Home inFocus Borders, Nations and Conflict (Spring 2014) America Must Recognize Kurdistan

America Must Recognize Kurdistan

Joseph Puder and Sherkoh Abbas, Robert Sklaroff Spring 2014

Now that the Geneva “peace” convocation has predictably collapsed, so too has America’s paradigm for Syria that—at various times—has favored Shiites (Alawite President al-Asad) and Sunnis (al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood). As the civil war rages on, America should instead support the newborn, self-ruling non-Islamist entity—Kurdistan—as a model for a coalition Syrian government. Kurds have unsuccessfully sought freedom and self-determination since dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the legal basis of their modern-day independence efforts. Perhaps a parallel history explains the longstanding friendship between Kurds and Jews, for the Kurdish experience (citing Sèvres) recapitulates Israel’s (citing Balfour).

Kurds Have Struggled for Independence

The Kurds are an Indo-European ethnic group—descents of Medes and Hurrians—which has, for four millennia, inhabited a region that includes parts of present day Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Kurds are now largely Sunni Muslims, although non-Muslim Kurds are Jews, Christians, and Yazedi (who are, themselves, related to Zoroastrianism). About the time of the Arab conquests in the Seventh Century, the term “Kurd” (with Greek roots) was beginning to be applied as an ethnic description of the Persian-influenced Kurdish tribes. Kurds have historically befriended Jews, from Cyrus the Great (the only non-Jew to be viewed as a “messiah” for his decree to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple in 539 B.C.E., as per Isaiah 44:24, 26–45:3, 13) to Sultan Saladin (who promoted coexistence of the three major religions in Jerusalem in 1187, abrogating the wishes of many Muslims and Christians.)

A few short-lived Kurdish dynasties appeared between 830-1150 until the Seljuk Sultan Sandjar “Turk” annexed 17 Kurdish principalities by 1150 and officially established “Kurdistan Province.” The Kurdish dynasty, Ayyubid, founded by Sultan Saladin Ayyubi, took over the Muslim leadership. His empire lasted almost a century (1169-1250), and he garnered long-term Christian antipathy for having allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem en masse and for having expelled the Crusaders from the Middle East. In 1514, Turkish Sultan Selim I forged an alliance with the Kurds to protect its eastern borders from the Persian empire; in exchange for this support, Kurds attained self-rule in Kurdistan, yielding three centuries of peace, stability and cultural renaissance.

The Bohtan (Botan) Emirate (1812-1848), declared by Bader Khan Pasha as the first Kurdish kingdom, was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1908. After World War I, just as the USSR ultimately evicted Armenians, Kurdish interests were eroded by a sequence of treaties and betrayals. Kurds were promised independence in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which outlined a truncated Kurdistan located solely on Turkish territory (excluding Iran, British-controlled Iraq, and French-controlled Syria), but the treaty was supplanted by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which was silent on the subject of Kurdish rights. In this fashion, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, deceived the Kurds. The first Kurdish republic was formed in Eastern Kurdistan (Kurdistan of Iran) and lasted one year (1946-1947) until its leader, Qazi Muhammad, was executed by the Iranian regime. As a result, Kurds were not mentioned in any subsequent international document until 1991, when U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 outlined the fate of Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait had been reversed in the Gulf War.

Kurds Merit Independence

Thus, just as Israel was re-established as a Jewish state in 1948, the Kurds have yearned for self-rule. They merit a homeland to allow their distinct history, language, and culture to flourish. Although they enjoy quasi-sovereignty in northern Iraq, they have been repulsed during recent decades in eastern Turkey and they have been brutalized in Syria and Iran. Perpetuating their promotion of tolerance from King Cyrus to Sultan Saladin are their staunchly pro-American and pro-Israeli views. An independent Kurdistan would therefore serve as a bulwark against Syrian antagonists, but they need support from the United States, as they are surrounded by armies that covet their oil-rich lands and seek their demise.

Were the U.S. and Western Nations to support the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria and its allied Kurdish National Council of Syria forces—which dominate the Syrian Kurdish militia and political leadership—they could vet leaders of anti-Asad forces among Turks or rebels supported by the Arab Gulf-States, lest support be rendered to Islamists of whatever stripe. This would yield the ability to form a Republic led by an amalgamation of Kurds, non-Islamist Sunnis, non-Islamist Shiites, Assyrians, and Christians. Kurds know that nations formed by mirroring British and French spheres of regional influence—following myriad ideologies (from Leftists to Islamists)—have penetrated, derailed and undermined Kurdish movements aspiring for self-determination; which is why the Kurdish masses have resisted and rejected such tactics.

Reversing American passivity would yield resistance to self-serving motives of those who resist Kurdish empowerment, particularly when it is possible to achieve incremental improvement in Syria that would promise the long-term stability of a representative government yielding, in turn, to the return of millions of refugees who had fled this war-torn country. Instead, America (officially, via humanitarian aid) and the Gulf States (overtly, militarily) support radical Pan-Arab Nationalists and Islamist groups such as the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (themselves encompassing terrorist groups such as The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS). Through it all, the Kurds have resisted pressure to join them against the Asad regime in exchange for the promise of being recognized as citizens.

