|The Kurds Can Lead a Reborn Syria, At Peace With ALL of Her Neighbors|
By Robert B. Sklaroff and Sherkoh Abbas
As this is being composed, American ships are rushing to the Levant, presumably preparing to launch
a bombing-campaign in reaction to the mass-gassing that Assad again directed at his citizenry. Although pundits could analyze the reasons for—and consequences of—the delay of this effort, it is only necessary to “get into the weeds” far enough to identify how a “coalition of the willing” can quickly be assembled to stop the slaughter…and to build a stable, peaceful Syrian society. The Kurds have been issuing humanitarian appeals to the international community to save the Syrian Kurds, but it finally seems their plight is finally being “heard”…or maybe not! In any case, the way breaking-events may be placed within a larger context is explored at the end of this op-ed.
Minority ethnic and religious groups hope to create a secular democratic federal republic led by secular Sunni Kurds, Arabs, Alawi moderates, Christians, Druze, and Turkmen. Kurds played a substantial role as Syria gained independence from France; inasmuch as they are the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Kurds can play a very positive, democratic role in forging its future. That is the goal of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KURDNAS), assisted by US Syrian Sunni reformer Dr. M. Zhudi Jasser, a cause that is being advanced via the Syrian Democratic Coalition. This would both recognize that Arabs constitute ~57% of the country’s population of 22 million, and the desire of the rest of the population to exercise equal-rights.
This essay summarizes the forces-at-play, the pressures being exerted upon the Syrian Kurds, and the urgency that the Kurds feel threatens their survival. Because Kurds have been consistently friendly to America and Europe, they feel it is in the best interests of the United States and the international community to lend them support—both humanitarian and military—as they attempt to survive the surrounding bloodbath.
Bashar Assad’s Alawites are Shia or related to it and, thus, feel naturally allied with their Iranian patrons. That this sect numbers only 5-6 million worldwide—2.2 million of whom dominate the Syrian government—illustrates the success Bashar’s father, Hafez, enjoyed since 1971, ensuring the rest of the 22.5 million population (excluding Palestinian Arabs encamped therein) remained under his iron-clad grip. Indeed, until recently, he aggressively attempted to extend his hegemony into dominating contiguous Lebanon.
After the “Arab Spring” triggered a civil war that has claimed 100,000+ lives during the past 2 ½ years, Sunni radicals have allegedly grown to dominate the “rebels,” even as factions thereof have conflicted. Specifically, al-Qaeda elements have emerged, thereby quelling enthusiasm among Westerners (USA/EU) to provide unbridled support. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), affiliated with al-Qaeda, sponsors the most active militant group of Arab Nationalists/Islamists in Syria, al Nusra. Most of its support is derived from Gulf Arab States and Turkey.
Upwards of 38-50 million Kurds (encompassing those tracing their genealogy to the Middle East) reside throughout Southwest Asia; this population is in-flux, as war-induced emigration has prompted many to flock temporarily into Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Although predominantly residing in NE-Syria (a region rich in agriculture and natural resources), they live throughout Syria, as illustrated by the existence of the aptly-named Kurdish Mountain on Syrian coast in NW-Syria to Aleppo in the North. (This is a continuous area along the Turkish border.)
The Kurds constitute the largest non-Arab ethnic group; their language is based on Farsi, the Persian language (recalling that Cyrus the Great was a Kurd). They have, therefore, dominated convocations of disenfranchised populations seeking to piece-together provisional governments; these meetings have been held primarily in Washington, D.C. during the past half-decade, and they have counterpointed events sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood that have harbored a comparable goal. In addition, although the “official” tabulation is that the Kurds constitute 15% of Syria (~3.3 million), another 16% have been “Arabized.” [see Will There Be Room for Kurds and Other Minorities in a Post-Assad Syria?]
Syrian Kurds seek support from the international community, lest they be forced to continue to divide loyalties among four regional countries…each with competing interests. Having remained staunchly pro-American, such loyalty merits the urgent provision of robust assistance, if for no other reason than to assist the United States in pursuit of the weapons-of-mass-destruction (primarily chemical) that serve as Assad’s ultimate military “stick.” There is general agreement that they must be secured before Islamic Terrorists are able to acquire them, and the Kurds serve as natural allies in this effort.
