Are Syria’s Kurds Really Pro-Assad? / MICHAEL RUBIN



Feb. 23, 2016 – Among supporters of the Syrian opposition, there is increasing cynicism (if not occasional disdain) toward the People’s Protection Units, better known by their Kurdish acronym the YPG. Across the Bay’s Tony Badran gave a fair summary here of some of the concerns. In short, though, at times it seems the Syrian Kurds are siding with President Bashar al-Assad’s allies if not Assad himself rather than the Syrian opposition. Does that mean the Syrian Kurds are on the wrong side of the struggle?

On this, the answer is no. The Syrian civil war is not a binary conflict — Syrian opposition on one side (supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and sometimes the United States) vs. Syrian regime on the other side (supported by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and sometimes it seems the United States).

Before I visited Syrian Kurdistan — the entity locals have named “Rojava” in 2014 — I spoke to American diplomats off-line about the official U.S. position with regard to the YPG knowing that there were not too many Americans visiting at the time and that I would likely be asked, as I was. Generally speaking, there were three concerns:

  • The YPG’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which the State Department has designated a terrorist group.
  • Refusal to cooperate productively with the Syrian opposition with which the United States was engaged.
  • Alleged coordination and cooperation with Assad

On the first point, there’s no contest. To suggest that the YPG or the Democratic Union Party, the Syrian Kurdish political party under which it serves, is not affiliated with the PKK is simply foolish. Whether or not the designation of the PKK is still wise, however, is another question entirely. In terms of personality cult and behavior, the PKK and PYD really aren’t too different from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq. Each talk about democracy but run their parties more autocratically. Each has flirted with Marxism or communism over the years (although the KDP was more cynical and less ideological in its former embrace of the Soviet Union). Each subscribes to a personality cult (although the problem isn’t as severe in the PUK). And each has waged an insurgency against governments which have labeled them terrorists.

On the second point, the problem which the Syrian Kurds had is that the broader Syrian opposition was hesitant to recognize a federal future for Syria and that it also didn’t have much influence on the ground inside Syria. To fold themselves into the opposition without that same opposition endorsing federalism would, in effect, to place their trust in Arab nationalists who, whether masquerading under the guise of Syrian nationalism or not, had long mistreated the Kurds or remained silent against the backdrop of their repression. Nor would it be anything other than strategically stupid to turn over territory to groups which had no ability to defend it.

As for the third point, there is more nuance: When I visit Qamishli — the largest city in the Syrian Kurdistan — the Syrian regime controlled the airport and the border checkpoint with Turkey as well as the bread factory and nine square blocks in the center of town; the PYD and YPG controlled the rest. When I challenged senior PYD and YPG officials about this, they were blunt: They had fought the regime, but regime forces had laid down their arms in a de facto truce allowing the YPG to concentrate its efforts against the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and, subsequently, the Islamic State. They could seize “security square” in the middle of Qamishli, but it would require the Syrian forces to either fight to the death, decimating the center of town, or to surrender. If they did the latter, then the families of those who surrendered who lived in other areas under Assad control would pay the price.

So are the Kurds pro-Western, pro-Assad, pro-Russia, or pro-opposition? The answer to that question is yes to each, so long as each recognizes the aspiration of the Kurds. Do the Kurds trust Assad or, for that matter, many among the Syrian opposition? On that, the answer is no. Instead, they enter into truces tactically only. Simply put, the Kurds are out for their own interest, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

There may be problems in Rojava, and the Kurds will be the first to acknowledge that. Kurds harbor revanchist claims and they are not as democratic as they often claim. Still, on those two issues, they are no worse than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey and, indeed, quite a bit better. What the Syrian Kurds are, however, is secular, tolerant toward religious minorities, and generally tolerant toward ethnic minorities within their midst. Despite allegations — perhaps true — with regard to some ethnic cleansing, the PYD and YPG are far better in every regard than the alternative provided by the Islamic State, Nusra Front, or Ahrar ash-Sham. And while ethnic cleansing should be countered, there is little difference between what the YPG has been accused of doing and what the KDP actually has done in the environs of Sinjar and Mosul. Consistency is in order. Regardless, the big picture remains true: it’s time to embrace U.S. ties to the PYD and YPG rather than apologize for them.