The Dilemmas of the Kurds in Syria


By DAVID ROMANO 24-7-2014 – Last week I wrote about the international community’s options of whom to support in Iraq. I did so in multiple choice format, concluding that only the Kurdistan Regional Government appears democratic, worthy and capable of taking on the Islamic State’s Jihadis. Since 2012, however, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s militants have also been fighting Kurds in Syria very actively. Most recently, they used weapons and vehicles captured in Mosul to increase their pressure on Kobane and other cantons controlled by the Kurds of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).

The fighting has grown more desperate and fierce, but the Kurds of Kobane and other areas remain on their own. With little more than old Kalashnikovs and RPGs, they continue to hold back a determined and now better-armed force than what the Iraqi army fled from in June. Yet still the United States and others still refuse to provide support to the Syrian Kurds.

The PYD (Democratic Union Party) controls most of Syrian Kurdistan. Like any political group that manages to compete for power in this region, the PYD people are not angels. The PYD and its militia, the Hêzên Parastina Gel (HPG), maintain organic links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which waged a guerrilla war against the Turkish government from 1984 until last year’s cease-fire. The West and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq therefore view them as communists, and no one is certain what their Abdullah Ocalan-inspired system of “Democratic Autonomy” really means. Their critics accuse them of suppressing other Kurdish political groups in Syria, coercing people in the regions they control and not behaving democratically in general. Many claim that the PYD cooperates with the Assad regime, or at least enjoys a sort of tacit arrangement with Damascus.

It seems difficult to really verify most of these criticisms, and something about the whole thing makes it look like the PYD’s critics object too much: During war time are we to hold the Syrian Kurds to human rights and democracy standards we do not even expect of states? Don’t states have “war measures acts” and “emergency powers provisions” during dire emergencies? How can anyone rebut criticisms that the PYD may not prove democratic in the future, or that the Assad regime focuses its attacks on the Free Syrian Army more than the HPG? Just as states try and maintain a monopoly of force within their territory, should we expect less from the PYD’s administration?

On the other side of the coin, let us look at the PYD’s concrete record of action since it took control of large parts of northern Syria and declared autonomy in the cantons of Kobane, Cizre and Afrin. They held municipal elections. They provided refuge to Arab, Turkmen, Christian and other refugees from all over Syria. They incorporated not just Kurds, but also Arabs, Turkmen and Christians into the autonomous administrations of all three cantons. They protected all of them from both ISIS and the Assad regime. They empowered women, arming them and placing females into leadership positions of every single municipality the PYD controls. They have committed no massacres, and they continue to insist that they want only good relations with Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. They did all of this while being isolated, starved economically and pressured militarily from all sides.

I will therefore once again suggest that Westerners consider a multiple choice question about whom to support in Syria: A) A terrorism-sponsoring, totalitarian police state in Damascus responsible for the deaths of some 160,000 Syrians since 2011; B) The brutal radicals of the Islamic State and other Jihadi groups who tend to massacre anyone not like them; C) A hodgepodge of disorganized Muslim Brotherhood-dominated fighters and disconnected political activists abroad who control little territory and can not agree on or coordinate very much at all, except perhaps various criminal and smuggling rackets; or D) The PYD-led Syrian Kurds, who appear organized, are in control of large parts of the country, seem quite capable of fighting Jihadis and have a better record protecting minorities and women than most of the states in the region.

Russia, China and Iran support option A; Qatar, private donors in the Arab Gulf and occasionally Turkey seem to support B; the West, Saudi Arabia and Turkey give some support to C; but somehow no one views option D as acceptable.  Go figure.

David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press) and co-editor (with Mehmet Gurses) of the forthcoming Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).