Why the US and the West should help Syrian Kurds

Across the Middle East, Kurds are one of the most secular ethnic groups, and Syrian Kurds are no exception.

September 30, 2014 22:30
3 minute read.
Syrian Kurds

A Turkish soldier stands guard as Syrian Kurds wait behind a border fence near the southeastern town of Suruc on September 22. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Last week, Islamic State waged a massive offensive on the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria.

Since then thousands of civilians from the eastern part of the city have fled to Turkey in an Exodus-like scene. The situation is considered by UN officials to be the largest influx of refugees since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011.

This new crisis provides another rationale for why the US and other Western countries should be supportive of the Kurds in Syria.

Syrian Kurds have been fighting IS for well over a year, long before the terrorist group came to prominence in Syria and Iraq. Since that time Kurds have been largely able to protect their regions from the IS brutality that is so widespread elsewhere in the eastern parts of Syria. The armed Kurdish group People Protection Units (YPG), has emerged as the most powerful group in Syria to continuously engage IS in battle. Regardless of YPG’s affiliation with the PYD – the Syrian offshoot of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – many have come to believe that this well-trained and disciplined force can play a crucial role in fighting the terrorists.

Besides the YPG, there were smaller armed groups affiliated with other Syrian Kurdish political parties. Certain parties such as Yekiti, the Democratic Party and the Progressive Party had established armed wings, realizing the need for protection from Bashar Assad’s forces and other Islamist extremists. Those Kurdish armed groups, however, were dissolved due to huge pressure by the PYD, which wanted to monopolize the political and military scene in Syrian Kurdistan.

Nonetheless, these groups can be restored once the political environment – and the security one for that matter – creates a new imperative. That would be the current crisis that Syrian Kurds are going through. The PYD needs to allow other parties to form their own armed wings because at this crucial stage, all Kurdish parties need to be mobilized in the fight against IS.

This must be a precondition for any international coalition that intends to cooperate with the PYD.

Across the Middle East, Kurds are one of the most secular ethnic groups, and Syrian Kurds are no exception. In fact, they have traditionally been more secular than their brethren in other parts of the greater Kurdistan. They eschew political Islam and extremism. Their current fight against IS is further evidence of this. A powerful secular group in the midst of religious radicalism in the Middle East is a resource the West can fully utilize in its drive against IS.

In early August when the US started its air campaign against IS militants in northern Iraq, Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, were the first that the Obama administration relied on as its partner on the ground. Those forces were successful in retaking control of major strategic locations, including the vital Mosul Dam. Kurdish forces in Iraq have proven to be an extremely successful fighting force that the US and its allies can regard as a permanent partner in their long-term war against the Islamic group. Similarly, Syrian Kurds can take on that responsibility. They have already shown a willingness to partner with the US. Now that the US has started its air strikes on IS in Syria and the Congress has voted to arm moderate rebels in Syria, the Kurdish forces should be considered by Washington.

Critics of President Barack Obama have raised concerns regarding who the US should work with in Syria; some of the groups the US would arm are not necessarily “moderate.” In fact they are Islamist, with the ideology of building an Islamic-based state in the country.

It has become crystal clear that there will be no US boots on the grounds in either Iraq or Syria. Therefore, it is fundamentally important for American policymakers to look for the right people to work with in these countries. While this has largely worked for the US in Iraq, it is far more challenging in a fragmented Syria. The Kurds are poised to work with the West in its fight against terrorism and in bringing peace to Syria. This opportunity should not be squandered.

The writer is a Syrian Kurdish journalist based in Washington.

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