Why the beleaguered minority should push for autonomy.
Once again the Kurds find themselves in a humanitarian crisis not of their own making. The Syrian Kurds are caught between the Assad regime and its allied forces, (including the Kurdish PYD - Union Democratic Party, which is linked to the PKK), and the Syrian opposition, principally the Free Syrian Army and its radical Islamists affiliates (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, with close ties to Al-Qaeda). Both are seeking to draw the Kurds, who are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, to their side. In the meantime, both groups are confiscating vital supplies destined for the beleaguered Syrian Kurdish region.
Northeastern Syria, centered on the provinces of Hasakeh and Qamishli, where the bulk of Syria's Kurdish minority resides, had remained relatively calm during the early phases of the civil war. The violence between the regime of President Bashar Assad and the opposition has however spilled over to the northeast in recent months.
Muhammad, a Syrian Kurd who escaped across the border to Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government controlled area, reported to the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Syrian insurgent (opposition forces) “attacked my home and stole everything from my home and destroyed my shop.” In the past few weeks there have been repeated clashes between Syrian rebels and supporters of the PYD.
This drama of repeated betrayal of the Kurds by America in order to satisfy Arab (Sunni) and Turkish interests was described by Najmaldin Karim in the Washington Post (12/2/2006): “The Kurds attest to the 'realist' betrayal of Iraq in 1991. As Coalition Forces were breaking the back of Saddam's army from the air, President George H.W. Bush's public suggestion to Iraqis, ‘to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside,’ encouraged Kurdish and Shiite uprising against the Baathist regime. George H.W. Bush and (Secretary of State) Jim Baker provided no support and tens of thousands of Shi'a and Kurdish Iraqis were slaughtered in reprisal once the regime regrouped.” Najmaldin Karim added, “The last truly 'realist' administration in United States history only intervened after considerable public pressure following shocking CNN images of Kurdish refugees, and after Turkey resisted accepting thousands of refugees.”
Currently, the Kurdish community in northeastern Syria is facing another humanitarian disaster due to lack of food, medicine, and cooking and heating fuels. If aid to the region is not provided very soon, thousands of people will die due to starvation, illness, and cold temperatures.
According to Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, with the onset of the civil war in Syria, the Assad dictatorial regime transferred out all food resources (grains) from the Kurdish region to Damascus and the Alawite region. Although the Kurdish region is the major producer of oil and grains, these resources were shipped out without the processed food or refined fuel returning to the region throughout this past year.
The Assad regime has sent minimal assistance to the Kurdish region and for that matter only to its loyalist, i.e. Arab settlers and the Kurdish PYD. The regime however, has lost control over the main routes leading to the Kurdish region. The Opposition groups led by salafists have taken over border crossings with the support of the Erdogan’s Turkish government. The net result has been that the eastern border (to Iraq) crossings have been closed by the Iraqi al-Maliki government with the encouragement of Iran and the Assad regime, while the northern crossings to Turkey are controlled by the opposition, and the Kurds are locked in without supplies.
The Obama administration must not repeat the follies of the George H.W. Bush administration, which called the Kurds to resist Saddam, and then left them defenseless. To add insult to injury, the Iraq Study Group (ISG), and its so-called “experts,” dismissed the notion of establishing three autonomous ethnic-religious regions in Iraq, a proposal promoted by Senator (now Vice President) Joe Biden, and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. The ISG, which was a ten-person bipartisan panel appointed on March 15, 2006, by the U.S. Congress, was charged with assessing the situation in Iraq and making policy recommendations.
Najmaldin Karim suggested that the ISG “shunned America's closest allies in Iraq, the Kurds, out of ideological prejudice. It's not just that the pro-American Kurds make it difficult to argue that Iraqis all hate Americans, thereby obliging troop withdrawals. The Kurds make 'realists' and Sunni Arab advocates nervous; the evidence of Kurdish suffering is irrefutable and it is hard for the United States to walk away from the victims of genocide.”
In Syria as in Iraq, the Kurds are America’s most trustworthy allies, and yet, they have been shunned by the Obama administration, which has instead given its support to the opposition Syrian National Council with its radical Islamist components. Obama has once again allied the U.S. with the Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Sunni-Arab Gulf states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Sherkoh Abbas, in an interview with the Russian newspaper Pravda, was critical of the Obama administration attempts “to induce the Syrian Kurds to join and work with the main opposition body," the Syrian National Council. Abbas believes that creating a federal Syria where there would be separate autonomous regions for Sunni Arab Syrians, Kurds, Alawis, and Druze is essential. This, according to Abbas, would break the link between Syria and the Iran-led Shia crescent. “A federal Syria,” Abbas maintains “would avoid the possibility of a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood controlled Sunni-Islamist Syria as a new challenge to Israel and the West.”
Asked by this writer to assess the situation Syrian Kurds find themselves in at this juncture, Abbas responded thus: “Syrian Kurds are being forced to take sides, either with the ruthless dictatorial regime and its mafia proxies or on the other side, Syrian National Coalition lead by Jihadi Muslim brotherhood and Pan-Arab chauvinists supported by Turkey and Qatar; frankly, Kurds reject both of them and demand a Kurdish Federation.”
And how about support from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and Kurdish solidarity? Abbas pointed out that “KRG is supporting Turkey in its agenda of promoting KNC (Kurdish National Council) to accept minimal rights within the Syrian National Coalition, while on the other hand a group such as PYD is getting support from Assad, Iraq, and Iran to coerce the Syrian Kurds.”
Abbas is calling on the Obama administration and the international community to support an independent Kurdistan in Syria because the current regime and the Syrian Opposition are moving Syria toward total chaos, which will end up making Syria a failed state similar to Somalia and Lebanon. Only an independent Kurdish state in Syria can provide fairness to 4 million Syrian Kurds. “At a minimum,” says Abbas, “Kurds in Syria need a similar status to that of Iraqi Kurdistan.” He implores the U.S. and the international community to create the same no-fly zone in his native Syria that it had reluctantly established in Iraq.
The Syrian Kurdish plight can be best remedied by an independent Syrian Kurdish state. Short of that, federalism might work for a while, but it is unlikely to be accepted by the Sunni-Muslim Arab majority. A state dominated by the Islamist opposition promises chaos and continued oppression of Kurds and other minorities. In the meantime, the Syrian Kurds need immediate material relief from America and the international community.
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