One could argue that, at the end of the day, a region in North-NE-Syria could serve as a semi-autonomous region but—until matters have been settled throughout the country—any territory currently occupied by the Kurds is vulnerable to attack from all sides. Thus, factions have become aligned with contiguous nations, even as the neighboring countries themselves enjoy quasi-alliances with more distant entities; for example, the Saudis have supplied the rebels via Turkey, as America seems to be doing through Jordan. This discussion excludes review of how Assad is vigorously propped-up by Iran and Russia.
Assad’s Strangulation Strategy
Tragic conditions have arisen in The Kurdish Region of Syria (primarily in the north and northeast), which had been a safe haven for more than 4 million people during the past 2 years, including ½ million recently-displaced Syrians. Kurds have called upon the conscience of the international community to act forcefully to prevent (or, at least) to reduce the deaths, destruction, and starvation that is occurring due to the lack of food, electricity, medicine and cooking and heating fuels. If humanitarian aid is not received very soon, thousands of people will die due to starvation, illness, and dropping temperature. All the UN aid goes to non-Kurdish Areas that are controlled by MB-led radicals
This has occurred as a result of what several parties have done, for several reasons:
During the past four decades, Assad’s totalitarian regime has changed the ethnic demography of the region by implanting Arab settlers in the region and making the region economically dependent on the rest of Syria. Economic development was disallowed, infrastructure was ignored, the region’s resources (like gas and oil) were extracted, and reinvestment in the region was impermissible. Thus, despite the fact that the region is a breadbasket and constitutes Syria’s only source of gas and oil, it became necessary to import key-supplies (medicine, food, fuel, etc.) from the rest of Syria.
During the Syrian revolution, the regime transferred all food resources (wheat, grains, etc.) from the region to their own areas (emptying the region of food resources) and no assistance, processed food, fuels, etc. were sent back throughout this past year. This was designed to force the Kurds to take the regime’s side by only providing minimal assistance for loyalists.
Recently, however, the regime lost control of the main routes to the region to radical Islamist rebels armed by groups aligned with myriad al-Qaeda movements (Jabhat al Nassra, Arab radical tribes lead by Nawaf al-Bashar, Arab tribes belonging to the regime, and Jihadists). After they cut-off the supply routes (for all goods, including medicine, food, fuel, etc.), they confiscated or destroyed them, so as to force Kurds to take their side of the conflict.
Assad, assisted by Arab settlers in the Kurdish Region and groups like the PYD [vide infra], closed border crossings (like Qamishli and Derek); similarly, radical Islamic movements or Salafist groups assumed control of other border crossings that are now being used to advantage the interests of Turkey. On the Eastern border, Assad’s supply lines from Iran/Iraq to Syria—routed via the Kurdish Region of Syria—were disrupted by al-Qaeda groups. As a result, the isolated Kurdish region faces famine; the lack of electricity, seeds, and fuel for heating or transportation has led to the failure of land cultivation, for at least half of this year’s crop was not even planted.
The Kurdish region has been besieged economically because of its peaceful democratic revolution. Because they hope to resolve the civil war democratically (and have, thereby, stayed away from Islamic radicalism and political dictatorships), they are targeted by extremists on both ends of the political spectrum. Because commerce has virtually ceased, no salaries are being paid and prices have increased more than 10-fold during the past year. Also, non-Kurds receive international support from the UN, Qatar, and many Arab Counties, whereas Syrian Kurds have been given only empty promises from the KRG government in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Indeed, local doctors report they are receiving dozens of children daily who are on the brink of death due to diseases, starvation and weather-related illness. Because the Kurdish Region lives in darkness and extreme cold temperatures, people have been forced to heat themselves by cutting-down trees and burning wooden furniture; most schools are closed because their wooden seats have been burned.
The Kurdish Factions
Thus, some familiarity with how this has transpired serves to enlighten those who attempt to conjure how matters will play-out. As noted, three factions have emerged (KDP, PUK, and PKK), although only ~30% of Kurds are politically aligned with any of them; the others have understandably attempted merely to survive the conflict, but all seek a post-Assad government that will not be oppressive and that, instead, will allow them to become stakeholders in Syria’s future and promote a decentralized, democratic federalized Syria in which the Syrian Kurdish Region will enjoy self-rule. This general summary of the prevailing situation in the Kurdistan Region of Syria mainstreams both expectations for the moment and visions for the foreseeable future. Essentially, inasmuch as the Kurds irritate both Assad and al-Qaeda, the natural alliance of the Kurds with America should be exploited to optimize promotion of human rights, representative democracy, and regional stability…thereby preventing radicalization of the Middle East.
