By Reese Erlich
April 8, 2015
In late January, Kurdish fighters backed by US airstrikes routed the Islamic State (IS) in the Syrian border town of Kobane. In Iraq, too, they have been a key bulwark against the extremists amid the collapse of the Iraqi army. Now, seizing their political moment, Syrian Kurds are trying to turn that tactical cooperation with the US into a full-blown political alliance.
So in mid-March, Sinam Mohamad, a leader of the rebel coalition now governing Kobane and other Kurdish regions of Syria, embarked on a diplomatic offensive, traveling to the US where she met with State Department officials in Washington.
Mohamad asked for economic, political and military aid for Syrian Kurds during her meeting with Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
It was the first such meeting in Washington, according to Mohamad. “It was good,” she told VICE News in an exclusive interview. “We want to build good relationships with the US.”
Mohamad is co-chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society (Tev-Dem), the alliance led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which governs the Syrian Kurdish areas known collectively as Rojava.
The State Department stressed that the participants discussed humanitarian aid and women’s rights in Syria. In a statement to VICE News, it said that the “United States engages in limited communication with PYD representatives” in the context of the wider fight against IS. “Our policies towards the PYD and the PKK [Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party] have not changed.”
When the fighting in Kobane first began late last year, the Pentagon dismissed the battle for the town as having little strategic importance. But as the Kurdish militias — peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan, their Syrian counterparts from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and PKK fighters from Turkey — held out against great odds, the US changed course and began bombing. In the end, just under 1000 IS fighters were killed, along with some 500 Kurds, according to Mohamad. Much of the city was destroyed. But the Kurds had decisively defeated IS.
The PKK and its affiliate PYD played a key role in re-taking Kobane. The PKK fighters gained military skills during their armed insurgency against the Turkish government, which began in 1984. But the US, Turkey, Britain and the EU consider the PKK a terrorist group. And there’s the rub.
“Washington is stuck with the dilemma of how to support anti-ISIS (IS) forces without, in one way or another, helping groups to which it is opposed,” said Frank Rettenberg in a VICE News interview. He is a retired US foreign service officer once based in Turkey, who continues to closely follow Kurdish politics.
“Washington seems to have established good basic relations with the PYD regime,” Rettenberg continued, “and doubtless would like to render it generous assistance if all other things were equal. But Turkey fears that major military assistance rendered to the PYD will filter into the hands of PKK personnel and be used to attack Turkish security installations.”
Sinam Mohamad hopes to overcome objections by Turkish and some US officials, and establish a long-term alliance with the West. Under the leadership of other political parties, Iraqi Kurds have already built such an alliance with the US, Israel and Europe. But so far, the US and Syrian Kurds have only had a tactical agreement to fight IS, limiting cooperation to specific ground targets.
“What we would like is strategic,” Mohamad said. “This is our aim.”
But the PYD has an uphill battle, facing criticism from both the left and right. To understand the current conflict, it helps to review some recent Kurdish history.
Some 30 million Kurds live in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran — the world’s largest nationality without a nation. Kurds have their own language, culture and history. For centuries they resisted efforts to assimilate them into Turkish, Arab and Persian empires.
Kurds make up an estimated 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million people. The majority of Kurds live in the northern region near the Iraqi and Turkish borders, but also inhabit large cities such as Damascus and Aleppo.
For decades Syria’s ruling Baath Party carried out repressive policies against Kurds. In the early 1970s, the government relocated Syrian Arabs to displace Kurds living in the north. The government deprived many Kurds of the right to own businesses and property. The Kurdish language wasn’t taught in schools; Kurdish media were banned.
Since the early 1960s, the Syrian government had denied citizenship rights to Kurds it claimed had been born in Turkey and Iraq. Their descendants were also denied citizenship. By 2011, the number of stateless Kurds had grown to an estimated 300,000. Syrian President Bashar al Assad granted citizenship to about 250,000 when the uprising began in an effort to win Kurdish support.
In 2004, Kurds in the northern city of Qamishli rebelled against Assad’s regime. Security forces killed some 30 Kurds and thousands fled to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurdish issue also has an economic component. Syria’s oil fields are located in an historically Kurdish area, now inhabited by a mixed population. Before the civil war and 2011 Western economic embargo, Syria produced 370,000 barrels per day, accounting for only 0.4 percent of total world output.
The country is a small-time player internationally, but the fields are vital for any new Syrian government. Assad’s regime, IS and Kurdish groups all struggle to control them.
The Syrian Kurdish movement is fragmented, with at least 15 parties vying for support. Over the past few years, the PYD emerged as the strongest, effectively controlling most of Rojava. So it’s worth looking into the PKK and PYD history to understand how they gained that power.
Student radicals led by Abdullah Ocalan founded the PKK in 1978 in Turkey’s Kurdish region. Ideologically, the PKK combined elements of Marxism and nationalism, as did many Middle East insurgents of that time. The PKK called for armed struggle to build an independent, socialist Kurdistan in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The US-allied Turkish government of that era refused to recognize any Kurdish rights and imposed martial law on the Kurdish region. The PKK gained some popular support by fighting government repression.
Women played a prominent role as members and leaders, making the PKK unique among the male-dominated movements and governments of the region. This reporter interviewed women leaders in the PKK’s headquarters in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, who exuded confidence, explaining that almost 50 percent of PKK members are female. Other sources report the proportion may be closer to 30 or 40 percent, but in either case, the numbers are impressive.
