‘Handing Iran the region on a silver platter’

Dr. Sherkoh Abbas says in the vacuum created by the lack of US support for the Kurdish Regional Government,‘the emerging winners are Bashar Assad and Iran,’ not the pro-democracy forces.

Sherkoh Abbas, the president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sherkoh Abbas, the president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria,
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In recent months, against the backdrop of the rise of the Islamic State and the breakdown of Iraq’s security forces, the issue of Kurdistan has been thrust into the limelight.
The Kurdish people number around 30 million, spread over four major countries: Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Since the end of World War I, they have been struggling for independence or increased autonomy in these various states.
Dr. Sherkoh Abbas is president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, which seeks to represent Kurdish interests.
He has been outspoken about why the West, and particularly the US, should support the Kurds.
Active on the Kurdish issue for more than 30 years, he sits down with The Jerusalem Post to provide an insight into recent developments.
Could you describe the group you lead?
The group was created after the major uprising in 2004 [al-Qamishli protests in Syria]. That uprising was the first time ever breaking the iron curtain of fear [of the regime that ruled over the Kurds].
After that, we had many meetings to try to influence the US administration. Some were not effective in communicating our message. We met with [George W.] Bush administration officials to discuss Syria.
It wasn’t a unified voice, and we decided to look to put together a unified body to represent us.
In 2006 we had a bipartisan conference in the US Senate under the auspices of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and then-senator Robert Voinovich (R-Ohio), and after that we had a meeting in May 2006 in Brussels. [Representatives of] the majority of Kurdish leadership, including tribal, civic and religious, [participated] and created the National Assembly umbrella [organization] to speak on behalf of the Kurdish people.
I was chosen to lead that organization and am able to speak in the US and EU, to promote federalism and democracy for the Syrian Kurds in Syria. That is the central message.
Could you tell us about your background?
I was born in Qamishli in northeastern Syria in Kurdistan. I came to the US in the 1980s and was educated there. I have been working on the Kurdish issue in the US and focusing on the Kurdish issue in Iraq. [I have worked on] supporting a change for Kurds in Iraq in terms of autonomy and federalism.
This involved promoting Kurdish ideals in general, because of the pressing need when [president] Saddam Hussein was slaughtering and gassing Kurds [in the Anfal massacres of 1988]. When the situation shifted and Iraqi Kurds achieved the beginning of what they wanted [in terms of greater autonomy after 2003], we shifted the focus to Syria.
Have you been back to Kurdish areas recently?
I have been back to Iraqi Kurdistan, sometimes on official meetings, and also Syrian Kurdistan; I’ve been there recently. I was not there publicly because as you know, the [Bashar Assad] regime is still in control of our area. So in essence, I haven’t flown in; I went in through Turkey or Iraq.
What are the differences between what Kurds face in Turkey, Syria and Iraq?
In Kurdistan in Syria, there is a group linked to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which is called the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and that group came to the stage and espouses a philosophy which is vague on the Kurdish issue and does not promote autonomy, federalism or an independent Kurdistan [in Syria].
Its name means United Democratic Party, and no one knows with which country it identifies. Their job is really to manage Kurdish affairs and make sure they [the Kurds] do not go against the regime.
When we look at the PKK in Syria, we see support from Assad; we see a complete link to the regime, as well as to the Iranian regime. There is a lot of answering to do.
The political parties like the Kurdistan National Assembly – Syria (KNA), and the Kurdistan National Council (KNC, founded in 2011), which represents more than 18 political parties and tribal and civic leaders, also believe we should not get [involved] in the Syrian conflict.
This is because the Syrian opposition and regime were one as recently as 2004 and [again] in 2011, against the Kurds.
The only difference here is that they are fighting over power; it is the same culture and mentality.
[The regime is trying to] show the world that the Kurdish got their rights [stateless Kurds were given citizenship in 2011 in a government bid to get their support] and are ruling their areas, but in fact there is coordination with the regime.
Is the Syrian opposition better?
Absolutely not. The Free Syrian Army “moderates” are either members of the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaida, and absolutely for the Kurds are no different than the regime. Even out of power, they have such animosity for the Kurds.
If they gain power, what will they do? The concern we expressed to the EU and US is that the Kurdish issue should be resolved up front – and not later.
Yet the Kurds are standing on the sidelines because the Europeans and Americans did not provide any help, be it a single dollar or weapons. [The regime continues to manage Kurdish affairs.] We are trying to bring international help. The idea of promoting federalism is a solution, to have a federated state; this is the only way to stop the bloodshed that we see. Unfortunately, we have not been able to bring [in the needed aid]; we advise our people to stay on the sidelines.
There must be a third alternative that we, the Kurds, are part of. The West and US have not identified the third alternative, and that should be democratic groups and the Kurds [working together in Syria].
And in Iraq and Turkey?
Across the border in Iraq, you can see the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has done a great job in managing its circumstances.
