January 13th, 2014
08:50 AM ET

Time for U.S. to embrace Syria’s Kurds

By 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.

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soundoff (62 Responses)
  1. Jeff

    I doubt this President even cares about a winning strategy.

    January 13, 2014 at 9:17 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      In view of the situation on the ground, it is highly unrealistic to stick to the artificial borders drawn by French and British colonialists after WWI. If the Syrian Kurds can get their act together, why can't they have their autonomy?

      January 14, 2014 at 6:23 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The vision of the Syrian National Coalition is grand: "to achieve a free, united and independent state, liberated from tyranny and sovereign over all its territory". But would it be achievable?

        January 14, 2014 at 6:24 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Will the Alawites want to be a minority in a new Syria, dominated by Sunnis? The Kurds had always felt neglected by Assad. Now they want to be on their own.

        January 14, 2014 at 6:30 am |
      • Miran

        Not a good idea, unfortunately they are surrounded by their enemies such as turks and Arabs , Otherwise it could happen many years ago.

        January 14, 2014 at 8:31 pm |
  2. matslats

    You forgot to mention what we let Saddam do to the Kurds.
    Do they really want to be handed our weapons and told to fight on the side of the US?
    Maybe they've read your little plan to balkanise Syria in order to weaken the middle east.
    Maybe the Kurds are better off without dying for the Empire.

    January 13, 2014 at 9:18 am |
    • syriascholl

      You forgot to mention how those same Kurds were shielded through the 1990s by a Western NFZ, and how those same Kurds fought alongside US/Western troops during the Iraq war in the 2000s.

      January 13, 2014 at 2:41 pm |
  3. Joseph McCarthy

    We Americans sorely need to abandon our own self interests in the Middle East and embrace all the Kurds, especially those in both Iraq and Turkey who are aspiring to set up their own home state. Unfortunately, the right-wing, self serving politicians on Capitol Hill care only for themselves as always and couldn't care less about the Kurds except in 1991 when George H.W. Bush exploited them to his political advantage against Saddam Hussein!

    January 13, 2014 at 10:23 am |
  4. mullahproblems

    Reblogged this on The Mullah Problem and commented:
    Wait...you mean embrace the group that has been fighting for its existence for the past few hundred years that despises radical Islamists and Mullahs equally? By jove, I think someone has the right idea. Push for supporting groups that are actually FIGHTING against the evils of the region, rather than just giving the Mullahs whatever they want. Maybe a strategy like this will give us an advantage against Iran, as no one wants separatist groups being funded by the U.S. on their border.

    January 13, 2014 at 11:32 am |
  5. Larry

    The media always only mentions two groups, Assad the tyrant and the al qaeda terrorist rebels. They always exclude the Kurds, the only peace-loving people in the region, the third group in Syria that is never mentioned. Instead of trying to choose a side between two evils, Assad and al qaeda, we need to start taking a closer look at the Kurds. They are the only group in Syria who are natural allies of the U.S. and Israel, but yet we keep ignoring them. And these people have been oppressed for the last 100 years by both sides. We need to start taking a closer look at the Kurds and a future alliance with them.

    January 13, 2014 at 12:22 pm |
  6. Hawar

    U.S has no clear plan for crisis in the region, they for past decades showed they are not interested in Kurds issue just for their own and their regional allies. Kurds are aware of these facts, for them the only friend is their mountains. if the Kurds dismissed in the peace process there will be no peace in Syria and the region.

    January 13, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
  7. Adam Jonson

    Nonsensical garbage. Syrian Kurds are PKK terrorist collaborators of Assad. Plain and simple. Where do you think they're getting their weapons (of Russian make) from?

    The leader of Kurdish terrorists (Abdullah Ocalan) was Assad's houseguest for two decades for God's sake. Look up "Ocalan Suriye gunleri" in Google to see this terrorist living it up in a private mansion built for him by Assad.

    Shamefully, CNN allows this person who is a propagandist for the PKK, a terrorist group recognized as such by the US State Department.

    I encourage all those here to look at pictures of children murdered by PKK terrorists.

    Americans need to realize that they can't complain about "al-Qaeda" and then support a group of terrorists that is even more murderous (PKK) just because it suits some nonsensical Talibanesque Christianist foreign policy fantasies of theirs. It's hypocritical.

