The US gets the Kurds wrong — again


People celebrate in Ras Al-Ain countryside as they announced the members of the interim government of democratic self-administered party, in the city of Amuda near Hasaka January 21, 2014.

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Article Highlights

  • As the Syrian civil war approaches its fourth year, prospects for peace seem dim.

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  • In one overlooked corner of Syria, however, moderates have successfully pushed back the regime and defeated al Qaeda.

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  • Syrian Kurds have suffered many of the same deprivations and atrocities that their Iraqi counterparts did under Saddam Hussein.

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As the Syrian civil war approaches its fourth year, prospects for peace seem dim. The negotiations this week in Geneva are showing as little progress as those late last month, for two clear reasons: First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's hope that a resurgent Assad regime would offer concessions is a fantasy. Second, there is little correlation between the moderate opposition groups who have Mr. Kerry's diplomatic blessing and the extremists who hold increasing sway inside Syria.

In one overlooked corner of Syria, however, moderates have successfully pushed back the regime and defeated al Qaeda. As diplomats convened in Geneva in January, Syrian Kurds, Arabs and Christians met in Amuda, a small town in northeastern Syria dotted with mosques and churches. After debating a new charter, civil society leaders from across Hasakah province swore in a transitional council to govern until elections, which will be held in May.

Syrian Kurds have suffered many of the same deprivations and atrocities that their Iraqi counterparts did under Saddam Hussein. A park in Amuda commemorates a 1960 cinema fire that killed 150 local children—a tragedy locals blame on the Syrian government, which had sponsored the screening and chained the doors. Even as Hasakah province, which is home to the majority of Syrian Kurds, became a source of Syria's modest oil wealth in the last decade, the regime kept it underdeveloped.

In 2004, Bashar Assad's regime killed more than 30 in Qamishli, the region's largest town, after Kurds publicly demanded an end to Baathist rule. And the Assad regime stripped many Kurds of Syrian citizenship—a necessity to own land, get an education and hold government jobs.

The placidity of the province was hard-won. The Popular Protection Units (known by their Kurdish acronym YPG) have been the most effective militia in Syria against al Qaeda. Provincial leaders, both Kurdish and Arab, have also shown that they are competent administrators: Municipal garbage trucks make their weekly pickups; cars fill up at gas stations; children walk to schools alone; and both veiled and unveiled women shop without fear.

The local administration has also established community centers to resolve conflict on a neighborhood level, and courts are there when consensus is not possible. I spent an afternoon late last month watching families at a Qamishli small-claims court argue their cases in both Arabic and Kurdish.

Not all is well, though. Electricity is scarce. Blockaded by the Syrian government, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, some foodstuffs are running short, as is medicine for diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Just as the United Nations once deferred to Saddam Hussein vis-à-vis the Iraqi Kurds, so too does it now defer to Assad by refusing to work with Kurdish authorities. The Syrian Red Crescent supplies only those pockets of the region that remain under Assad's control. Nevertheless, the province has opened its doors to tens of thousands of displaced Arabs from Aleppo, Homs and elsewhere.

After decades of ignoring Iraqi Kurds, Washington came to embrace them as their best allies in Iraq. Mr. Kerry, however, refuses to learn from past mistakes. The leaders of Hasakah province receive no invitations to the Geneva peace talks, and the State Department refuses to talk to them for three reasons.

First is Turkey. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which enjoys about 90% local support, has links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that once fought an insurgency inside Turkey. The two sides, however, signed a cease-fire last March, and no Syrian Kurd ever attacked Turkey. That Turkey has labeled the PYD a terrorist group is ironic, given that Turkey both supplies and allows jihadists transit into Syria. Yet, when given a choice between al Qaeda and secular Kurds, Ankara has chosen the former. Washington should pick the latter. Mr. Kerry should not insist on being more Turkish than the Turks if it means empowering Islamic radicals.

Second, American diplomats accuse Syrian Kurds of refusing to cooperate with the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition coalition. This charge is true. Kurds and local Christians, however, explain that Mr. Kerry ignores extremism and Arab chauvinism within the coalition, and that it does not respect federalism or reflect reality on the ground.

Third, the State Department accuses Syrian Kurds of cooperating with Assad. Here, there is some truth. The Assad regime controls pockets of Qamishli. Syrian Kurds fly to Damascus and Latakia to attend university. And Assad pays salaries to some civil servants who moonlight for the local autonomous government.

Then again, Iraqi Kurdish leaders like Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani cooperated with Saddam Hussein until 2003 in similar ways. Kurdish YPG officials say their truce with Assad lets them concentrate on al Qaeda and save lives: If the truce ends, surrounded Syrian army troops would either fight to the death or surrender—and surrender would mean exposing their families to torture, arrest or death.

The Kurds understand this reality. Accusations that their truce translates into regime sympathy rile these Kurds, many of whom bear scars from Assad's prisons and point out that Mr. Kerry now talks to regime officials more than they do.

With a terror-sponsoring regime and a terror-embracing opposition, American officials are right to be frustrated by Syria. Just as in Iraq, however, the Kurds provide an alternative, federal model. That they are also secular and pro-American is icing on the cake. How ironic it is, then, that the State Department seems so committed to making them pariahs.

Mr. Rubin is author of "Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes" (Encounter, 2014).

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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