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Repeating the Iraq Mistake in Syria

No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

I first visited the Iraqi Kurdish safe haven nine years later, spending about nine months there, writing in the New Republic at the time a few dispatches. Iraqi Kurdistan was stable and safe from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. Nevertheless, it remained a pariah, suffering not only under international sanctions because it was part of Iraq, but also under Saddam Hussein’s own blockade. While some U.S. diplomats privately encouraged me to go, the more officious ones–for example, a consular officer in Ankara–warned me that she would consider what I was doing illegal because I was using a U.S. passport to travel to what was technically Iraq; I went anyway.

Fast-forward almost 23 years since Iraqi Kurds established their de facto autonomy. Today, as Secretary of State John Kerry visits France to try to coddle and cajole various factions to come to the Geneva II conference later this month, one group is decidedly not invited to attend: The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which controls Rojava, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and de facto autonomous zone in northeastern Syria. As I’ve noted here before, in Rojava, children go to school, the shops are open, and men and women go about their business. Christians worship freely, as do Muslims. Not everything is well in Rojava: The Nusra Front and more radical elements of the Syrian opposition have attacked the secular zone repeatedly, but Rojava’s own militia has successfully beat the al-Qaeda affiliates back.

U.S. diplomats say they blacklist the Syrian Kurds for a number of reasons:

  • They accuse the Syrian Kurds of not cooperating with the opposition.
  • They accuse the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim of cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militias.
  • They accuse Rojava of marginalizing other Kurdish groups.
  • And the State Department is wary of offending Turkey’s sensibilities by recognizing another Kurdish entity on Turkey’s borders.

None of these are good reasons and, indeed, in many cases, they are simply wrong.

The Syrian Kurds do cooperate with the opposition, although they also have warned the United States repeatedly about the growing radicalization of the opposition. This is a message that the State Department has not wanted to hear, and so they have effectively punished the messenger. They also demand that the opposition recognize their own right to autonomy, a demand Iraq’s Kurds long made.

Salih Muslim strongly denies cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militia, although he acknowledges talking to all groups. That is effectively what John Kerry has blessed by pushing for Geneva II. Given how the Syrian Kurds have suffered under Baathist rule, PYD officials take special umbrage at the notion that they favor Assad.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq does not like Rojava because it does not like competition. Masud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has never been able to shed his tribal mindset. Many Syrian Kurds do not like the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq because its tribal policies are unattractive to the Syrian Kurdish mindset. In addition, many Syrian Kurds—indeed, the vast majority it seems—favor political groups closer to Turkey’s Kurds. Barzani has the State Department’s ear, however, and seems intent on having the United States take sides in what is effectively an internal Kurdish political dispute.

Turkey, of course, hates Rojava because it opposes Kurdish autonomy and because Rojava maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party which for years waged an insurgency against Turkey. That insurgency is over, however, and Turkey itself has entered peace talks with the former insurgents. How ironic it is that the State Department bends over backwards for Turkey, a state which has supported al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, pursued policies that compromise NATO systems to China, and has helped Iran avoid sanctions.

The last thing the United States should do is undercut the only stable, secular, democratic, and functioning section of Syria. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on doing. Rather than treat Rojava like a pariah, it’s time the United States treats it like a model.



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