I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’ minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK. Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to him.
The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group. The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective; he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’ popularity in the Gaza Strip.
After years of singing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s praises, Erdoğan has shifted his tune and called for Assad to step down. Like President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, however, Erdoğan has been unwilling to move such calls beyond rhetoric into reality. By seeking to lead from behind and work through Turkey, however, Obama and Clinton may simply be enabling Turkey to sacrifice any serious Syrian political developments on the altar of its fear of empowered Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.
Perhaps the time has come for the Obama administration to have a serious discussion about the PKK and whether Turkey’s antipathy toward the group should trump freedom for 22.5 million Syrians.