwillingness of international policymakers to see the plight of the Syrian Kurds as linked, but essentially different from that of the Syria’s Sunni Arab opposition.  This ‘same-but-different’ attitude is at the root of all of the PYD’s actions and doctrines; the party, which has the support of 95 percent of Syrian Kurds by some estimates, has made clear that it does not desire independence, only a degree of autonomy within a new Syria so that the Kurds are not oppressed by a new Sunni government as they were under the Alawite government of old. The PYD, and indeed the vast majority of its constituency, would like something similar to a constitutional guarantee of Kurdish rights, as it fears that the Kurds will be oppressed in an Islamic Arab democracy if no consociational divisions are put in place.  Unfortunately, these fears are founded: the Syrian National Council, or SNC, the precursor to the Opposition Coalition, refused to consider removing the word “Arab” from Syria’s official name, the “Syrian Arab Republic,” resulting in the walkout of almost all Kurdish political parties.  Moaz al-Khatib, a Sunni cleric suspected of sectarian prejudice who heads the Opposition Coalition, balks at the idea of Kurdish autonomy of any kind, having said, when asked about the demands of the Kurds in an interview with the newspaper Rudaw, “Today, in the world more countries are merging and become one stronger country. We should stop dividing.”  These rejections of Kurdish pre-conditions have led the PYD to withdraw itself from the SOC, meaning that the Kurdish struggle in Syria has become, in effect, separate from the Sunni struggle.

In Iraq, the American-enforced constitution mandated that a Kurd be given the position of president; however, a decade after the invasion, some commentators doubt that current President Jalal Talabani, who is currently dying, will be succeeded by a Kurd, and almost all believe that Kurds would never have been given positions of power in the first place had it not been mandated by officials in Washington. No matter how one examines their situation, it seems that the Kurds are correct in fearing oppression by an Arab majority

So why, given their democratic, secular character and their unwarranted status as a geopolitical punching bag, is the United States hostile to their ambitions?

The answer comes down to icy geopolitical calculations. Turkey, one of America’s ‘key’ Middle Eastern allies, is opposed to the idea of more de facto Kurdish nations popping up for fear that increasing self-government among the Kurds will inspire irredentism in Anatolia.

One must, however, question the sagacity of our continued kowtowing to Turkey. The current government in Ankara, having declared Israel a “terrorist state,” having embraced Hamas, and having drifted away from the secular governance that made Turkey unique among Muslim non-Ba’athist nations, is not the ally it once was, nor does it enjoy the elevated moral standing in the region that it once did.  What’s more, the Sunnis that have come to power have sectarian motivations of their own, and activists even claim that these leaders are using Syrian jihadists to launch attacks against the Kurds; their interests lie not only with their county, but also with their ethnicity.  In this environment, remaining complicit in the suppression of the Kurds seems less a matter of international security than it is a matter of arbitrary side choosing in the eternal Arab-Kurdish struggle.

Furthermore, if one were to look at the United States’ long-term security interests in the Middle East, the prospect of a stable, prosperous, democratic nation in the Levant –another KRG, so to speak – would likely outweigh the short-term perturbation of Ankara.

The most important argument against the suppression of the Syrian Kurds, however, comes not from the cold calculations of geopolitics, but rather from common morality.  The Kurds have always been an inconvenient people, starting with the Treaty of Sévres, in which the Americans betrayed a pledge to carve out a Kurdish state among the mandates of the Middle East, and ending, for now, with the current sequestration of the Syrian Kurds.  But let us not allow geopolitical inconvenience to lead to the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands and the stamping out of a budding democracy.  It’s time to treat Syrian Kurdistan as an independent entity with legitimate needs and wants of its own, an entity that has more than earned its place at the bargaining table, and an entity that could very well become the KRG of Syria.  Turkey won’t thank us, but our consciences, and egalitarians everywhere, surely will.

Image credits: biyokulule.com; ikjnews.com

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  • Chase Winter

    I would note that while the US carried out the no fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey’s late president Ozal called for it (it was run out of Incirlik) and pushed NATO to implement it to avoid the refugee crisis. I think there’s a lesson to learn here and although Ankara has pursued an anti-Syrian Kurd position it will ultimately backfire — or Turkey could (I hope) re-calibrate later depending on negotiations with the PKK. A stable Kurdish buffer in Syria would be better for Turkey than what could be a failed state and anarchy in the rest of Syria — just as a Kurdish buffer zone in Iraq was central to Turkey’s Iraq policy. Ultimately, the Syrian Kurds need Turkey, and Turkey needs to come to terms with the Syrian Kurds. Hopefully cool heads will prevail, instead of Turkey provoking Arab Islamist against the Kurds as in Ras al Ain (Serekaniye).

  • Dg

    This article is perfect, well written.

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