The factions are aligned (by myriad pathways) with the four regional countries (Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria), each of which is to be represented at a (Russia-inspired) proposed Kurdistan National Conference in Erbil. The government of Iraqi Kurdistan—the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government)—is based in Erbil and plans to have “independent” representation thereat, but it is anticipated to be aligned with Baghdad which, in turn, will probably accommodate the interests of fellow-Shiites leading Syria (Assad); and it appears that, as America withdraws therefrom, Iraq will increasingly abide by the interests of Iran.
The KRG’s coalition government consists of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) aligned with Syria and Turkey and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) aligned with Syria and Iran; because neither is supported by America, they are attempting to retain whatever power is available via these relationships, thereby sacrificing the interests of the Syrian Kurds. In fact, this state of affairs has been noted by most Syrian Kurds from KNC, by Kurdnas, and by independent observers; this is why Syrian Kurds seek outside help for the region.
Another faction is the PKK, which had dominated the conflict in eastern Turkey with Ankara; that effort appears to have died-down, as attention of both entities has turned southward. The PKK has also been bifurcated into unofficial political entities. One is currently working with Turkey to resolve the Kurdish issue therein; it is anticipated that it will yield minimal cultural rights (and will prop-up Erdogan), for discussion is being led by the political leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned. The other has morphed into the military wing of PKK led by Cemil Bayik, and it is currently working with Assad and Iran to support PYD (Democratic Union Party). PYD is linked to PKK’s military wing, but neither its name nor its Charter/Constitution mentions Kurds; rather, Bayik promotes a radical socialist Stalinist ideology in support of Assad.
The PYD is ostensibly more militant, but it supports Assad (and Iran) and thus does not enjoy widespread support among Kurds; it has watched Assad deny fundamental life-support (food, water, electricity) to the Kurds, causing prices to have become inflated to levels 5-10 times the levels throughout the rest of Syria. This oppression (and staged fighting) promulgated by the Assad-PYD alliance explains why, during the past eight months—unlike Christians and Arabs (even those who have arrived as refugees from other war-torn villages)—more than 300,000 Kurds have emigrated and/or fled to Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. While experiencing this turmoil, they are trying to escape from tyranny imposed by PYD, al-Qaeda groups and Assad’s forces.
All three non-Syrian Kurd groups harm Syrian Kurds by trying to control them and, then, to reduce their rights through their support of Iran (PUK), Turkey (KDP) and Syria (PYD/PUK/KDP). Specifically, the KDP is trying to link them along the Sunni Crescent that runs through Turkey, abiding by the Syrian National Coalition (dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood) which controls the Free Syrian Army (FSA); meanwhile, the PYD and the PUK from Iraq are trying to link them along the Shia Crescent that runs through Syria, abiding by the wishes of Syria (and Iran).
Assad’s Military Strategy
Assad and his allies (Iran, KRG, PYD=PKK) are fighting Radical Islamists and their allies (ISIS and al-Nusra), although infighting among rebel elements occasionally arises. Assad is trying to convince the Kurds to support PYD as the Representative of the Kurds while Islamists are recruiting Kurds to support regime-infiltrated groups such al-Nusra. Assad has wanted to show the international community that only he can keep the country unified, stop ethnic/sectarian wars, ensure al-Qaeda does not obtain WMD (chemical and biological), and fight infidels (Zionists, Americans and Kurds). It does appear unlikely, now, that he will be able to maintain this façade after having engaged in chemical warfare.
Cemil Bayik, who orchestrates what is happening in Syrian Kurdistan, is the real military leader/commander of PKK (and thus, controls PYD). Presumably, his recent relocation from Qandil Mountain via Mousal to Kurdistan of Syria (Qamishly) was facilitated by the KRG and Iran/Iraq. He is working with Assad (and Iraq and Iran) to exert control over the Kurdish Region of Syria by clearing the Syrian-Iraqi Border from unfriendly groups, thereby opening a supply line from Iraq/Iran to the Syrian eastern border, abutting Iraq; in the process, he would prevent Kurds from leaving. He is also echoing Assad’s argument [amplified by Russia and China] that America is unjustifiably trying to split Syria and thus to create ethnic division between Arabs and Kurds. Other groups linked to al-Qaeda that worked with Assad during the Iraq War convey the same message to Arabs (coordinated by Assad/Iraq/Iran).
