by Janet Biehl
The United States excels at sustaining friendly relations with dictatorial regimes, especially those that control oilfields and other resources. Such exploitative ties are useful for enhancing the profits of wealthy elites but contradict the country’s stated values of democracy and secularism. Normally the contradiction can be smoothly overlooked by our governing professionals, as US policy accommodates powers that are inimical to those values.
But now a situation has arisen in which a people friendly to the United States not only shares those values but actually attempts to put them into practice. Where the US says it favors democracy, Kurds in Syria have created an innovative and progressive form of democracy. Where the US favors separation of church and state, the Kurdish system emphasizes ethnic and religious toleration and inclusiveness in way that embodies it in practical terms.
The Kurdish defense forces YPG and YPJ are certainly the US-led coalition’s most valued allies in the war against ISIS, having amply demonstrated a unique military prowess against the jihadists.
And ever since the battle for Kobani in 2014-15, the US-led coalition has provided weapons and air support for them and, more recently, for the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), of which the YPG and YPJ are the chief components. Despite the insistent objections of its NATO ally Turkey, the US has deployed 50 Special Forces on the ground to assist the SDF, and recently it added another 250. Such aid is crucial for the SDF’s continued military success against ISIS and an in broad terms an act of friendliness.
The US military cooperation with the SDF is “very good,” PYD co-chair Salih Muslim told a gathering at the National Press Club in Washington on April 29.
But US support for Kurds stops there, and indeed in other respects accommodates the interests of enemies not only of Kurdish aspirations but also of Kurdish identity as such. This restraint raises alarms that the friendliness is based on Kurdish military usefulness to the coalition, and that once it has passed, the US will abandon them. Salih Muslim, for example, had to speak to the gathering via Skype since he is not permitted to enter the US.
To have a friend, one must behave like a friend. How would the US–and indeed the international community as a whole–behave if it were to choose to be a friend to Kurds?
Kurds in Syria
A US that acted like a friend would, for one thing, provide the Syrian Kurds with political and diplomatic support as well as military aid. The fact that it does not is “wrong,” said Salih Muslim.
A US that acted like a friend would not obstruct the participation of the Syrian Kurds in the Geneva talks on the future of Syria. This exclusion is an error on many counts, not least because the democratic system that they have been creating in northern Syria since 2012 is highly relevant to the future of the rest of the country.
That system, known as democratic autonomy or democratic confederalism, is a social and political framework that formally decentralizes power to localities so that diverse ethnic and religious groups—Kurds, Arabs, Chechens, Syriacs, and Turkmens—have autonomy, enabling them to coexist in. Women enjoy full political and social rights. It’s “not top-down democracy,” Muslim pointed out, “but democracy coming from the people themselves” in assemblies and councils.
Indeed, Muslim attributed the YPG and YPJ’s military success precisely to the democratic system. At Kobani and elsewhere, “we defeated IS because we have a democracy.” he says. How? Because “everyone feels the threat is his or her problem. They feel they have to do something against it.”
Not only is democratic autonomy progressive, but in geopolitical terms the power-sharing inherent to decentralization, as analyst David Phillips pointed out to the same gathering, is essential to stability. The Kurds have recently formed the North Syrian Federation to advance this system in the rest of Syria. “We want all of Syria to be democratic,” says Muslim.
Yet the US advocates the resuscitation of a unitary state in Syria. Were it to act like a friend, the US would drop the illusion that the erstwhile dictatorial, ethnically homogeneous system of Baath Syria can be revived and instead recognize the legitimacy of the North Syrian Federation, support the expansion of the democratic autonomy system into the rest of Syria, and admit the Syrian Kurds to the Geneva process.
Lamentably, it has failed to date to do any of this, because it yields to the irrational demands of the state lying immediately to Syria’s north.
Kurds in Turkey
The Turkish state legally denies the existence of ethnic minorities within its borders; the Kurds, the largest minority, have resisted such denial for four generations, demanding at minimum basic linguistic and cultural rights. Since the 1980s the Turkish state has waged war on the Kurdish resistance Decades of fighting have proved only that a military solution to the conflict is impossible: the Kurds can never defeat the far stronger Turkish armed forces, yet Turkey cannot suppress the wishes of a 20-million-strong minority, not even by demonizing the PKK and, increasingly, anyone who regards it positively, as “terrorist.”
Yet the US, as a NATO ally of Turkey, affirms Turkey’s right to try to suppress the “terrorists” within by using brute force.
The Turkish state’s war against the Kurds is increasingly cruel, having escalated to a level that surpasses basic human rights standards. Starting in the summer of 2015, Turkish forces imposed sieges and 24-hour shoot-to-kill curfews on cities and neighborhoods in the southeast, such as Cizre, Silopi, Sur neighborhood of Diyarbakir, and many others. It used and continues to use heavy weapons against civilian areas, killing even children, and in the process displacing almost half a million people.
