Washington Kurdish Institute
A number of analysts have rung alarm bells regarding Washington’s increasingly “Kurdish-centric strategy” against the Islamic State. Maria Fantapie of the International Crisis Group warns that “By picking the Kurds as strategic allies, you have created an imbalanced relationship between the Kurds and the other communities living with the Kurds.” Denise Natali warns that “Relying on Iraqi Kurds to act as coalition boots on the ground may eliminate some [ISIS] safe havens, but it is fueling Kurdish land grabs.” Hassan Hassan and Bassam Barabandi, in an article entitled “Kurds Can’t Be Syria’s Saviors,” likewise present a slew of arguments to warn Western powers away from cooperation with the Kurds. The implicit policy recommendations of these naysayers would seriously compromise the best chance to bring about a semblance of stability to the Syrian quagmire.
These analyses mischaracterize the alliance forged by the US and the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). Although these analysts concede that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Kurdish-Arab alliance (as well as the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga) has been very effective in reversing the gains made by the IS in Syria, they spend more time drawing attention to problems with the Syrian Kurds: First, such an alliance, they argue, has attracted Turkish opposition. Turkey considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG) an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an armed group that has been waging an intermittent insurgency against Turkey since 1984. Second, they cite a report by Amnesty International regarding allegations of ethnic cleansing by the YPG in areas where a mix of Kurds and Arabs coexist. Third, they point to the complaints of some “Arab tribal fighters” concerning their “relative weakness compared to their Kurdish allies.”
Let us address these issues in reverse order. To begin with, if a capable, moderate and reliable Arab opposition force existed in Syria to counter IS (as well as Assad), it would already be doing so. The United States began aiding and occasionally supplying Syrian Kurdish fighters only in 2014, as a last resort after all their efforts with other groups failed. These efforts not only failed, but they saw American-supplied and trained Arab fighters defect to IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups along with their American-supplied equipment. The “Train and Equip Program,” a $500 million project that sought to train Syrian moderate rebels, proved to be one fiasco among several — especially if we also look at multi-billion dollar American efforts to train and equip the Iraqi army next door.
It was only in the Fall of 2014 when IS launched a massive campaign against YPG forces, but could not seem to dislodge them from Kobane and other areas, that American policy makers began to really take note of the Syrian Kurds. Unlike a multitude of Sunni Arab groups, the Kurds in Syria have been fighting the jihadis (and occasionally Assad’s forces as well) since 2011, with no help from anyone – not the United States, not Turkey, not Saudi Arabia and not Qatar. With the Kurdish capture of Tal Abyad (Gre Spi) and other large swathes of territory from IS, we are only just beginning to see what the Syrian Kurdish forces – together with their allied Arab and Christian militias – can accomplish with help from Washington. To then turn around and blame the Kurds for the relative weakness of Syrian Sunni Arab tribal fighters seems unwarranted, or even strange. The YPG and the Kurds simply cannot be blamed for this state of affairs.
Next we have allegations of YPG ethnic cleansing against non-Kurds in northeastern Syria. Amnesty International’s recent report and similar allegations against the YPG need to be approached critically, however, and require further investigation before making conclusions on the matter. This is particularly true given the context of a sustained campaign, led by Turkey, to delegitimize the Syrian Kurdish forces. The campaign (and the report) emerged precisely when the PYD began pushing IS forces out of Tal Abyad and other strategic areas along the Turkish border.
Although YPG officials admitted to isolated cases of evicting IS militants and supporters, or temporarily asking people to relocate until active fighting subsided, they completely reject accusations of “war crimes” or “ethnic cleansing.” The YPG also issued a detailed, point-by-point response to Amnesty International’s report, rejecting both the methodology and the conclusions reached. Among other things, the YPG points out that a good many (perhaps even a majority) of the villagers Amnesty International spoke to were interviewed in their villages of origin, bellying claims that they were ethnically cleansed from anywhere.
