Why US should rethink policy over Syria's Kurds


A Syrian family from the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain looks at the Turkish border fence as gunfire is heard between Free Syrian Army and the armed Kurds of The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the northern Syrian town of Ceylanpinar, November 25, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Twenty months after the Syrian uprising began, only one thing is certain: The face of Syria is forever changed.

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  • Since all roads lead to Homs, whoever controls Homs can control Syria. @MRubin1971

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  • Missing from both US policy debate & international diplomacy is what the new Syria will mean for diplomats & policymakers.

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  • For American policymakers, the issue shouldn’t be Turkey: It should be first US national interest and second Syria.

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Twenty months after the Syrian uprising began, only one thing is certain: However the conflict ends, the face of Syria is forever changed. The terror inflicted on the population by government forces and the shabiha militia has not been random. Rather, President Bashar al-Assad has moved to carve out a safe-haven for the Alawi minority of which he is a member and which dominates the government. Though kidnappings, murders, and mortar attacks appear indiscriminate, their targets are often the Sunni majority in towns and countryside the Alawis want for their own enclave’s integrity.

And, as the fighting in Homs demonstrates, government forces have other goals as well. At first glance, Homs may not look like much. It may be Syria’s third largest city, but it is a pale shadow of Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and Damascus, its capital. Homs, however, it is the crossroads of Syria: Since all roads lead to Homs, whoever controls Homs can control the country.

Missing from both U.S. policy debate and international diplomacy is what the new Syria will mean for diplomats and policymakers. The difference between old and new Syria will be as vast as the difference between pre- and post-war Bosnia. Gone will be the sectarian and ethnic diversity in the cities and countryside. Syria is today effectively a country of cantons. Latakia, along the Mediterranean coast, has become “Alawistan.” Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor are Sunni enclaves and increasingly radicalized. In the far northeast lies Al-Hasakah, where the Kurds run the show.

Just as was the case with Iraqi Kurdistan during the war in Iraq, the Kurdish region in Syria is that country’s most stable region. Unlike with the Iraqi Kurds, however, the White House and State Department have turned a blind eye toward Syrian Kurdistan. When the State Department first assembled Syrian opposition figures to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kurds were not among them. Kurds are also underrepresented in the State Department’s more recent efforts to reconfigure the Syrian opposition.

The State Department’s reticence to work with Syrian Kurds has less to do with Syria and much more to do with Turkey. Here’s the problem: Most Syrian Kurds – up to 90 percent according to Kurds in Germany and Iraq – support the Democratic Union Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PYD. The PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The State Department has for more than two decades designated the PKK as a terrorist group. Initially, it did so for good reason: The PKK not only fought a military insurgency, but it also targeted civilians – school teachers, fellow Kurds who sought to provide an alternative to Abdullah Öcalan, and farmers who would not pay taxes to the group.

With Öcalan locked away in a Turkish prison, the PKK evolved. Today, its actions fall more into the realm of military insurgency than terrorism. While some radical offshoots continue to engage in terrorism and deserve no legitimacy, the PKK itself fights mostly in southeastern Turkey where it increasingly holds territory. The Turkish government may have long opposed the PKK’s desire for legitimacy, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has mooted this concern when his own government quietly began negotiations with the PKK. Erdoğan has also nullified Turkey’s once zero-sum definition of terrorism. By embracing not only Hamas, but also its most radical, most militant faction head Khaled Meshaal, Erdoğan undercut the reasoning by which Turkish diplomats argue the West should isolate the PKK. Regardless, the PYD is not the PKK. It has had no involvement in terrorism. For PYD Kurds to sympathize with their brethren in Turkey is not a crime.

For American policymakers, however, the issue should not be Turkey: Rather it should be first U.S. national interest and second Syria. Today, the PYD controls not only territory in Syria, but also administers towns and local government. It does a good job, too. School function, utilities work, and security has increased. Furthermore, the PYD seems so far to stay true to its democratic rhetoric. Here, it lays in sharp juxtaposition to Masoud Barzani’s increasingly authoritarian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in neighboring Iraq. Hence, it should not surprise that Syrian Kurds have redoubled their embrace of the PYD and turn their backs to Barzani, his party, and his tribe.

It is no secret that the longer the United States and its allies have remained on the sidelines of the Syria conflict, the more radical the Syrian opposition has become. The problem with “leading from behind,” for example, working through Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is that these countries privilege their own agendas, which include supporting elements far more radical than many in the West, let alone in Syria, are comfortable with. When the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the moderate minority, and al Qaeda affiliates become mainstream, the situation is truly bad.

It is against this backdrop that the U.S. refusal to work with the PYD becomes self-defeating. Whatever territory the PYD controls is space in which al Qaeda cannot operate openly. Turkish diplomats may complain if the United States reaches out to Syrian Kurds, but the Turks should have no standing to call any Kurd a terrorist when they regularly embrace Hamas and Hezbollah. In moments of crisis, it is essential that U.S. policy first and foremost privilege U.S. national security rather than carry water for Ankara. That putting U.S. security first would also advance peace in Syria is simply an added bonus.


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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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