Twenty-two years after their Iraqi Kurdish brethren proclaimed their autonomy against the backdrop of an uprising against Saddam Hussein, Syrian Kurds yesterday formally declared the creation of an autonomous government. The United States should embrace the move. Syrian Kurds have largely restored order to the territory they control in and around the town of Qamishli. Children go to school, hospitals are open, and the local government provides basic services. This was no mean feat: Syrian Kurdish militias had to defend their region from encroachments and attacks from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
So far, the United States has avoided contact with the Syrian Kurds, and has repeatedly denied Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim a visa. The problem is two-fold: First, the PYD maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Ninety percent of Syrian Kurds sympathize with the PKK, which is no surprise since its leader Abullah Öcalan had for years resided in Syria and because they see the revived Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as both corrupt and tribal: Syrian Kurds have no desire for leaders who prioritize a distant family over their own. American officials also say that the PYD is too close to Bashar al-Assad. This is an exaggeration: the PYD sees extremism on both sides of the conflict, and has worked to maintain their neutrality.
To ignore the autonomous Kurdish government in Syria would be a major mistake, however. The Syrian opposition has radicalized over the years. The moderates have long since been pushed aside. The alternative to the secular Kurdish administration is the Nusra Front and other opposition groups which hold the West in disdain.
In 1991, the Iraqi Kurds were pariahs, and treated poorly by the United States. Let us be glad that the Iraqi Kurds were forgiving, because they ultimately proved to be a great strategic asset to the United States. So long as the Syrian Kurds do not prematurely try to change Syria’s borders, there is no reason why we should not embrace the opportunity to bolster U.S. strategic interests and local liberty at the same time.