In short, Assad is trying to change the narrative from focusing on a Syrian revolution against him to the need for Arabs to oppose Kurds vis-à-vis Hezbollah and PYD. Now that Hezbollah had helped Assad in efforts to re-take Homs), Hezbollah would be free to wreak worldwide havoc, while the PYD would be dispatched to fight on the Iraq/Syrian border to create national movements against the Kurds, reduce pressure on the regime, and rally Kurdish support against Syrian oppositions.
Meanwhile, opposition-rebels are trying to accuse the Kurds of being separatists, supporters of the PYD, and even Assad supporters; as evidence, they claim the PYD tried to split the Kurdish Region from Syria (in coordination with Assad!) to create a quasi-independent entity; this imaginative plot necessitates that all parties—including the Kurdistan region in federal Iraq—are working against Syrian Kurds to keep Assad in power, per Iran’s request.
And, pursuant to this scenario, the Kurdish political movement and the Kurdish “street” would have to be sold on the notion that massive regional migration (even from liberated Kurdish areas) would have occurred due to the liberation. To puncture this argument, Kurds would merely have to note that emigration had suddenly exploded; whereas, more than a half-century of Pan-Arab Baathist Arabization policy against the Kurds had prompted fewer than 250,000 Kurds to move from Syrian Kurdistan, more than 300,000 Kurds had become refuges (in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey) after less than one year of PYD-control over Syrian Kurds. Indeed, why would having been liberated trigger massive migration?
That is why most Syrian Kurds, the Kurdnas, and the KNC seek help from the international community; neither the KRG nor nearby countries can be believed or trusted. Kurds hope other countries would enthusiastically support the Syrian revolution and robustly appreciate why it would be preferable for Kurds to assume leadership thereof; Kurds could effectively stabilize the Syrian conflict (stopping the violence) and gently promote a representative democracy (protecting WMD). It is now intuitive that Assad can no longer control Syria’s (secretly maintained) chemical weapons, and it is now clear Assad has been promoting ethnic/sectarian civil wars to distract his citizenry from addressing his thuggery. Because Syrian opposition-rebels cannot be assumed to promise a meaningful improvement over the status-quo regarding democracy and Kurdish Rights, this type of paradigm-shift is long overdue.
The risk of generating policy based on upon word-of-mouth is ever-present, but it is possible that Putin has deviated privately from his public stance—reiterated on August 25, 2013 @ 6:05 p.m.—namely, that “Russia issued a stark warning today against renewed calls for foreign military intervention in Syria after an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus last week.” Thus, to whatever degree he may be attempting to goad America into launching some type of limited air-campaign (rather than, for example, imposing a no-fly-zone) may harbor a “public relations” component, for he does not appear to have agreed to any serious move to oust Assad. Perhaps any degree of concurrence with the United States, therefore, may placate others who would want him—somehow—to accept the potential for “consequences” to ensue after Assad has unabashedly crossed a neon-lit “red line.”
A second “breaking report” that has emerged suggests that Syrian Kurds aligned with the KNC may have been forced to join the SNC, symbolized by the fact that “The Democratic Union Party (PYD) flag was replaced by the Kurdish National Council flag in the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn early on July 26.” Perhaps Syrian Kurds are being forced to accept joining the SNC because Iraqi Kurds failed to help them while PYD and Assad were undermining their interests and the FSA and Islamists were attacking them. Indeed, the “price” ethnic Kurds may be forced to pay for American intervention—of whatever ilk—may be agreement to a shotgun-marriage with other political entities functioning under the auspices of the Muslim Brotherhood.
These ideas have been explored further in a recent essay by a Middle East Expert, Joseph Puder:
In summary, assistance had been requested that could be delivered in a number of ways:
Those who claim that there is only one choice in this matter (arming Assad or the “Rebels”) must be helped to view the conflict within a larger context; opposition is not homogeneous. Although facets of the below-depiction of the dynamics affecting the region may be disputed, its clear message (in addition to suggesting America often “has no clue”) is that this is a multidimensional conundrum that must be viewed from the perspective of satisfying fundamental American interests. In this case, acting upon humanitarian concerns urgently would dovetail with the need to help long-term friends of the United States who can be depended upon to help others build a modern Syria that is at-peace with its neighbors.