|Kurds could be key to saving Syria|
They’re one of the wild cards in the Middle East that could provide a turning point in the Syrian war: the Kurds.
The largest Syrian opposition group has picked a Kurd as its new leader — which might help the rebels gain critical mass.
Meanwhile, Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad is trying to use the Kurds against Turkey. That might prompt Ankara to send troops across the border, further escalating the war — though for now Ankara is instead allying itself with other Kurds in the region.
Good move. So should we.
Yes, divisions and competition among Kurdish leaders (whose homeland is split among Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran) makes relying on them an iffy proposition. But for generations this non-Arab ethnic group has been an American ally (when we didn’t desert them) — and a marked rise in Kurdish power is one legacy of our wars with Saddam Hussein. Renewing and tightening this alliance could help us navigate the treacherous Mideast transitions.
Last week the Syrian National Council named Abdulbaset Sieda, a Syrian Kurd exiled in Sweden, as its new leader. The clear hope is that the mild-mannered scholar will unite the opposition’s many ethnic, religious and political factions, which now push in all directions.
And also win more support in the West. Sieda isn’t a Kurdish activist. As Kani Xulam of the American-Kurdish Information Network, tells me, he “became a consensus leader of the opposition because of his democratic credentials, rather than because he’s a Kurd.”
Yet the move might move the Kurds off the sidelines in the 14-month-old uprising, which pits mostly Sunni Arabs (the majority in Syria) against a regime dominated by members of the obscure Alawite sect.
Syrian Kurds are shocked by Assad’s murderous ways, but suspicious of the Sunni majority — and of Turkey’s intentions.
Turkey’s Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) for decades waged a violent struggle against the Turkish government (which refused to even acknowledge that Kurds in Turkey were Kurds); many deem the PKK a terrorist group.
And PPK leader Abdullah Ocalan fled to Damascus in 1978, where Assad’s father sheltered him for 20 years. Hafez al-Assad also favored Syria’s Kurds during that time — a status that ended when Turkish military and political pressure forced him to expel Ocalan in 1998.
But since the uprisings began, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Recep Erdogan has become a vocal supporter of Assad’s overthrow and hosted opposition leaders.
In response, Bashar Assad has allowed the PKK to reopen its bases in Syria. Ankara fears that the next step will be intensified attacks against its citizens and troops.
To date, Erdogan’s counter has been to cultivate to Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani (who visited Ankara in April), in hopes he’ll blunt anti-Turkish sentiments among Syria’s Kurds — or even dismantle PKK camps in Iraq’s Kurdistan.
Prospering and democratic (by regional standards, anyway), Kurdish Iraq has emerged as leader of all the region’s Kurds, says Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Mideast Studies.
That’s why everyone in the region (including Israel) is now seeking Kurdish ties. But Iraq’s Kurds owe much of their good fortune to America, which protected them from Saddam.
The Kurds would be useful allies not only in the current fight against Assad, but the larger struggle with his Iranian sponsors and jihadists across the Mideast.
A promise of limited autonomy, like that enjoyed by Iraq’s Kurdistan, could bring Syria’s Kurds into the opposition, moderating it and pushing the next Syrian government toward the West.
Yes, once more in the Mideast, it’s time to play the Kurd card.
By BENNY AVNI