November 27th, 2012
11:13 AM ET

Why U.S. should rethink policy over Syria's Kurds

By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are his own.

Twenty months after the Syrian uprising began, only one thing is certain: However the conflict ends, the face of Syria is forever changed. The terror inflicted on the population by government forces and the shabiha militia has not been random. Rather, President Bashar al-Assad has moved to carve out a safe-haven for the Alawi minority of which he is a member and which dominates the government. Though kidnappings, murders, and mortar attacks appear indiscriminate, their targets are often the Sunni majority in towns and countryside the Alawis want for their own enclave’s integrity.

And, as the fighting in Homs demonstrates, government forces have other goals as well. At first glance, Homs may not look like much. It may be Syria’s third largest city, but it is a pale shadow of Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and Damascus, its capital. Homs, however, it is the crossroads of Syria: Since all roads lead to Homs, whoever controls Homs can control the country.

Missing from both U.S. policy debate and international diplomacy is what the new Syria will mean for diplomats and policymakers. The difference between old and new Syria will be as vast as the difference between pre- and post-war Bosnia. Gone will be the sectarian and ethnic diversity in the cities and countryside. Syria is today effectively a country of cantons. Latakia, along the Mediterranean coast, has become “Alawistan.” Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor are Sunni enclaves and increasingly radicalized. In the far northeast lies Al-Hasakah, where the Kurds run the show.

More from CNN: Kurds' ambitions add explosive element

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.

With Öcalan locked away in a Turkish prison, the PKK evolved. Today, its actions fall more into the realm of military insurgency than terrorism. While some radical offshoots continue to engage in terrorism and deserve no legitimacy, the PKK itself fights mostly in southeastern Turkey where it increasingly holds territory. The Turkish government may have long opposed the PKK’s desire for legitimacy, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has mooted this concern when his own government quietly began negotiations with the PKK. Erdoğan has also nullified Turkey’s once zero-sum definition of terrorism. By embracing not only Hamas, but also its most radical, most militant faction head Khaled Meshaal, Erdoğan undercut the reasoning by which Turkish diplomats argue the West should isolate the PKK. Regardless, the PYD is not the PKK. It has had no involvement in terrorism. For PYD Kurds to sympathize with their brethren in Turkey is not a crime.

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.

Topics: Middle East • Syria

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soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. Hiwa Afandi

    It is time for Michael Rubin to not allow his personal hatred toward Barzani affect his articles. Friends and foes of KRG alike now share the opinion that Michael Rubin is not neutral in his analysis of the situation.

    The peace we see in Syrian Kurdistan is the result of the meetings organized by KRG in Erbil. Mr. Rubin's views contradict the opinion of more than 70% of the Iraqi Kurds.

    November 27, 2012 at 11:35 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      In fact the way the Syrian Kurds administer their territory might be a good example for what a divided Syria could look like. Each sectarian and ethnic group has its autonomy and minds its own business. It will be difficult to create another artificial state to hold them together, after all these 22 months of violence.

      November 28, 2012 at 8:56 am | Reply
    • Kurdi

      I would disagree with you Mr. Afandi, I think you are the one who is being partial and not neutral, because the Barzani clan is a heavy load on Kurdish people from all four parts of Kurdistan; in South they have created corrupted, anti-democratic and blood sucking state that only generates poverty and rich barzanis. In north they fully support Turkey against Kurds fight for freedom and in West they're trying to disturb the situation by whatever powers they have. However I fully support Brazanis move towards reuniting the Kurds in Western Kurdistan , yet as turned this was one of his old time tricks to weaken PYD. I hope that Kurds of Western Kurdistan never follow the "democratic version" of barzani in south Kurdistan and choose the right path.

      November 29, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Reply
    • 300kurds

      long live kurdistan freedoom for ocalan. w eiell nevet let any terrorist grup to accupy in west kurdistan

      July 22, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  2. Bob Greenfield

    I agree with this article. The opposition in Syria is made up radical Islamists backed by terrorists like Al Qaida. When they overthrow Assad, one evil will be replaced by another bigger evil. The Kurds are the only ones we should be backing, and who are a natural ally to the United States and Israel. But the only reason we can't support the Kurds is because Turkey won't allow us to. That would throw a wrench into Turkey's current policies of oppressing its own Kurdish population. We need to stop being a slave to Turkey and follow the policies which are in our own national interest. Besides being in our own national interest, the Kurds have been oppressed long enough by having their country split up among Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq in order for these countries to be able to steal the Kurds' oil.