    January 13, 2014 at 1:10 pm |
    • Quinton

      Good grief Adam, you sound like another Tea Partier taking up for both the amoral Turks and the right-wing thugs in Washington. During the Revolutionary War(1775-83) would you have said the same about George Washington and the Continental Army, condemning them as "terrorists"?

      January 13, 2014 at 2:50 pm |
      • Hejar

        Thank you for taking a fair position Quinton!

        January 13, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
    • hevallo

      The Lausanne Treaty denied the Kurds a homeland and began the conditions that subjected them to nearly a hundred years of genocide and forced assimilation at the hands of subsequent Turkish regimes. They did this by not only phyiscal genocide with tactics learnt from German army generals but also by psychological warfare by branding those who fought back against their atrocities as 'terrorists'. No change in CNN comments section from some racist die hard Turks!

      January 13, 2014 at 3:14 pm |
      • Quinton

        Well said, hevallo. Too bad most people here don't understand the plight of the Kurds except what this government here tells them and that is disinformation at it's worse! The Turks may be U.S. allies but that doesn't give them the right to gas Kurdish rebels along with their local population in the mountainous regions of both northern Iraq and eastern Turkey!

        January 13, 2014 at 7:11 pm |
    • BOTAN

      PKK fighters are seeking for freedom and self-determination for Kurds 30 million people in Turkey. Why don't you think that Turkish fascist governments are terrorists whom they have been banning Kurdish language until recent years. It is true that PKK was a ally to Assad's regime in 1990s because at that time PKK had no any other options. Turkish state hostility has crossed all moral lines, it obliged USA and EU to recognize PKK as a terrorist group, it is just a game of interests.

      January 13, 2014 at 3:52 pm |
    • Hejar

      I"m sure you work for the Turkish propaganda machine because most fair people know that the only reason PKK took up arms was to defend their people against the brutal acts of the Turkish government which continue to today. After all they are the biggest supporters of the jihadists in Syria. The only reason PKK was labeled a terrorist group was for turkish exchange for their participation in Afghanistan. PKK speaks for 99.9% of Kurds in Turkey and even the Turks are now negotiating with them. Kudos to CNN for FINALLY talking about the Kurds.

      January 13, 2014 at 8:28 pm |
    • Nashwan

      Adam let's not forget the PKK was the outcome of state sponsored terrorism on the Kurds that continues today. The only reason they are labeled a terrorist organization is for political reasons. When one is backed into a corner and denied the right to live their life as they choose and no opportunity is given to them to peacefully stand against the injustice the only option left is to take up arms and fight for their god given rights that no individual or nation can take away. We kurds are a proud and peace loving people that just want to live in peace and have the ability to live as kurds and not Turks.

      January 14, 2014 at 11:55 am |
    • Larry

      So you are condemning an entire race of people and calling them all terrorists? You are saying that an entire race of people have no right to be free? That just goes to show your bigotry and racism. With your comments, you just lost all credibility. You are the one who sounds like a terrorist, by trying to deny other people of their freedom.

      January 15, 2014 at 3:56 am |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Don't pay too much attention to this Adam above, Larry. He's obviously a weak minded, bigoted Tea Partier who believes every thing the right-wing thugs in Washington say! Besides, this jerk obviously knows nothing about the Kurds or their plight!

        January 15, 2014 at 9:35 am |
    • Aram fairfax

      In fact Turkey is suffering from schizophrenic policies, unrealistic denials of her minority problems, an outdated Kemalism, Islamic fundamentalism, a sick economy, growing corruption, heavy debt, and the costs of the Kurdistan war ,Kemalism, the ideology of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic, denies the existence of other peoples in Turkey, and creates additional problems with its assertive nationalism, militarism and secularism.

      January 15, 2014 at 5:32 pm |
    • Allan

      You turkish racist piece of garbage. Just shut your failthy mouth and don't write. Your beloved atagay wasn't even a turk and neither was Ziya Gökalp, the creater of your twisted ideology that says you turks came fron a distant planet and saved mankind.

