|Dr. Sherkoh Abbas on the Kurdish Engine of Middle Eastern Democracy|
While much of the Middle East is sucked into a chaotic bloodbath, there is one people that stands
firm and maintains its position – the Kurds • The crisis in Iraq and Syria is also an opportunity for the Kurds - and for the State of Israel • Dr. Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National assembly of Syria, a man in the eye of the storm, provides an unconventional take on events in Syria and Iraq • He emphasizes the Kurdish role in the new order as well as the common enemy: the Iranian regime • A view from the inside
The rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northern and central Iraq and the impending threat to Baghdad has focused on the world’s attention on the Kurds - seemingly the sole functioning bastion of defense against the jihadi offensive.
At this critical juncture in time, Mida spoke to Dr. Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, on the situation in Kurdish Syria, the political dimension of the Syrian Civil War, Assad, ISIL, Iran, US policy and the Israeli angle. The result was an illuminating inside perspective which proved, once again, that there is always more than meets the eye in our region.
Dr. Sherkoh Abbas’ family hails from the Kurdish area of Syria and part of the Kurdish region in Turkey, where it has been present and politically-active for over 400 years. Abbas himself has been active on Kurdish issues for over 30 years. In 2006, he formed the Kurdistan National Assembly - Syria (KNAS), an umbrella group for Kurdish political parties and tribal, religious and civic leaders opposed to Assad’s dictatorship and advocating federalism for Syria.
The organization, in conjunction with the Kurdish National Council (KNC), has since lobbied in Washington and Brussels for the Kurdish cause within a democratic, federal Syrian state, calling for regime change and an end to the oppression and “Arabization” of the Syrian Kurds:
“Our goals is to promote democracy and to ensure Syria does not become radical and Jihadi, but we mustn’t forget that the so-called 'secular' Assad regime is just as bad for Syrians and the international community.”
The situation in both Syria and Iraq is indeed dire - what role do you envision the Kurdish forces taking in both countries? What scenario do you see unfolding?
“To answer that, I must provide some essential background information. Since its inception, Assad has attempted to portray the Syrian revolution to the international community as a Salafi, Al-Qaida-led terrorist insurrection. So the same people Assad sent to Iraq to kill American soldiers while the US was liberating Iraq [Syrian and other foreign fighters who came from Syria to join Al-Qaeda in Iraq, D.O.] were in Syria and working for him, and they formed the various radical groups including Jabhat Al Nusra, the ISIL, etc. These groups were all part of the Assad-Iran mechanism.
They used them very successfully in Iraq, and they used them in Syria to “come to the aid” of the Syrian revolution, leading the Syrian people to perceive them as friends, oblivious to the fact that they were meant to portray the revolution as radical and Al-Qaeda-linked and prevent any support from the international community. The last 4-5 years in Iraq have seen the Iraqi Sunnis frustrated by the oppression of Iranian-subservient and authoritarian President Nuri al-Maliki, and the conditions were ripe for a rebellion against him.
Iran, Al-Maliki and Syria did the same thing and brought a few thousand ISIL jihadis into Iraq to “hijack” the Iraqi revolution and portray it as jihadi. The same jihadis left behind a lot of equipment in the posts they abandoned in Syria, which fell into the hands of the Assad regime. We believe it’s all part of Maliki and Iran’s plan to sow chaos, induce panic in the international community and receive its support in their campaign against the jihadi threat to the entire Middle East, make sure no rebels receive any outside support and at the same time give themselves carte blanche to bomb and kill anyone inside Iraq with impunity. It also allows for Iran to send its forces into Iraq and control that region. To sum up, the Shiite Crescent, Iran, Iraq and Syria have implemented this dual plan with Russian support, and the Iraqi and Syrian people are paying the price.
I believe the best move for the Iraqi Kurds, following the takeover of disputed Kirkuk from the fleeing Iraqi Army, would be to create a stable, humanitarian buffer zone between them and the battle zones and allow all refugees fleeing it to live in it. This would allow the international community to send support via the Kurds and prevent Maliki, Iran and groups from their camp from attacking the Kurds in the future. This is the optimal move for the Kurds, and I don’t believe they should go beyond it.
As for the Syrian Kurds, the PYD/PKK that control most of the Kurdish region in northern Syria are part of the Assad regime and do not represent the Kurdish population. The so-called Declaration of Kurdish Local Autonomy is far from the truth - they have not been promoting democracy: there is oppression, lack of freedom and the regime is fully present alongside Iranian agents. On their watch, over 250,000 Kurds fled the area, creating a demographic change.
