Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Dangerous Neglect of Syrian Kurds

Sean Ewart

Syrian Kurds are the wildcard in the Syrian War

The Syrian War, a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is fast igniting regional, and global, tensions, has been pitting ethnic and religious entities against each other since the beginning in spring 2011. The war has been costly with more than 35,000 people dead.

In recent days the role of the substantial Kurdish minority has been crystalizing. Representing roughly 10 percent of the Syrian population, the Kurds have long sought an independent homeland, not just in Syria, but in northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Kurdish leaders in Syria are closely aligned with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey that has been engaged in a decades long, often violent, struggle for independence in that country.

In Iraq the Kurds have been granted relative autonomy within the framework of the federal government. With massive oil reserves, however, revenue sharing has been a point of contention between Iraqi Kurds and Bagdad. It’s an unhappy marriage of convenience and nothing more.

In Syria the rebellion against the Assad regime is an opportunity for greater Kurdish independence.

Already the Kurds have been granted more flexibility by the regime as it focuses on crushing the Sunni Muslim rebellion.

And while the Kurds are natural allies with the Sunni opposition, as they have long been hindered in their own quest for autonomy by the Assads, there is more to the story.

In particular the reluctance of international forces to engage more forcefully in Syria can be largely explained by their common fear of Kurdish ambition.

Turkey, the nation with the most to lose, risks encouraging an escalation in the conflict with its own Kurdish minority if it stokes the flames of Kurdish rebellion in Syria. Because of the close ties between Syrian and Turkish Kurds, if Turkey, or one of its allies – like the United States – were to arm the rebels, it would amount to arming the PKK in Turkey as well.

So as the United States calls for a “reorganization” of Syrian rebels, don’t look for a strong Kurdish presence.

Unless the Syrian Kurds agree, as they have (to varying degrees) in Iraq, to renounce their own territorial ambitions in exchange for a role in the future Syrian government, they will be left out of any future deal.

And that is regrettable.

Syrian Kurds are far less zealous than the Islamist Sunni rebels. Indeed, Iraqi Kurdistan has been the most peaceful part of the country throughout the last decade and if granted autonomy in Syria there is potential for a similar arrangement.

But so long as this war is polarized between Sunni Muslims backed by Saudi Arabia (and the United States) and Shiite Muslims backed by Iran (and Russia) the Kurds will be lost in the shuffle.

And as weapons inevitably make their way to Syria, and into the hands of the Kurds, this neglect has the potential to fuel more deaths in the future… in Iraq, in Syria and in Turkey.

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