The Kurds of Syria have once again been excluded by the international community, or to be more accurate, by the United Nations-backed committee tasked with drafting a new constitution for war-torn Syria. Kurdish demonstrators protested their exclusion in front of the UN offices in the city of Qamishli, the capital of the Al-Hasakah governorate, where Kurds are an absolute majority. They carried placards that read: “It’s our right to participate in the drafting of the constitution.”
The Kurds now control an autonomous territory, about 30% of Syria’s territory, mostly in northern Syria. They call their territory Rojava (meaning Western Kurdistan), which contains most of Syria’s oilfields, and its bread basket. The Kurdish administration of Rojava complains about not being represented in the UN draft plan. Talaat Younes, a Kurdish administration official, stressed the need to include “all components of Syrian society.”
Syria’s Kurds led the US-backed fight against the Islamic State (IS) in northern and eastern Syria, expelling the jihadist group from their last major redoubt in the country in March, 2019. Given their sacrifice, the U.S., and the international community owes them a role in drafting the constitution for Syria, and much more. Under the Baathist regimes of the Assads, the Kurds of Syria, long marginalized, have suffered systemic discrimination, repression, and Arabization. Among the egregious forms of inequity are the makings of 500,000 Syrian Kurds stateless, which amounts to about 15% of the Kurdish population in Syria, estimated to be over 3 million (Kurds are the largest minority in Syria). It means that these stateless Kurds live in a legal vacuum and are deprived of fundamental rights.
Syria’s Kurds have largely stayed out of Syria’s eight-year civil war (except for fighting the IS with U.S. aerial support, and 2,000 special forces members). Instead, they setup their own institutions in areas under their control. They have been previously sidelined from UN-led peace talks as well as a parallel Russian-backed negotiation track, mainly due to objections by Turkey, which considers them to be terrorists.
Unfortunately for the Kurds, theirs is an internal self-defeating rivalry rather than a defeat in the battlefield. In fact, in the battlefield, Syrian-Kurds proved to be heroic and triumphant. Internally however, there are three political forces pulling at Syrian-Kurdish society. One is made up of 8 small parties established during the late 1950’s that has been supported by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP) from across the border. That relationship started with Mulla Mustafa Barzani in the early 1960’s, but his son Masood cemented them into an alliance under an umbrella organization in 2011.
The second is the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat, PYD), established in 2003 as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK). During the Cold War the Soviet Union and its ally, Syria, supported the PKK, and precursor Kurdish groups, with a view to weakening Turkey and NATO.
The third group is an umbrella organization called Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (Kurdnas), which represents more than a half dozen Kurdish political parties, Kurdish tribes, and civic leaders advocating a decentralized federal Kurdistan region of Syria aligned with Western nations, especially the U.S.
Between 2012 and 2014, while the civil war in Syria was raging, there were many attempts to join forces and align with the U.S. and western nations. Eventually, the PYD ended up triumphant over its more fragmented rival due to U.S. support and the Assad regime, thus undermining the process attempted by the Iraqi Kurds. It then secured its military, political, and administrative control. The PYD cohesiveness, martial spirit, and superior organizational skills helped it come out on top. The most import element of its success was its military force, the YPG (Yekineyen Parastina Gel). It’s success in the battlefield enabled the Syrian-Kurds to establish in 2015, the autonomous region composed of three provinces: Qamishli, Kobane, and Afrin. In the lead up to 2019, the YPG managed to destroy Jahbat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria), and defeat the murderous Islamic State (IS). It did however lose control of Afrin to the Turkish army.
In 2014 the PYD imposed a one party-rule in Syrian Kurdistan by enacting a law forbidding Kurdish political parties that did not recognize its administration. Later it was blamed for persecuting members of the other party and imposing authoritarian rule in the region under their control.
In a conversation with Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, he stated that, “The UN has been, and continues to be a useless organization, with a bias against the Kurds and Israel. The UN ignoring official Kurdish representative voices in drafting the Syrian constitution is not new. The U.S. administration should however raise its voice, to demand that Kurds have a seat at the table when discussing the future of Syria. Given the sacrifices the Kurds made in crushing ISIS, the U.S. and its western allies ought to help in facilitating a decentralized, federal Syria, where Kurds could be free from being persecuted by the Assad regime, and its Iranian allies, as well as the Turks. Syria under the Assads, managed to Arabize, and ethnically cleanse western Kurdistan.” Abbas continued by saying, “They formally split ethnically Kurdish provinces such as Hashakah, Deir al-Zour, Raqa, Aleppo, and Idlib, thus preventing Kurdish aspiration to form a Kurdistan region in Syria.”
Abbas called on the U.S. to prevent Turkey from controlling any part of Syria and forestall the creation of a Turkish buffer zone. “The U.S. should also force the PYD to de-link itself from the Assad regime, and allow Kurds free elections. The PYD is currently handling the Kurdish Affairs for Assad, which has freed his forces to fight elsewhere in Syria. Free elections in the Kurdish controlled areas will enable pro-American groups like Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria to come to power, thus helping defuse Turkey’s excuse to invade the Kurdish areas in Syria by linking the PYD with the PKK.” Abbas added, “Most Kurds in Syria prefer to be governed by the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria since it stands for a western style free market economy, a democratic and decentralized federal system, and a strong alignment with the U.S.” Abbas resolved that, “It is about time for all the Kurdish groups to unite and face the threat to its existence.”
In conclusion, given the century-old injustices committed against the Kurds by the Arabs, Iranians and Turks, it is imperative for the U.S. and its Western allies to support a Kurdish state. The reasons for such support go beyond humanitarianism. Strategically speaking, a Kurdish state that encompasses the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, combined with the adjacent northern Syria currently controlled by Syrian Kurds, would offer a barrier against Iranian expansionism, and its vision of a Shiite Crescent. With the possibility of a future U.S. war with Iran, U.S. military bases in Kurdistan would be essential. Erdogan’s Turkey is unlikely to allow U.S. planes on its soil, given its warm relations with Iran, and its Islamic solidarity. Assad’s Syria and Shiite Iraq are, for all intents and purposes, Iranian satellites. As for Israel, a Kurdish state would be its natural ally.
The UN snubbing of the Kurds notwithstanding, the U.S. must do the right thing. It should once and for all support Kurdish self-determination. It is an abomination that one of the largest ethnic groups in the world – the Kurds, are the only people without a state of their own.