The Kurds reject such entreaties not because of fealty to the Asad regime, which continues to massacre its citizenry, but because they perceive the rebel groups as essentially no different than the regime regarding how they treat minorities, particularly Kurds. They recall these regime opponents supported father/son-Asad for four decades, aiding/abetting the oppression of the Kurds and they observe that these rebels want regime change simply to accrue power. Kurds, however, want the revolution to promote a moderate, peaceful and democratic government that would undo injustice perpetrated on Kurds, yielding freedom, democracy, human rights, and federalism.

Kurds Continue to Struggle for Independence

To determine which group(s) merit support, entities purporting to represent Kurds must be identified. Even before the two-and-a-half-year uprising against Asad, Kurds [including civic, religious, political and tribal leaders] supported regime-change. Now, they promote a new Federal Syria where Kurds and other minorities would achieve self-determination and prevent radical groups from controlling the nation. Conceptually, this resembles the governmental structure established by the United States Constitution, yielding a dynamic between a central authority that ensures security and the exercise of states’ rights. Operationally, this necessitates scrutiny of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); the former controls much of northwestern Syria near the Turkish border, and the latter is tethered to Turkey (which is itself experiencing persistent internal turmoil). Ultimately, this would yield an independent Kurdistan and involvement of Kurds in the government of the remaining Syrian region.

The PYD’s “Declaration of Local Autonomy”—that Rojava, the western Kurdistan Region of Syria, should become a Federal entity—trisects Kurdistan by excluding regions north and northeast of Syrian Kurdistan. Recalling what transpired almost a century ago, it risks setting precedent that could yield support for a tyrant (such as Asad) and compromised territorial control. This is why most Syrian Kurds view it as insufficient, for they don’t want to facilitate efforts by their enemies to divide and conquer the pesky Kurds, and they certainly don’t want their independence movement to be hijacked. By supporting PKK/PYD, neighboring countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Russia) block efforts by as many as 4 million Kurds in Syria to create an independent Kurdistan that could then forge a confederation with 5 million in Iraqi Kurdistan; this forestalls establishing an entity similar to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that is pro-West and pro-democracy, while being against radical Islamists and butchers like Asad. This is how Asad and Syrian opposition groups have collaborated to suppress and to divide the Kurds; this is why self-determination is mandatory—at least for Syrian Kurdistan.

In Turkey, PKK’s senior leadership does not advocate an independent Kurdistan, perhaps because its top five senior leaders are non-Kurds, although they portray themselves as Kurds. The PKK’s chief demand is freedom for Abdullah Öcalan, undermining the Kurds. This explains why working with status quo groups for almost a century has not yielded the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. When terrorism and instability abound, America should support an alternative that is friendly to Western interests, an independent Kurdistan that could serve as a Homeland and then, if desired, federate with Kurds living in neighboring countries. This latter alternative would serve to assuage worry that creation of a rogue nation potentially could inflame regional tension.

Also, Kurds have been hesitant to support either the PKK or the PYD because neither advocates pro-Western ideals that resonate with the Kurdish people: human rights, a democratic republic, and possible federation. Also, their functional track record has contrasted with a Kurdish culture that prioritizes family values, moderation and tolerance. They have conscripted 10-year-olds in child-soldier operations, commandeered property (e.g., automobiles) to fund their activities, and compromised basic Kurdish interests when dealing with Syrian and Turkish leaders. Cooperation with pro-regime Arab and Christian groups has led to Kurds having been killed, kidnapped, and displaced from the region, relegating them to refugee status.

This is why, on May 4, 2014, in Dusseldorf, Germany, 100+ key figures from around the world will convene to strategize regarding this initiative and to explain what it entails…for the Kurds, for Syria, for the region, and for the international community.

Kurds Model Non-Radical Islam

Those who lament the decision not to create an independent Kurdistan after the Gulf War (in lieu of the no-fly-zone) could now be vindicated by creation of a Homeland for Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey; far from providing sanctuary for cross-border attacks, this would allow for peaceful interaction between Syrian Kurds and those living in a Diaspora. This entity—free standing or federated—would provide America an ally in the heart of the battle between Iran/Russia-supported Asad and Islamist-dominated rebels, a bulwark against either ultimately controlling the region. Kurds can help to retard radicalization of the Middle East by preventing Shiites and Sunnis from unfurling flags with Islamist crescents; they would promote democracy, tolerance, and the pro-Western agenda, which is compatible with Kurdish culture.

Sherkoh Abbas is President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria; Robert Sklaroff, a Republican Committee-Person, is a physician-activist; and Joseph Puder, a registered Democrat, is Founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Taskforce for America and Israel (ITAI).