The US, if it were a friend to Kurds and to human rights as such, would by now have grown hoarse with protest at this appalling human-rights criminality. It would at the very least insist that Turkey investigate the security forces that committed these crimes, or failing that, insist that an international fact-finding commission be permitted to do so.
Moreover the Turkish state is increasingly authoritarian and Islamist, cracking down on newspapers, shutting down TV channels, and persecuting academics and journalists. On May 2 it decided strip the pro-Kurdish, peace-advocating Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of diplomatic immunity and prosecute its members as supporters of “terrorism.” The US and the rest of the international community must raise their voices in vigorous objection.
Behind the scenes, journalist Amberin Zaman told the National Press Club meeting, the US has been pressuring the PKK to lay down its arms, but it is pressuring the wrong party. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would instead pressure the Turkish state to resume peace talks with the PKK as the legitimate representative of the Kurdish people in Turkey; to free the Kurds’ spokesperson, Abdullah Öcalan, from 17 years of solitary imprisonment; and to negotiate with him for peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.
The US cooperates with Turkey by placing the PKK on the State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would grasp that given the Turkish state’s failure to accommodate their will, the Kurds have every reason to object to their treatment, and it would discard the notion that the PKK is terrorist and remove it from this list.
That solution, when it comes, will no longer be a matter of achieving Kurdish linguistic or cultural rights alone. The longer the war grinds fruitlessly on, and the longer the Turkish state persists in ignoring the will of 20 million citizens, the more obvious it becomes that the Turkish state has forfeited its legitimacy to govern the mostly Kurdish southeast. The US, were it a friend to Kurds, would recognize this fact and press for Kurdish autonomy.
Indeed, the very nature of the Turkish system of government should be in play. Two contrasting proposals for a new system have been floated. The AKP proposes to create a presidential dictatorship, a neo-Ottoman caliphate, featuring authoritarian structures, ethnic homogeneity, the suppression of dissent, and traditional roles for women. The Kurdish proposal, by contrast, calls for the democratization and decentralization of Turkey, along the lines of democratic autonomy, with acknowledgment of ethnic diversity, freedom of expression, and gender equality. The US, if it were a friend to Kurds and true to its stated ideals, would raise its voice in support the Kurdish proposal.
The US, if it were truly a friend of human rights, let alone the Kurds, would rethink its entire alliance with Turkey as a member of NATO. “If NATO were established today,” said David Phillips, “Turkey would not meet criteria of membership.”
Kurds in Iraq
The United States and much of the international community still harbors the notion that Iraq is a unitary state. President Obama insists that the Kurds of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have to work with Baghdad. But Iraq, like Syria, is fragmenting, and the unitary state centered in Baghdad increasingly belongs to history. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would accept this reality and adjust its policy.
Iraq’s 2005 constitution promised decentralization and autonomy for the KRG, but those promises remain unfulfilled, as both the Al-Maliki and Al-Abadi governments have failed to implement provisions for regional control of new oilfields as well as devolution of certain powers to the regions. Al-Maliki even cut the KRG’s proceeds from oil sales.
KRG president Massoud Barzani has called for a referendum on independence in September or October. The US, as a friend to Kurds, should support independence for Iraqi Kurdistan and, further, a devolution of powers for local autonomy along the lines of democratic autonomy.
One group of Kurds in northern Iraq, the Ezidis of SInjar, require special attention. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would acknowledge that in August 2014 ISIS committed genocide against them, massacring thousands, some by beheading, and selling women into sexual slavery. The KRG’s peshmerga, the force that was supposed to protect them, failed to do so, forcing the PKK to come and rescue those who survived. The US and the international community, as friends to Kurds, must acknowledge the genocide and intervene to protect their rights according to international laws. They should open an investigation into the genocide through international institutions and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The US as a friend to Kurds should aid Ezidi resistance forces, tasked with protecting the people against further attacks from ISIS. The US as a friend to Kurds would work to create democratic autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan, a confederal system in which Ezidis could continue to live in Sinjar as they have for millennia.
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During the week of April 23, a delegation from the HDP visited Washington. afterward co-chair Selahattin Demirtas was asked about his expectations on this visit.
“We don’t ask anything of anyone,” he replied. “Rather we have proposals for a solution, and that’s what we focus on. We just explain our views, so that people know what they are firsthand, directly, so that they can avoid misconceptions when formulating policy. Our position doesn’t change in different circumstances.”
He urged people in every country where the government has influence over Turkey—the United States, Europe, and Russia—to pressure that government on behalf of democratic autonomy for Kurds and their allies. And where information about the Turkish conflict is shut out of the mainstream media, alternative media can step in and provide “mass education” so that people “can pressure the government to change policy.”
“Organized people can do everything,” co-chair Muslim told the gathering. He was referring to the creation and defense of democratic autonomy in North Syria, but the same principle applies to international solidarity work. And friendships, however inadequate at present, can be developed. US policy toward the Kurds, says David Phillips, “is evolving,” and “to the extent we raise our voices we have an opportunity to shape it.” Continued organizing, he believes, can pressure the US government to finally act like the friend that the long-neglected Kurdish people deserve.