10 Points to Understand Events in Syrian Kurdistan

Map of Rojava - December 2018

Syrian Kurdistan is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster which will have negative long term effects on all the Middle East. These including the increased risk of a resurgent ISIS and a strengthening of Iran’s position in the region. Though I no longer focus on the Kurds professionally, having spent several years doing so, I feel it is important to know these 10 things. These will help anyone looking to see through the significant fake news being spread lately, particularly by Erdogan.

  1. Syrian Kurdistan (known by the Kurds as Rojava) is an area covering around a quarter of Northern Syria. There are somewhere between 2-4 million people living there – a mixture of Kurds, Arabs and other minorities.
  2. Though Rojava is practically isolated, its abundant agriculture and some oil allow it to provide many services independently. It also retained some ties and trade to Syrian government controlled areas.
  3. The Syrian-Turkish border was agreed (in the 1920s) to run along an old train line, as both countries wanted access to the line. Therefore, much of the Kurdish population in the area was divided between the two countries, with sister towns growing around train stops on both sides of the border. This is why there are many links between Syrian and Turkish Kurds (more than with Iraqi Kurds).
  4. Another result of this is that a majority of the Kurdish population is right on the Turkish border, including the larger cities such as Qamishli, Amuda, Kobani, Derik. This means that when Erdogan talks of creating a 30km “safe zone“, he means to drive the Kurds from their cities and homes.
  5. Generally speaking, there are two political camps in Kurdish politics: the PKK – leftist, centered in Turkey – and the KDP, a more traditional and right-wing party, which is in power in Iraqi Kurdistan.
  6. The leading political party in Rojava is the PYD, which has strong links to the Turkish PKK. Whether the PYD was elected democratically is disputed. They outmaneuvered their rivals – those aligned with the KDP, and took power around 2012. Many KDP supporters crossed into Iraq following this.
  7. Though the US and some other western countries define the PKK as a terrorist organization, most European countries (and Israel) – do not. You can go visit their offices in Athens today if you want to.
  8. Even if the PKK had targeted civilians in the past, the Syrian PYD and its military wing the YPG do not: they are a US ally, fighting and dying to give America its victory over ISIS.
  9. Rojava is not expecting to be recognized as a state, though they function better than many. They call for a decentralized Syrian state which allows greater autonomy for minorities.
  10. Rojava is a safe, well-organized semi-state, which protects minority and women’s rights by active empowerment – something we can definitely learn from.

Trump’s decision is a failure in leadership and shows complete strategic ignorance. He is losing the support of a people who saw America as their greatest hope. The US-Kurdish alliance which defeated ISIS is broken, and when Turkey is done with the YPG, nothing will be there to stop ISIS from resurging. Without the US, the Kurds will have to turn to the only alliance which might give them some protection from Turkey – the Syrian-Iranian axis.

Reading the news coming from Rojava and the White House is depressing. Instead of a strong US position inspiring its allies and supporters, we see the incoherent mumbling of a President who makes strategic decisions based on his latest phone call.

Woe to those who trusted in Trump. May we all survive him.

About the Author
Ariel Paz-Sawicki is head of research in Lobby 99, a crowd-funded lobby dedicated to promoting the public interest focusing on economic issues. American-Israeli, 10 years in the IDF, and a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
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