The Kurds do not trust or support these groups, but they are the government and have all the money, weapons and support they receive from the Assad regime, Iran and Russia, and even Maliki. The Syrian Kurds are in a very desperate situation, and it’s important for the international community to take a good look at the entire region and realize that a loose, decentralized federal state in Syria is the only way to prevent dictatorship, foster democracy and bring back stability. Anything else is a recipe for disaster and another dictatorship.
You mentioned that the Kurds in Syria do not support the PYD/PKK. Who do they support and who wields political power?
The overwhelming majority of Kurds believe they should have a federation. All 15-16 Kurdish political parties, the Kurdish National Council and the Kurdish National Assembly of Syria believe in a federal system for Syria. Only one group, the PYD/PKK, is supported by Assad with the goal of cowing the Kurds into not controlling that area, creating a rift between the Arabs and Kurds and deflecting the attention from the regime.
Assad was very clever in withdrawing his forces from the area and handing it over to the oppressive PYD, so that the locals look at his regime as a better alternative. He has now begun to remove the PYD from power. In one or two years’ time, when the regime regains complete control, it will have eliminated completely the PYD. They are disposable. Assad removed his forces from the region with the intention of portraying the Kurds as collaborators with his regime, and they indeed incurred the criticism of the Syrian opposition.
As part of his “divide and conquer” strategy, he has established a militia of Arabs, Christians and Baathists to fight the Kurds, and is negotiating with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq on establishing a Kurdish political party that will vie for power with the other elements I mentioned, preventing any one party from wielding complete power. The two groups I represent, the KNAS and the KNC, are the largest political groupings in Syria and have the ability, given the means, to stop the PYD and the ISIS in their area. However, we should not engage in any action unless we know the end goal is a federation for the Kurds.
What are your thoughts on US policy on Syria and the region in general?
There is much room for improvement and initiative in US Middle East policy, particularly with regards to Syria. In the last few years, the US' policy of minimal engagement with the democratic and moderate forces in Syria, such as the Kurds, while engaging political Islam, has made it easier for Assad to use is to his advantage by playing the “radical Islam” card among the Syrian people, as I mentioned. It has also led to increasing concern among US allies in the region over the degree of the US' commitment to them.
There is positive news coming out of Congress, especially from the Democratic Party. Just a few days ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) professed his support for an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Republican Senator Chambliss, ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was open to the idea as well.
Israel has had amicable relations with the Kurds for decades. What role should Israel play?
Israel needs to realize that this is the best opportunity for it to help the Syrian people, because they no longer believe Israel is their number one enemy - it is Assad who is perceived as such. This is the best possible opportunity to harness that goodwill, help the Syrian people, build a relationship and make peace with them, rather than seek another dictatorship. We perceive the Kurds as the engine of democracy in the Middle East, and they need to be supported.
We have never had any hatred for the Israelis or the Jews - on the contrary. We have shared history and tragedies, and we believe this is an opportunity for them to help the Syrian people and the Kurds, and have a stable Syrian neighbor rather than a border with Iran through Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip. Israel could also engage elements within the Syrian opposition and make use of public diplomacy.
Just sitting, doing nothing and waiting for one side to win will not serve Israel in the long run and will actually embolden Iran, which will dominate the entire region. The Iranian regime is extremely wily, it is building nuclear weapons, is increasingly dominant in Iraq and Syria, and has unfettered access through Iraq, all the way to Syria, Lebanon and the Mediterranean, free to undermine countries in the area as it pleases.
I believe Israel should not wait, but rather seize this opportunity to act, and ensure federalism prevails in both Syria and Iraq by supporting the Kurds. The Kurds would never allow a future [federal] state in Syria or Iraq to threaten Israel. This is also an opportunity for Israel to stop Iran and cause its regime to implode by providing support to democratic groups in Iran such as the Kurds, Azeris and Baluchis with the goal of regime change and a federal state in Iran.
To sum up, by supporting the Kurds throughout the region, Israel could help create an Israel-friendly Kurdish entity stretching from the Mediterranean all the way into Iran, and serving as a buffer between it the Shiite Crescent on one hand, and a radical, jihadi Sunni Crescent on the other. The Kurds are willing, but Israel needs to take action.
interviewed by David Oman in the Israeli magazine Midah