      January 21, 2014 at 11:43 am |
  8. DNRA

    US need to support kurdish people in syria.It is for everybodhy interests, except Turks,Araps and all exteremists.because they only want to violence, killing, suppression in this region.The kurds are the only people who only want to live in peacein their Home land. They are the only one who do not have any hatrest against Israil.They are the only one who fights againts Extremists.

    January 13, 2014 at 2:47 pm |
    • Quinton

      Quite true, DNRA. Thank you. This cursed Obama pretends to be going ballistic over Syria's chemical weapons but at the same time while the Turkish air force is gassing the Kurdish rebels in the mountains of in eastern Turkey, he remains stone silent!

      January 13, 2014 at 2:54 pm |
  9. DNRA

    If you look at a Kurdish parts in Iraq , you can see actually a better picture.. you can see what would happen if US and Western countries helps Kurdish people in syria. Kurdish Parts is now a safe place for all minorities,all religions and even old enemies.

    January 13, 2014 at 3:05 pm |
  10. Ferhat Balkan

    The Middle East is already in turmoil, the last thing it needs is another destabalizing element added like arming the Kurds. Unless the US intention is to fuel an already full blown war in the region, they should stay away from the Kurds. Don't forget that the Kurds have their own terrorist organizations such as the PKK, PJAK, KGK, KADEK, KHK etc. The only difference between them and Al Qaeda is their political ideology such as Communism. Mao's little red book is their bible and their means to achieve their goal is slaughter.

    January 13, 2014 at 11:49 pm |
    • Bob Wilcox

      Are you a Turk?

      January 14, 2014 at 8:42 am |
      • Amir

        of course his name tells that

        January 14, 2014 at 8:10 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Either that Bob, or he's another feeble minded Tea Partier speaking up for the idiot politicians in Washington D.C. Either way, he's dead wrong!

        January 15, 2014 at 9:37 am |
    • Ferhat Balkan

      Yes, I'm a Turk and I am proud to say so.

      January 15, 2014 at 4:58 pm |
      • John Ferguson

        You should not be proud for being a turk. There is a reason nobody likes the turks, even the arabs.

        January 19, 2014 at 3:03 am |
      • John Ferguson

        There is a reason Turkey keeps a large army. It is surrounded by countries whose peoples don't like Turks. There is a saying in Turkey – Only a Turk can be a friend of a Turk, right ? Blame the Ottomans, they screwed up your image forever.

        January 19, 2014 at 3:11 am |
      • Ferhat Balkan

        John, there's a reason why no one likes the Americans, the Brits, the French etc either. There's always a reason to hate. It is easier to hate than to trust. That still doesn't prevent people from appreciating who they are and where they come from. As Turks, we made a lot of mistakes, but we also had a great positive impact on history. If you're too blind to see it, then that's your one pointed view.

        January 19, 2014 at 6:57 pm |
    • Aram fairfax

      The turkish foreign policy is destabilizing the already fragile Middle East"

      January 15, 2014 at 6:16 pm |
    • Sivan

      the PKK has abandoned Communism a long time ago. it was just a phase were Communism stood as symbol against Imperialism which has divided Kurdistan. Even Abdullah Öcalan the jailed leader of the PKK abandoned this idea long time ago and seeks a socialistic system similar to how it works in Switzerland.

      January 21, 2014 at 4:18 pm |
  11. hossam

    the armed Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) is terrorist gangs kill every one include Kurd
    and make ally with al-assad troops shabeha
    in this article all forgery

    Kurd militia worst than SISI and AL-shad SHABEH
    they try to occupy Syrian territory's

    January 14, 2014 at 1:13 am |
    • Bob Wilcox

      More propaganda from the Ankara disinformation factory....

      January 14, 2014 at 8:43 am |
      • Hejar

        Of course he is Bob. Turks use the work "terrorist" all the time because they know the impact it has on the American population and they constantly try to compare Kurdish groups to Al Qaeda. I hope people are smarter because Kurds aren't fighting some holy war but rather for their own rights and freedoms. The Turks will go to any lengths to cover their atrocities, they are no better than the Nazis and actually use their playbook to commit crimes against humanity. As Azad mentioned, they imprisoned, tortured, and killed Kurds routinely for merely saying they were Kurdish or any other type of self-expression.