One can imagine that some of the Arab refugees Amnesty International interviewed might also have their own agenda, particularly if they fled the YPG/SDF advance because of past collaboration with IS forces, or because they were Arab settlers brought to the region as part of the Arabization programs of successive Syrian governments since the 1960s. The satellite photos Amnesty International relied upon could well be documenting the destruction of warfare rather than ethnic cleansing. Despite observers’ best efforts on the matter, Syria’s battlefields and contending militias remain notoriously fluid, and the YPG response to the report specifies numerous Amnesty allegations against YPG forces who did not even control the villages in question at the time of the supposed ethnic cleansing.
Western volunteers fighting with the YPG in Syria have also vehemently denied allegations of ethnic cleansing, and the PYD has repeatedly invited international observers, including Amnesty International, to come and see the situation for themselves first-hand. Among other things, PYD leaders point out that they could hardly be in the process of “ethnically cleansing” Arabs from the area when some thirty per cent of their fighters are, in fact, Arabs from the area. The new town council of YPG/SDF-controlled Tal Abyad, for instance, is majority Arab. One should also not forget that the PYD’s cantons continue to protect and provide shelter to not just Kurds and Yezidis, but also Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians and other smaller non-Muslim minorities fleeing IS. In the maelstrom that is Syria’s civil war, one could do a lot worse than this.
Finally, we have Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish gains in Syria. Ankara’s concern is certainly understandable given the resumption of its war with the PKK and the close links between the PKK and PYD. It is also something that the United States cannot easily ignore given Turkey’s important role in NATO and the longstanding relationship between Washington and Ankara. This presents the main reason why Washington kept the Syrian Kurds at arms distance for so long, despite their progressive stances on women (some forty per cent of the YPG’s fighters are women, along with about half the PYD’s leadership), their defense of minorities, their secularism, their battlefield successes and their insistence that they have no desire to secede from Syria.
The civil war in Syria soon saw Ankara so keen to remove Assad from power that it openly supported jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Shams, however. Even now, Turkey prefers to have IS in control of large swathes of territory along its border than the Syrian Kurds, warning the YPG that it will face serious consequences if it advances West of the Euphrates River (into Jarablus and other areas held by IS since some time). When Ankara finally agreed to join the American-led “campaign against terrorism,” it proceeded to bomb PKK positions over 500 times while launching less than a half-dozen ineffective air sorties against empty IS positions.
In other words, the United States and Turkey have radically different priorities and interests in Syria. Washington has tried to square the circle by pressuring Ankara to back away from the jihadis while also trying to make a distinction between the Syrian Kurdish PYD and the PKK fighting the government in Ankara. In this context the SDF project of uniting Kurdish groups with moderate Arab ones in Syria seems to be a step in the right direction. The Kurdish organizations in general, as key non-sate actors in an increasingly collapsing Syria and Iraq, represent a diametrically opposed worldview to not just IS, but all the jihadi groups running around the region at the moment.
What naysayers present as the “problem” of Turkey’s position, however, may instead present an opportunity. The conflict between Ankara and the PKK has been going on since 1984, much longer than the civil war in Syria, and the chance to address both problems should be considered. As we argue in our volume entitled Conflict, Democratization, and the Kurds in the Middle East, properly handled minority grievances can serve as a potent force to stabilize and democratize the region.
The current context in Turkey, Syria and Iraq thus offers not only some hope for a solution to the Syrian civil war, but also the chance for policy changes that could address festering problems between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds as well as the long-running conflict between the PKK and Turkey. In Iraq, supporting the Kurds more would force Baghdad to acquiesce to autonomous Kurdish control of territories in dispute between the two since some time, which is not such a bad thing. In Syria, a solution would start with helping the new SDF Arab-Kurdish force push IS out of northern Syria completely. The PYD-led project of autonomous federal regions could then spread to more parts of the country. A quiet Turkish-Syrian border would in turn help show Ankara that there are alternatives to the fools’ game of trying to shoot its way out of its problem with the PKK and the millions of Kurds who support it.
Thus, as we argued in an earlier article, we conclude that Kurds can in fact serve as peacemakers, become agents of change and democratization in a region marked by interwoven conflicts that have produced hundreds of thousands of deaths, displaced millions, and seen gross human rights violations. Recognizing Kurdish aspirations for more self-determination, goals shared by many other oppressed groups in the region, would be the first step in helping this happen.
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, and positions expressed by authors and contributes do not necessary reflect those on the WKI.