How the West can protect the unique Kurdish experiment

After the revolt in Syria in 2011, the Kurds managed to control the Kurdish territory (Rojawa) and keep it out of the internal ethnic war in Syria. They then established a form of self-rule entities (Cantons) under the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Under the new revolutionary constitution, the Kurds empathized with minority rights, gender equality, direct democracy, and democratic confederalism. They could further protect refugees, Christians and Yazidis, and secular Kurds and Arabs. After the ISIS territorial occupation, they stopped ISIS and helped theirWestern allies in the war against ISIS.

There is an exceptional fact of which the free world has to be aware: The Kurdish establishment of a form of democracy is a local democracy that was not imposed by a Western country after an intervention. Women’s effective participation in the executive, legislative, judicial, and military institutions has been a unique improvement for the first time in the history of the region. This is the first local democratic experiment in the Middle East, and it needs thoughtful democratic development after the failed attempt in Iraq. With stable support and protection, a stable and long-lasting system can be developed.

Turkey is against any type of Kurdish self-rule, which it sees as a threat to Turkish national security. Labeling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as terrorist organizations is a facet of ethno-nationalist policy that denies Kurdish cultural and political rights. Turkey unsuccessfully tried to destroy Kurdish self-rule through ISIS and the Islamic and nationalist groups of the Free Syrian Army. Only Turkey´s direct invasion in Afrin could remove the Kurds in power there, which was a cruel violation of Syrian sovereignty and human rights. No country in the democratic world opposed Turkey’s actions. Now Afrin´s people are suffering under oppression and the anti-Kurdish policy of Turkey and its radical allies.

Syria and Iran are also against any form of Kurdish autonomy. They share the same concerns as Turkey, and all of them have a common goal in Syria: the destruction of Kurdish self-rule in the Syrian Kurdistan.

The Kurds are a large, stateless people who have been victims of the great powers´ power politics throughout history. In the UN’s perspective, the Kurds have the right to live in peace and dignity in their own territory according to the declaration on minority rights by General Assembly resolution 47/135 on 18 December 1992. In a democratic perspective, the Kurds have political rights.

Their bloody past tells us that the Kurds do not accept oppression. There have been internal wars between Kurds and Turks (Turkey), Kurds and Persians (Iran), and Kurds and Arabs (Iraq) in the last century. Syrian Kurds have suffered under a strict ethnic cleansing policy as well. The regimes of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have failed to address the Kurdish question and instead have used ethnic cleansing and genocide as a final solution. What did they achieve and where are they now? Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in those internal wars, and Kurdish territory (Kurdistan) became a lasting warzone. They only made the bad worse. The Kurdish fight for freedom during the last century is clear evidence that positive peace and stability in the countries in question is not possible without recognition of Kurdish political rights.

Local autonomy and democratic principles are not destabilizing factors in a free world. But democracy is a destabilizing factor for any despotic or dictatorial regime, as it undermines the regime´s interests and rule. Thus, a Kurdish, democratic self-rule is not a destabilizing factor by itself, but it is a destabilizing factor as a result of the nationalist intolerance of Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

If we believe in a democratic future in the region, we have to look at democratic tracks toward positive peace in the region. Thus, what can the international community do for the Kurds? What can the US do for the Syrian Kurds?

Minority people have rights according to international human rights conventions, and oppressed minorities have rights to protection. First of all, the big powers involved in the Middle East conflicts have to take the Kurdish question as a question of rights or justice, not destabilization. They have to prevent Turkey from any attack on the Kurds in Syria or Iraq, and, furthermore, they have to push Turkey to stop oppression policies against the Kurds and to solve its own Kurdish question via peace talks and negotiation. There are over 20 million Kurds in Turkey, and Turkey has to acknowledge Kurdish cultural and political rights. PKK exists only because Turkey denies Kurdish rights. Western powers have to have the same policy toward Iran and Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan is fortunately underway toward a lasting solution after the fall of the Baath regime.

The rights of ethnic minorities should not only connect to a humanitarian intervention or a regime change. Oppressed minorities need international protection and have to be supported in the right time and where there is a possibility for political interference for example in connection with financial assistance.

In the Syrian Kurdish case, the US withdrawal would leave the Kurds at the mercy of Syria and Turkey. According to the latest news, the US wants to protect the Kurds, but how and for how long? Protection of the Kurds means long-term Western presence, firm military support, and a reliable political solution. Western powers must have a political strategy on this issue. They have to agree on military presence, as well as air support, and negotiate with the involved parties such as Syria and Russia as regards the political future of democratic self-rule in the Kurdish territory. As regards the peace talks on Syria’s future, the US and European countries have to participate effectively and empathize with the rights of the Kurds and other ethnic minorities in Syria.

Finally, the Kurds must have enough military support and equipment to make a strong defense possible. There is a security dilemma, and without a strong defense the Kurds will be vulnerable and easy prey for their longstanding enemies. The US can make a difference and must not leave the Kurds without regular military support and a long-term political solution.

By Shakhawan Shorsh
January 12, 2019