The women said they engaged in armed struggle, not terrorism. Unlike groups such as al Qaeda, they said, the PKK targets military and government officials, not civilians.
In 1999, with the help of the CIA, Ocalan was captured and flown to Turkey. He was convicted of treason and is still serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Ocalan revised his ideology, abandoned Marxism and revolutionary socialism, and called for Kurdish autonomy, not independence.
In the early 2000s the PKK oversaw the formation of parties for each of the countries with Kurdish populations. In 2003 the PYD was formed in Syria. PYD leaders claim to have only a common ideology with the PKK. Critics argue the groups’ leaderships are also interlinked.
The PYD picked up popular support among young people in 2011 as one of the few Kurdish parties to hold demonstrations against the Assad regime. By 2012 it had organized armed militias that opposed both the government and extremists such as the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. In July 2012 the Assad regime redeployed troops from several Kurdish cities to other parts of Syria. The PYD and its allies moved in to become the governing force.
The PYD has managed to draw international support from the right and left. An article in a national security think tank website called for greater Western military and political support to PYD affiliated militias.
Meanwhile, an anarchist website defines the PYD-controlled Rojava as “an anarchist-oriented movement on the frontlines of the world struggle.”
Sinam Mohamad said that the PYD is certainly not anarchist. She said Ocalan has read all kinds of philosophers, including anarchists. However, she told VICE News, “He has his own thought and his own philosophy.”
Ocalan has abandoned Marxism as well. “Sometimes you have to change your ideas with the times,” Mohamad said. “Now we need to have a democratic system.”
Günes Tezcür, an associate professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago who has written extensively on the Kurdish insurgency, told VICE News that the PKK and PYD continue to use leftist rhetoric, but their main appeal relies on nationalism.
The legal political party in Turkey affiliated with PKK supports gender equality, gay rights, religious freedom, and environmental issues, said Tezcür. “However, the PKK and PYD are foremost nationalist organizations,” he said. “That nationalist sentiment is much stronger than any other political ideology.”
PYD’s nationalism leads them to seek alliances with anyone supporting their cause. “We are looking forward to having relations with everybody, the US, everyone who is supporting our project” in Rojava, said Mohamad.
“Even Israel?” VICE News asked. “Why not?” came the reply.
If such alliances are implemented, they will certainly alienate the PYD from leftist and Arab movements.
The PYD and all other Syrian Kurdish parties reject separatism, and favor some kind of local control within the Syrian state. The PYD calls for autonomy in which Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and other minorities would democratically control Rojava as part of a de-centralized Syrian nation.
“In Rojava, we see it is difficult for us to have an independent state,” Mohamad said. “We are not alone. We want a democratic state for all Syrians, not a separate Kurdish state.”
But critics question whether, once the fighting stops, the PYD can govern democratically. They point to the cult worship of Ocalan. Supporters keep his picture in their homes, chant his name at demonstrations, and wear his image on T-shirts.
“The PKK revolves around the cult of Ocalan,” Tezcür said. “Ocalan aspires to be a Kurdish Atatürk [founder of modern Turkey], whose cult of personality is still very much alive in Turkey.”
The PYD has also developed a reputation for sectarianism, putting its own interests ahead of the broader Kurdish movement. It has been accused of assassinating leaders of other Kurdish parties. On June 27, 2013, the PYD’s militia shot and killed three members of an opposing political party and beat others for holding an anti-PYD demonstration in the northern Syrian town of Amuda, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
The PYD “has an ambivalent relationship with democracy,” said Tezcur. “On the one hand, it is committed to ethnic and religious pluralism. On the other hand, it has little tolerance for organizations that challenge its claim to represent the Kurdish people.”
Fred Abrahams, a special adviser for HRW, visited Rojava in 2014 to investigate human rights there. His report criticized the PYD for having “committed arbitrary arrests, due process violations, and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances.”
In a VICE News interview, Abrams noted that the PYD had cooperated with the investigation and had moved to correct abuses. “The key of course is what happens on the ground,” he said.
Abrams added that “the conduct of PYD authorities is much better than what is happening in other parts of Syria, but that is an unacceptably low standard. As the governing authority, the PYD can and should do much more to respect human rights.”
Respect for human rights has never been high on the agenda of western powers seeking Middle East allies, however. Western countries face a political problem: Should they form a closer alliance with the PYD and risk alienating Turkey? Or should they maintain only a temporary military alliance?
Former US foreign service officer Rettenberg said if Turkey shifts policy on the PKK, US policy might change as well. “Turkish acquiescence in the arming of proven, effective Kurdish forces would strike a serious blow to [IS] and at the same time promote the Turkish-Kurdish peace process,” he said. But so far peace talks between the PKK and Turkish government haven’t gotten very far.
So while the US-PYD military alliance will likely continue, political recognition will be slow to arrive if it ever comes at all.
“It is extremely unlikely that the US would commit ground troops to help the PYD in the foreseeable future,” Tezcur said. “So, I expect to see the continuation of the US assistance to the PYD in a limited manner.”
Sinam Mohamad, on the other hand, is patient. Asked if the US is likely to offer political support, she said “I’m always optimistic.”
Follow Reese Erlich on Twitter: @ReeseErlich
Veteran foreign correspondent Reese Erlich has covered the Middle East for 29 years. He is author of “Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect,” foreword by Noam Chomsky and published by Prometheus Books.