    November 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  3. Bob Greenfield

    And one more thing, the Turks try to portray themselves as tolerant people (despite cold-bloodedly massacring and waging a program of genocide against all the Christians who lived in Turkey), but if you ask any Turk about what they think of the Kurds, almost all of them will tell you that the Kurds are lower than dogs and don't deserve to live. Yes, that sounds like a very tolerant people to me. The only reason they didn't wage a genocide against the Kurds is because of their muslim religion, but they are still treated worse than dogs.

    November 27, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Reply
    • Coletteroberts

      Give kurdish freedom,same as every country.beiji kurdistan

      April 21, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  4. gazal48

    Great article.

    November 27, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  5. Thupten Anyetsang

    Mr. Fareed Zakaria, I love your show on CNN and never missed one. As you may be aware of self-immolations in Tibet, as of today over 84 Tibetan monks,nuns,men,women,fathers,mothers,young and old have torched themselves, but leaders or medias doesn't seems to care about it except they writes couple of sentences in major news papers. These Heros made history, this never happened in world history not hurting even single person or damaged properties. 0ver 84 self-immolations occurred in Tibet due to unbearable oppression under rules of the communist China. Will you please make this your talk show to invite Tibetan leaders and other side for discussion the cause behind the self- immolations????Thanks

    November 27, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  6. Free Kurdish

    I like this article , it's true , Kurdish must have theirs rights. THere are 40 millions of kurdish in the world.

    November 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  7. korosh

    this would spell disaster on us policy in the region, right now Iraqi Kurdistan exists because of Turkish support, if US supports Syria's Kurds, Turkey will be forced to make an alliance with Iran, the result will be a big victory for Assad's regime. right now Iraq's central government and Iran work together to bring the Iraqi Kurdistan down to her knees.

    November 27, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
    • Burhan Celik

      I really dont get your analysis. Iran will never attack the kurds in Iraq because by that Iran is calling for war and Iran will be a nation in war and thereby USA and Israel can use the kurdish cause for attacking Iran... So i dont believe in that! Turkey can make a alliance with Iran, but this can open trade problems for Turkey and that will not be well for the turks. And last you say that the iraqis and iranians are trying bring down iraqi kurdistan, this is just another reason for the US and Israel to helt the kurds... The USA should not let Turkey be more superior that US National interest !

      November 27, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  8. deniz boro

    The Kurdish alternative started back in the second Gulf War when the Turkish parliment voted off sending Turkish footsoldiers to a neighbouring country. It is interestig to say that quite a few Turkish personnel was bagged right after. And we still have this conflict between the government and the military... For all those top military of Turkey is now in jail or under presecution.
    It makes one wander.
    But that was back in Bush times. Though Turkey may have a longer memory.
    Now, Kurds are playing the field and I repeat my only comment on this (Taken from Asterix and Obelix): "let them stew in theit own brings out the flavour".
    Which just about sums up the current times.

    November 27, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  9. korosh

    Burhan, right now pkk contorls Syrias kurdistan, do you know what it means? it means pkk work with Assad and Iranian government. come on man get your info updated. so more freedom for syria's kurdistan means pkk will back assad and iran from that region. it's a huge victory for pkk, iran, maleki and yes Assad. for god's sake do your homework. turkey is our only ally in the region.

    November 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
    • Burhan Celik

      It is not PKK who controlls Syrian Kurdistan, it is the PYD which is a pro-PKK group. The PYS has great conection with the PKK freedom figthers.

      You have to learn ONE thing, the kurds of Syrian Kurdistan will NEVER EVER let the arabs occupy Syrian Kurdistan again no matter what ties they have or have not with Assad. I dont believe the PYD have ties with the Assad Regime why – beacuse they are bobing kurdish cities from the air..!