Yet the US administration in the last four years has completely ignored them, and also tried to bolster the central government during prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s rule [2006-August 2014], and put on pressure to de-link from Turkey.
Turkey, compared to Iran, Syria and Iraq, has done more positive initiatives towards Iraqi Kurdistan. Obviously [it is not clear] whether they meant to do so or not, but that was a signal to the West that the Kurdish issue is not a red line due to NATO member Turkey.
That should have opened the door [for the EU and US to work with Iraqi Kurdistan], but the US administration has not helped. However, there is pressure from Congress, the US Senate and the American public to help Kurds.
Even so, there is not a bullet being transferred, nor help or selling them weapons. From 2005 there [has been] a request and agreement with the Iraqis to arm the Peshmerga [Kurdish militia]; that order and request to the US has not been upheld, since the US said the [Iraqi] central government must approve it – and the central government won’t.
What they are doing is limited in scope. It is only to send a message to Congress and the world that [US President Barack Obama] is doing something – but what Obama is doing is just on public opinion, as not a single weapon or bullet has gone to the Kurds. They send this to the Iraqi government, and only give small defensive light weapons [to the Kurds]. This has forced [the Kurds], through many groups, to even invite Iran there to protect them, and make other arrangements with regional players to survive.
The issue comes down to containing the KRG from Iran, and now heavily relying on them to survive.
So the Kurdish issue in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria is linked in a complicated web?
All three countries encircling Kurdistan – Iraq, Iran and Syria – are threatening it. In Turkey, there is a process to resolve the Kurdish issue. The PKK’s objective is to release [former Kurdish leader Abdallah] Ocalan from prison.
Those [Kurdish groups] closer to Iran are getting to the point where they even coordinate in the Iraqi area.
All indications are that America lost [in the region]. Russia and [its President Vladimir] Putin are flexing their muscles.
Iran wants Iraq, Syria and Lebanon under their control, with the Shi’ite crescent stretching across the region; frankly, they succeeded. Many Kurds are intimidated, and are starting talks and coordinating with Iran.
Because the current [US] administration did not coordinate with the Kurds, the result is the US spent trillions [at the cost of] thousands of lives, and gave Iraq on a silver platter to Iran. People see Russia and Iran and don’t trust the US anymore, and the people on the ground go with the strong man, and the US is engaging Iran and allowing it to come to Iraq.
They are not doing anything to the Islamic State; it was started by Assad and managed to discredit the opposition...
The winners are Assad and Iran.
The people who wanted democracy, the Arab Spring, are ignored. And of course, there is a payout for Iran and Syria.
Is the Islamic State a major threat?
Absolutely. We see they are being used, people look at it as a Sunni organization...
So the Americans are coordinating with the Iranians... They wanted [Kurds] to give up on the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and keep Iraq united, and have them not ask for more rights.
The Iranian regime is also a threat.
There is no one left in the region to protect us.
The Kurds seem to be what the Americans want in the Middle East, in terms of a stable, self-sufficient group that is not radical and interested in democracy – yet they ignore it. Why?
How many Arab countries are there, and how many have oil? The Iranians, Turks, Arabs all work against the Kurdish cause. Even if they [the Kurds] gain in one part, they are attacked elsewhere.
People also look at the Kurds as a second Zionist state that is allied to the West and Israel, so it would be a “dagger in the heart” of the Arab world. They use money, power and influence in Washington to prevent the Kurds from getting what they want.
The US also doesn’t want to change boundaries. Having Kurdish autonomy or independence [threatens regional boundaries]; they want Iran, Syria and Iraq intact. Everything this [US] administration has done in the last years only benefits Iran, and it undermines their allies like Israel, the Kurds and democratic groups. For instance retired US general Ernie Audino told me that Iran has near complete influence over 60 percent of Iraq. He indicates that if the US does not help the Kurdish fighters in Iraq then Iran will fill the gap and is already doing so on the ground with special forces near Kirkuk.
What do you hope to see in the future?
I want to see Israel, the US and EU stop the Shi’ite crescent led by Iran and stop the Islamic State; to bring the moderates and the 30 million-40 million Kurds onto our side, by promoting an independent Kurdistan in Iraq.
At minimum, other nations should have federalism and autonomy, and the West should see this as a buffer. The Kurds can play that role, but they need the weapons and political recognition.
They have the same value as the West and are not a threat to others, and an independent Kurdistan can be a haven for minorities.
What about the Israel connection?
They accuse us whether we talk or don’t talk with Israel, and that goes back to the ’60s. We have to state the facts: How many Israelis killed Syrians? Assad killed a quarter of a million.
The Kurds should not be fearful, but should reach out to whoever will help their cause and work together. We have our own interests and so does Israel, but we have the same interest in stopping radicals and promoting tolerance, peace and democracy; only Israel and Kurdistan in Iraq have those values, and want to stop that radicalism.
Americans say they can’t find moderates, but this is nonsense – they need to look to Kurds and minorities and others who were repressed.