Just as was the case with Iraqi Kurdistan during the war in Iraq, the Kurdish region in Syria is that country’s most stable region. Unlike with the Iraqi Kurds, however, the White House and State Department have turned a blind eye toward Syrian Kurdistan. When the State Department first assembled Syrian opposition figures to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kurds were not among them. Kurds are also underrepresented in the State Department’s more recent efforts to reconfigure the Syrian opposition.
The State Department’s reticence to work with Syrian Kurds has less to do with Syria and much more to do with Turkey. Here’s the problem: Most Syrian Kurds – up to 90 percent according to Kurds in Germany and Iraq – support the Democratic Union Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PYD. The PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The State Department has for more than two decades designated the PKK as a terrorist group. Initially, it did so for good reason: The PKK not only fought a military insurgency, but it also targeted civilians – school teachers, fellow Kurds who sought to provide an alternative to Abdullah Öcalan, and farmers who would not pay taxes to the group.
For American policymakers, however, the issue should not be Turkey: Rather it should be first U.S. national interest and second Syria. Today, the PYD controls not only territory in Syria, but also administers towns and local government. It does a good job, too. School function, utilities work, and security has increased. Furthermore, the PYD seems so far to stay true to its democratic rhetoric. Here, it lays in sharp juxtaposition to Masoud Barzani’s increasingly authoritarian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in neighboring Iraq. Hence, it should not surprise that Syrian Kurds have redoubled their embrace of the PYD and turn their backs to Barzani, his party, and his tribe.
It is no secret that the longer the United States and its allies have remained on the sidelines of the Syria conflict, the more radical the Syrian opposition has become. The problem with “leading from behind,” for example, working through Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is that these countries privilege their own agendas, which include supporting elements far more radical than many in the West, let alone in Syria, are comfortable with. When the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the moderate minority, and al Qaeda affiliates become mainstream, the situation is truly bad.
It is against this backdrop that the U.S. refusal to work with the PYD becomes self-defeating. Whatever territory the PYD controls is space in which al Qaeda cannot operate openly. Turkish diplomats may complain if the United States reaches out to Syrian Kurds, but the Turks should have no standing to call any Kurd a terrorist when they regularly embrace Hamas and Hezbollah. In moments of crisis, it is essential that U.S. policy first and foremost privilege U.S. national security
rather than carry water for Ankara. That putting U.S. security first would also advance peace in Syria is simply an added bonus.