      I believe that the PKK is getting maybee arms from Syria but the kurds of all kurdish parties now ONE THING – you can never trust the arabs/iranian/turks...

      By the way I dont believe yous second comment is connected to your first commnet...

      If I may add if Turkey make an alliance with Iran i believe they will be kicked out of NATO, which will only be better for the kurds...

      If the iraqis keep attacking the kurds, the syriankurds keep control with their area and Iran is attacked, thees three part of Kurdistan could create af nation called South Kurdistan...

      November 27, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Reply
    • Thomas

      From what has been propogated is that the Pyd and pkk are different camps that can't and won't come together. So, I can not support the idea that the Kurd hating Iranians are pulling the strings in kurdestan. The Iranians support the government in Iraq, not necessarily the PKK, even though the al-maliki is Kurd. As Brando said in the Godfather, "Barzini is a pimp," so we don't know exactly who the head of the Pkk is truely playing for, but it most likely is not the Iranians. Right now the Iraqi forces are near Kirkuk and contemplating forcing Barzini to toe the line with the oil contracts he has signed. That doesn't sound like the Iraqi Shiite majority government that leans towards Iran is completely in bed with the PKK.

      November 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  10. Fred

    What a great objective article that is written without permission of by Turkish government, thank you Mr Rubin. It is hard to find this kind of article now a days in Western media.
    Kurds are the only Muslim Middle Easterner with Westerner roots.
    Their language is European, and they are the most secular and tolerant Muslims.
    For that reason they are the main target of Turks, Arabs, and Iranians.
    If we cannot save the Kurds and Christians from barbaric Radical Muslims's attacks in the Middle East shame on us..

    November 27, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Reply
    • Burhan Celik

      Truth Fred ! i can only agree with you.. Just wanna add to your comment that turks migrated for Mongolia and therefor are ethnical Mongols... however through the years they have mixed with regional population... and this is kind of funny...
      It will mean that there are no such thing as Etnic Turks because they are ethnic Mongols :)

      November 28, 2012 at 1:28 am | Reply
  11. korosh

    burhan, so as you said PYD is an off-shoot of pkk, right now pkk being used by the regime of Iran and the Assad regime to destabilize Turkey, any attempt by west to give more power to Syria's Kurdistan will put Turkey in a weak position and will fortify the position of Iran, Assad and Iraq's central government. this will weaken the position of Israel as well. so guess what will happen? turkey being felt betrayed by west will shift toward Iran, what's good about NATO when it can't protect a member? the whole thing will benefit Iran's position.

    November 27, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Reply
    • Burhan Celik

      Korosh you dont know what you are talking about... PYD in Syria has it own governing council...

      You have a anti-kurdish agenda for sure... I know its diffecult for Iraq/Syria/Iran/Turkey that for every man
      who hears about the kurdish issue in those states will become a friend of the kurds.

      Iran is a fundementalistic state wanne erase Israel and have Anti-USA philosofy, Turkey support the Hamas and Hizbollah who are also anti USA-Israeal. The Syrian regime have no peace treatment with Israel and the "free" Syrian army is religiose fundamentalists who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq against the US and its western allies, and the also have no respect for Israel... And at last Iraq with its own internal issues... The kurds have historically, ethnical and philosofic values as the EU, USA and Israel... Therefor a Kurdish state will be in their interest !

      How long do the kurds need to surfer in the theese arabic/turkish(mongolian)/iranian nations?

      When Saddam Hussein gassed thousand of kurds Israel were the only nation in the middleeast who put their flag down half to respect and honor the killed, because 200.000 Israeli jews are KURDS!


      November 28, 2012 at 1:23 am | Reply
  12. korosh

    this is stupid, to punish Turkey, Assad and the regime of Iran have given the control of Syria's Kurdistan to PKK so they could launch an attack on Turkey, to make the situation worse west comes in and gives more power to PKK controlled area which is Syria's Kurdistan, lol, I'm happy you folk don't work for US. lol

    November 27, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Reply
    • Burhan Celik

      Turkey could start apolygiesing to the 1,5 million Christian they have killed... not mentioning how Christian still today are not safe in Turkey.... Come to Iraqi Kurdistan and learn how to protect and respect ALL RELIGIONS!