        January 14, 2014 at 3:38 pm |
      • Ferhat Balkan

        Turks use the word 'terrorist' because that is what the PKK is. A terrorist organization (just look it up in Google). If you can type your propaganda here, I'm sure you can look up "PKK" in Google or Wikipedia which is common knowledge. They're terrorists, because they bomb schools, kidnap tourists, engage in cross-border incursions from Iraq into Turkey, engage in kidnapping, assassination etc. need I go on? All these are classic hallmarks of what the term 'terrorist' stands for. They're accepted as a terrorist organization by the US, EU & NATO. Before you go around labeling Kurds as some sort of victims, know that Turkey treats Kurds as equals. We have a Kurdish language television, we had a Kurdish president and Kurds are free to purchase land, businesses, go to university etc. Some of our most popular celebrities are Kurds in Turkey. If they're dissatisfied with life in Turkey, they're free to go to Northern Iraq what is now often labeled as "Kurdistan". No one is stopping them.

        January 15, 2014 at 5:14 pm |
      • Hejar

        Ferhad, no intelligent person buys your propaganda and don't try to convince anyone that Turks treat Kurds as equals. People don't have to take my word for it, they can look at your human rights record. Your country oppressed Kurds long before the establishment of the PKK or any other Kurdish group through forced assimilation which was an epic failure. Kurdish television station that's not even run by Kurds? that's what you define as equal treatment? You have thousands of innocent Kurds in your infamous prisons for only being Kurdish. Political thresholds designed against Kurds. Kurdish areas are the most underdeveloped areas in all of Turkey. Buy land? it's Kurdish land by right. If we should label anyone terrorists, it's your government with a hundred years of oppression and genocide to all minorities. faced it, you're another brainwashed Turk who has no idea what equality or humanity even means.

        January 16, 2014 at 11:22 pm |
      • Ferhat Balkan

        Hejad, thank you for your arguments, but you have no evidence to back them up. Most of what you say is mere speculation and conjuncture of loose ends. If what you say is true and Turkey somehow did a genocide against Kurds, there wouldn't be an explosion in population of Kurds in Turkiye. Actually, Kurds are the fastest growing ethnic group in Turkey. If you have the money and resources in Turkey, you're free to start your own television channel. Sure, TRT is run by the state, but they didn't have to create a Kurdish channel, it was created as a gift and show of solidarity. What you call assimilation my friend, we called welcoming you into our society as brothers. No one is imprisoning anyone for simply being a Kurd. That's like saying all the blacks in America are in prison for simply being Black. You know and I know that is not the case. All this talk of hundreds of years of oppression genocide has nothing to do with ethnic divide. There were political turmoils in the past for which unfortunately, many of your Kurdish brethren took part of (such as the communist uprisings that took place in the early 70s). The threat of Communism is very real in Turkey and it has nothing to do with Kurds and everything to do with Turkey's solidarity and security. Believe me, if Kurds were oppressed as much as you claim, the whole world would know it and Turkey would be another Iraq. But you and I both know that is not the case, because your claims simply don't hold any water. Reality tells a different story.

        January 17, 2014 at 8:14 pm |
      • Ferhat Balkan

        Also, look up "List of illegal political parties in Turkey" and you'll see that the majority of parties (and there are many) are all communist parties.

        January 17, 2014 at 8:19 pm |
      • Sivan

        Bob this "Adam Jonson" is a well known Turkish Liveleak user. They tend to use English names to make their "arguments" appear like comming from a "neutral source" . There was even a Turk on another political Forum who gave himself the Nick "John" until the Admin asked him that, in his e_mail adress his it says "mustafa" and his IP directs to Turkey, so why is he using the name "John".

        January 21, 2014 at 4:21 pm |
  12. doug

    Historical days for the Kurds. They have been fighting for their freedom nearly hundred years. They did well in Syria so far. Now their fate will be decided by U.S and Russia in Geneva-II. Hope these countries recognize them.

    January 14, 2014 at 7:16 am |
  13. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Very Well Said!

    The US needs to help the Kurds establish their own homeland in areas encompassing Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It's NOT only a strategic need to break the monopoly of these countries but also is a LEGITIMATE need for the millions of oppressed & dispersed Kurds who have been crying for a homeland of their own.

