Mutlu Civiroglu, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mutlu Civiroglu is a Washington, DC based-journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst focusing on Syria and Turkey. You can follow him @mutludc. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The United States has been searching for an ally in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011. But while the exiled opposition coalitions have been dogged by infighting and a lack of real influence inside Syria, and the armed opposition within the country is rife with extremists, Washington has been ignoring a natural and potentially valuable ally: the Kurds.
Kurds administer the most stable, peaceful corner of Syria, and have been open in trying to secure better relations with the West. Yet despite this, there is little to speak of in terms of ties. It is time for Washington to accept that if it wants to eventually see a peaceful, pluralistic Syria, then the Kurds are its best partners moving forward.
Unlike the main opposition coalition, Syrian Kurdish groups are united. Indeed, the two major Kurdish umbrella groups, the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) and the Syrian Kurdish National Council (SKNC), recently announced they had reached agreement on several key issues, including unified Kurdish participation at the Geneva II Conference.
Unfortunately, Washington does not seem interested in Kurdish participation. According to some SKNC leaders, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford pressured Kurds to be part of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) rather than pushing for Kurdish participation in Geneva. “We don’t understand why Ford has such a negative attitude towards Kurdish parties,” SKNC official Ahmed Suleiman reportedly told Voice of America.
But this approach has little chance of success, especially as the SNC has shown little desire to recognize Kurdish demands. In fact, the SNC went as far as to denounce the Kurds’ recent declaration of autonomy: “Its declaration of self-rule amounts to a separatist act shattering any relationship with the Syrian people who are battling to achieve a free, united and independent state, liberated from tyranny and sovereign over all its territory,” the group said.
This failure to recognize Kurdish demands is at the root of much of the Kurdish suspicion of the Arab opposition. True, rather than take on a military equipped with sophisticated weapons and advanced air strike capabilities, Kurds have been trying to protect their homes and build self-government from the bottom up. But just because Kurds don’t want to fight the al-Assad regime on somebody else’s behalf doesn’t mean they are regime collaborators.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that Washington ally Turkey strongly rejects any status for Kurds, and has looked to prevent Kurdish participation in Geneva. These diverging interests between Washington and Ankara surely underscore that it is time for the international community to develop a Kurdish policy of its own.
The reality is that the armed Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) deserves recognition for fighting extremist groups. The YPG claims to have killed almost 3,000 fighters from fundamentalist groups such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, efforts that have also included notable roles for female fighters.
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdistan is the safest and most stable corner of Syria, and has been a safe haven for those fleeing violence. The Kurdish focus on defending territory from both government brutality and extremist attacks, rather than taking a front and center role in the conflict, has meant that Arab, Assyrian and Chechen neighbors have been able to live relatively peacefully together in Kurdistan.
Against this backdrop, Kurds last month announced an interim administration to fill the vacuum that followed the regime’s 2012 withdrawal from Kurdistan. The administration aims to provide social, economic, educational and health services even as the people of Syrian Kurdistan live under tough conditions imposed by al Qaeda affiliates. There is, for example, a shortage of basics including bread, milk, baby food and medical equipment. A lack of electricity and fuel is making life difficult for locals during the winter, and providing assistance would be a good step for Western capitals to take if they want to boost ties with a population that could provide valuable support for their goals.
The U.S. and its allies would find it in their own interests to stop ignoring the Kurds and instead welcome their participation in Geneva – a conference that ignores Syria’s largest ethnic minority, after all, will not produce any viable solutions.
Kurds across the world have demonstrated their solidarity with Syrian Kurdistan. It is time that Washington joined them.