      KOROSH you have a ANTI-KURDISH agenda... Wether you want it or not the time for the kurdish people has come !

      November 28, 2012 at 1:25 am | Reply
  13. Kurdo

    I don't know what the Western World is waiting for not pretecting the long opreessed Kurds in Syria and Turkey. May be they are waiting for another Halabja Gas attack by Syrian regime or another Anfal genocide by Turkey.

    November 28, 2012 at 1:04 am | Reply
  14. Benedict

    I has been one of America's policies not to deal with anyone who doesn't serve their interest and this resonates with the case of the Syrian Kurds. How to balance these is the reason why America gets lost in the final re-alignment of political alliances;so, they had better figure out whose interest serve both their own as well as the new Syria to come!!!.

    November 28, 2012 at 2:42 am | Reply
  15. sethelacohen

    The current ruling head of the government of Syria, President Assad should step down from his position for if he continues to govern this state, it will continue to be the end of human rights for his people. The state is at war within themselves now between those who oppose and are fighting for their right and those who simply go by. This comment recognizes the Syrian National Council as a call or voice for the change of Syrian Government and the end to the Ba'athist government. The people have been searching for their shelter and dignity yet the government not only discourages this but one could also be killed for it. In which the recent Syrian Civil War has proven my strong opposition to the government's power and support for its change that peace should be advocated but only possible if the current President were to leave his position.

    Mijares, Kiara Isabelle D., 2LM2, University of Santo Tomas

    November 28, 2012 at 4:26 am | Reply
  16. mushu is chinese

    The current ruling head of the government of Syria, President Assad should step down from his position for if he continues to govern this state, it will continue to be the end of human rights for his people. The state is at war within themselves now between those who oppose and are fighting for their right and those who simply go by. This comment recognizes the Syrian National Council as a call or voice for the change of Syrian Government and the end to the Ba'athist government. The people have been searching for their shelter and dignity yet the government not only discourages this but one could also be killed for it. In which the recent Syrian Civil War has proven my strong opposition to the government's power and support for its change that peace should be advocated but only possible if the current President were to leave his position.

    Mijares, Kiara Isabelle D., 2LM2, University of Santo Tomas

    November 28, 2012 at 4:33 am | Reply
  17. william lees

    Michael Rubin has never written an article that failed to disparage the KRG.AGENDA has always been obvious.He is invalid.

    November 28, 2012 at 5:54 am | Reply
  18. korosh

    burhan's IQ tells the truth about his intellectual capacity, an individual like him doesn't even realize that what he wrote is considered Racist. lets read his comment : Burhan Celik
    Truth Fred ! i can only agree with you.. Just wanna add to your comment that turks migrated for Mongolia and therefor are ethnical Mongols... however through the years they have mixed with regional population... and this is kind of funny...
    It will mean that there are no such thing as Etnic Turks because they are ethnic Mongols

    November 28, 2012 at 1:28 am | Reply ..................... it seems Burhan thinks Mongols are not Human.

    November 28, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    • Burhan Celik

      Korosh first of all you should look up racisme in a dictionary...

      I am just telling what a published british article has shown, that the blood of the turkish people consist of mongolian and greek blood, which mean there are no such thing as etnic turk, you can be etnic mongolian or greek (or a mix) but not etnic turk. However you can be a turkish national if you a holding a turkish passport, but no such thing as etnic turk, I hope you get it this time..!

      There i nothing racist about my comment, you just make it what you want... maybee because you cant argument anything... By the way my IQ is not that low, as a medical doctor i use my brain everyday, which you might not do...

      If you want to see racisme go to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria...

      By the way Mongols (turks) are human...!

      November 28, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  19. Thomas

    I laugh at the ruse of supporting Turkey. If we really supported Turkey, they would be in the European Union. We are willing to marginalize The PYD because Turkey is part of Nato, and they are a somewhat moderate (and completely self-serving)voice in the middle east. The treatment of Kurds and historically any minority in Turkey has been bordering on appalling considering that Turkey wants to be regarded as a modern and European country. We embrace Iraqi Kurds because they have oil (we are self-serving). We are not Assad's friend, but are shackled to Israel. A disjointed Syria serves the interests of America and Turkey. The idea of enclaves with Damascas being Alawati, and the med coast being like Nagorno-karabach, and the rest being Sunni, is probably the new reality.