    Likewise, equally or even more important is to help the long oppressed BALOCH people in Pakistan win freedom from the Pakistanis. The Baloch who are NOT radicals like the Punjabi Muslims of Pakistan have long been begging & pleading the US, and India to help them achieve their goal:

    The benefits from liberating the Baloch people:
    a) Gain access to Balochistan's rich Gold, Gas reserves
    b) Weaken Pakistani JIHADIST m/c, and ultimately dismantle or capture Pakistan's self-declared Islamic bombs.
    c) Stabilize Afghanistan with a pro-western nation across its borders
    d) Take away control of Balochistan's strategic deep water port of Gwadar


    January 14, 2014 at 8:49 am |
    • Sivan

      I would add the Druze on this list.

      You seem to understand well the importance of new emerging ethnic states to break up this Arab, Persian and Turkish power monopoly in the Middle East. The whole Middle East is so messed up because some ruling Elites from Teheran, Riad and Ankara are using ethnic nationalism to rule all over the other lands of the Middle East.

      So it is very important to build up new ethnic-states which will create new potential allies and break the power monopoly.

      January 21, 2014 at 4:26 pm |
  14. Azad Dewani

    For the Turkish Internet Intelligent Service: The reason that Kurds hold arm is to free themselves from the slavery they found themselves under by Islamist Caliphates whether Turkish-Ottman or Arabic. We love to live in peace and democracy with all neighbouring nations and are not interested in the suffrage of other human beings as you do. we are not interested in killing and torturing human being as the Turkish, Syrian or Iranian and ex-Iraqi regimes have done routinely against Kurds. Imagine that the Turkish racist regime killed Kurds under torture just because they sang or danced in Kurdish! Who are terrorists? The Kurdish rebels who are armed with light weapons and defend their own people in the occupied Kurdistan or the Turkish state with all its weapons, horrible prisons, criminal forces, and AlQaeda gangs it send to Kurdistan?! Unfortunately, the world is ruled by politi-business men and women where no place for justice. Otherwise, the genocidal state of Turkey would not be on the map since the genocide of innocent Armenian and other Christians.

    January 14, 2014 at 11:41 am |
  15. Matt

    The Kurds won't fight, the PKK ties to the regime among the Syrian Kurds are problematic to say the least. If you want a seat at the table you have to fight. And they decide to not to, you cannot force them. No matter what people tell you this is why the hit in Paris and the Kurds being besieged by the Islamists. I don't blame Ford and I told the Kurds I don't want to have anything to do with them anymore. And there is not going to be any greater Kurdistan including Iraq, Iran Syria and well Turkey an ally was never included and the Kurds were told that.

    January 14, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
  16. msheroff

    I agree. The US has missed the boat for too, long with the Kurdish people. We need an independent Kurdistan,
    not Kurdish autonomy!

    January 14, 2014 at 10:03 pm |
  17. Baran

    The United States seems intent on marginalizing the only pro-Western, secular and democratic force in Syria. Ironically enough, while European countries have shown flexibility by inviting Salih Muslim for discussing the Kurdish situation in Syria, the US has so far not granted him a visa for entry into the United States.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:20 am |
  18. Name*kamal

    Kurds are faithful people, we are looking for good allies not money funder.
    Turkish relationship with west it's based on how much you going to fund my economy.

    January 15, 2014 at 5:55 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said, Name*kamal. We bought off the Turks big time and the right-wingers in Washington don't want to lose their investment. Besides, although the Turks are among our the staunchest of our "allies", that in no way justifies their slaughtering on over 1.8 million Armenians back in 1915-16!

      January 15, 2014 at 9:43 am |
  19. Rick McDaniel

    Should we be embracing any group in the middle east?

    I question that, myself. Are any of them trustworthy?

    January 19, 2014 at 3:28 pm |
  20. dyaoko

    yes, look at the history of iraq, even though america left kurds alone many times, Kurds never left america alone,
    Kurds have been the closest friend america have had in the past decade, compare it with Turkey who turn america down many times, but not letting oits borders open for US troops and US planes.

    January 22, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
  21. dyaoko

    look at the Kurdistan of Iraq, and how it is different with the rest of iraq, it is safe, progressive and promoting peace, Kurds are the most moderate muslems in the middle east, caring about women right, human right and be a part of the modern world

    January 22, 2014 at 4:17 pm |

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