Regime change in Syria

A Kurdish activist explains why Israeli and US fears of upsetting the Damascus status quo are unfounded.

Barzani 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Barzani 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel has a long-standing relationship with the Kurdish people. In the early 1960s, Mustafa Barzani and his Peshmerga fighters received training and support in the Jewish state. David Ben-Gurion, then Israel's prime minister, possessed an acute vision and understanding of the regional geopolitics. He reasoned that Arab hostility encircling Israel necessitated alliances with the leadership and people of non-Arab states like Iran, Turkey and the Kurds (understanding that the Kurdish connection needed to be somewhat secretive, as it continues to be today, for fear of upsetting the Turks). Israel's military and diplomatic establishment is heavily invested in Turkey and trade relations are of growing significance. Turkey represents, as far as Israel and the US are concerned, a model for a "secular" Islamic democracy. It is the Turkish model that is competing with the radical Islamist model of the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout Central Asia's Islamic states, and for that matter, in the larger Muslim world. But the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (since 2003), leader of the Justice and Development Party, has been accused by the secular military establishment of attempting to appoint Islamist judges. He has also gravitated closer toward the Muslim world as negotiations regarding membership in the European Union have dragged on since 1987. It is precisely for this reason that Israel must not place all its chips on a continued strong relationship with Ankara. Masoud Barzani, the current president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, has expressed his government's positive feelings toward Israel and relations with the Jewish state. Similarly, Kurds elsewhere have attempted to establish channels of communications with Israel. Israel, mindful of the reactions from the Turks, has refrained from open expressions of support for Kurdish rights. Elsewhere around the region, democratic opposition parties in Syria have indicated their interest in ties with Israel and hope that Israel would be less protective of the Ba'athist regime. Israel, fearful that the removal of Bashar Assad's Alawite minority/Ba'athist regime would unleash radical Islamist (Muslim Brotherhood) forces from the majority Sunni-Muslim community, has preferred to see the status quo in Damascus remain in tact. It appears as if Washington shares the Israeli fears. Are such fears real and justified? Kurdish-American activist Sherkoh Abbas, president of the organization Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, has a different view. JOSEPH PUDER: Should Israel fear a Muslim Brotherhood takeover if the Assad regime were to fall? Sherkoh Abbas: It depends, if the status quo remains or if there is sudden change, the Islamists might take over, with the backing of Sunni-Arab countries. Alternatively, if the US and the states in the region including Israel support the Syrian democratic opposition and the idea of a federated Syria, where all stakeholders share power, it might prevent the Islamists from taking over. I mean to say that a decentralized federal Syria would boost the power of ethnic and religious minorities. After all, almost 50 percent of the Syrian population is comprised of Kurds, Druse, Alawites and Christians. Could Syria transform into a democracy with a federal system that would provide increased powers to various regions within the country, as well as cultural, and political autonomy to the Kurds, Alawites and Druse? A federal democratic Syria is a realistic option. Syria, under our envisioned system, would have five regions or states, with increased power for each state over legislative, political, and economic affairs. The central government in Damascus would be limited to foreign affairs, monetary and national defense policies. You mentioned five regions. Could you name them? In the South, bordering Israel would be the Druse state or region. In the North and Northeast, there would be a Kurdish region east of the Euphrates River. Aleppo, an Arab region, would be the third. Damascus would be a separate Arab region as well. The fifth region would be an Alawite one along Syria's Mediterranean Coast. Why do you think Syria requires a federal system? What was wrong with the Baathist system? Syria is comprised of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Druse, Alawites and Christians. We must have a system that provides protection for minorities and satisfies all the stakeholders in the nation instead of just a select group at the expense of all the others. The Ba'athists are not much different from the Muslim Brotherhood. They conceal their pan-Arab nationalistic ideology in a secular form, while the Muslim Brotherhood conceals its pan-Arab nationalistic ideology in an Islamic form. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ba'athists are a threat to the region and to the world. Consider what the Ba'athist parties did in both Iraq and Syria over the last three decades, and you will notice that the Ba'athist regimes supported radical terrorist groups, caused wars, denied people freedom, human rights and democracy, and used WMD on their own ethnic populations. Do you believe that Assad's Syria can detach itself from Iran? Absolutely not. Iran has positioned itself in Syria and Lebanon to such a degree that even if the Assad regime wanted to separate itself from Teheran, it could not. Hizbullah in Lebanon, and the spread of Shi'ism in Syria, as well as the over 100,000 Iranians who gained citizenship in Syria, would not allow such a separation. Also, the Iranians have developed alliances with the Syrian elites that guarantees their continued presence in Syria and influence over Syrian policies. In the context of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, how do you see the future of the Golan Heights? We know that the current governments in Damascus and Jerusalem are not serious about peace. They simply need each other to stay in power. In the context of a real peace, the Druse would have the right to settle with Israel over the Golan. Of course a federal Syria would be involved, but the Druse must approve such an agreement. How do you see the relationship between Israel and the Kurds? The Kurds are Israel's natural allies. They are moderate Muslims and tolerant toward other minorities. For Kurds, religion is not as important or emphasized as ethnicity. The Kurds' geographic location and acculturation makes them a barrier to the spread of radical Islam, whether Shi'ite or Sunni. The Kurds also aspire to become a democratic society modeled after Israel. A democratic Syria would be less of a threat to both Israel and Turkey, and a Kurdish region in a federal Syria would be no more of a risk to Turkey than the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is today. Israel's fear of a regime change in Syria should be mitigated by the realization that the current regime in Damascus, allied with Iran and Hizbullah and harboring radical Palestinian terrorist groups while promoting terror against the US forces in Iraq and Israel, is as bad as it gets. The writer is the founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Taskforce for America and Israel (ITAI).