    November 28, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  20. korosh

    Burhan come off it, there is just one human race, ethnicity is based on language, culture,location and so on, Jesus Christ go get your GED.

    November 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • Burhan Celik

      I am not going to use more of my time with you and your anti-kurdish agenda...

      November 28, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  21. korosh

    Burhan lives in 21st century and still doesn't know there is just one human race, he mistakes ethnicity with human race and claims he's a brain surgeon. lol

    November 28, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
    • Burhan Celik

      Korosh maybee you should start learning how to >>REPLY<< a comment instead of generating a new, if you are smart enough you will some day learn it.

      I Have never said human are diffrent races... you said my comments were racist so back at you, stupid.
      No iam not a brain surgeon, i am not surgeon yet, but will become a orthopeic surgeon if that is so important for you to know...

      you have no argument... the state of kurdistan will come true... and kurdis christian, jews, muslims and yezidi will live in peace without turkish(mongolian)/arab/iranian govern!

      Korosh you sound like a child – go grow up..

      November 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  22. Mihemed

    I do not think Mr Rubin has any idea about Kurds, he just enemy to Mr Barzani...

    November 28, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Reply
  23. Mehmet

    The reality that Mr.Michael Rubin couldn't get is, the US will use that jidadists against Iran by using sectarianism..It is kind of green belt polict that used against USSR..But the problem is;they are more dangerious and it will be more difficult to diactivate them this time..The point he is totally right is Kurds..They are establishing secular and democratic system..Now there are several citties which are governed by woman..Can you imagine such a thing in the Middle East?US should get closer to Kurds and get more advantage both for herself and Kurds..

    November 28, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  24. Vipsania

    I applaud Michael Rubin and CNN for finally recognizing the importance of Kurdistan in respect to Syria. I look forward to more reporting about Kurdistan.

    November 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  25. Martin Zehr

    Glad to hear Michael that you now think PYD is a good ally. I guess Syrian Kurdistan appeals to you more than Iraqi Kurdistan did. Kurd-Dagh is turning into a volcano..History affords few opportunities for Kurds as are unfolding today. And there are no greater champions for the oppressed in Syria than Kurds. Kurds are living, their flag will never fall.

    December 1, 2012 at 3:29 am | Reply
  26. frank

    Landlocked KRG leaders want one thing, direct access to the sea for their oil and gas riches, which include the oil rich Kurdish region of northern Syria. Turkey, Iran , Russia and Bagdad are all scared of the outcome, especially if the KRG controls the Kirkuk oil field. Money is power, and power translates to statehood for alll Kurds, which should have been done, when Bush had the chance. Turkey needs the Kurds oil, and want to maintain access and control KRG exports.
    A new crude line direct to the Med thru Syria is not in their interest. Remember OPEC has only had one " swing producer" the KSR, and they want to keep it that way.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  27. Troubledgoodangel/Voiceinthedesert

    Abdulah Ocalan is the Kurdish Nelson Mandela. Like Mandela, he has been fighting for 30 years the Kurdish apartheid. I see no reason why he should be freed from prison, like Mandela, and elected the first president of the Syrian Kurdistan! The history shows that the freeing of mandela wasn't a mistake, although he also was declared "terrorist" by the U.S.

    December 5, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  28. Kurdistan

    Kurds are the most moderate people in the region. While all other nations are playing games of thrones... Kurds only wants freedom. We are perfect partners for democracy builders!

    July 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  29. Kurdistan

    Kurds are the most moderate nation in the region. While all the other nations are playing game of thrones, Kurd only wants to be free. We are perfect partners for democracy builders. Its time for EU and USA to recognize this!

    July 24, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  30. göksun

    how stupid article. I hope these absurd opinions are effecting USA's foreign policies and so Usa loses prestige, confidence, ally and start age of China faster. please keep it up USA. what a poor super power has got so """clever"""" foreign relations experts .

    November 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Reply

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