In Syria, the ‘West’s darling’ is not so loved
In October 2011, Khaled Yacoub Oweis, then a Reuters correspondent, reached the leading Syrian Kurdish figure, Mashaal Tammo, by telephone in Qamishli. “He’d survived one assassination attempt,” Oweis recalls. “But he told me, ‘I’m a dead man.’ Gunmen had followed him. He said they were PYD or PKK, but it doesn’t matter, he insisted, it’s the regime behind it.”
The PYD is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, formed in Syria in 2003, and the PKK is the older Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the originally Turkey-based parent of the PYD. The “regime” is that of President Bashar Assad, now almost five years into a revolt-cum-war that has cost perhaps 250,000 lives and provoked Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the second world war.
Just days after the telephone call, Tammo was killed. Four years later Oweis, now a visiting fellow at the German Institute for Security and International Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin, published a paper on October 20th rubbishing any notion that the PYD offers Western powers a way to curb the Islamic State (ISIS) or relieve Europe’s swelling refugee migration crisis.
In the paper entitled The West’s Darling in Syria, Oweis argues that while the PYD is skilful in its propaganda, highlighting in the West its “progressive” approach to women, it has “not only silenced other Kurdish voices” such as Tammo, but has “been accused of ethnic cleansing in villages and towns inhabited mainly by Arabs, and … [also] maintains cooperation with the Assad regime.”
The belief gaining ground in Washington that the PYD, which controls three self-ruled “cantons” in northern Syria, should be assisted to gain territory from ISIS is short-sighted, Oweis told The Arab Weekly.
“It’s like the old Kissinger theory of aligning with the minorities, in this case whitewashing the PYD. US Secretary of State [John] Kerry says it’s different to the PKK, but in fact it’s a subsidiary.”
An Amnesty International report released on October 13th accuses the PYD of war crimes, including razing villages but has produced no strong Western condemnation. “This means there’s no message from the West to the Syrian Sunnis in revolt against Assad [whose regime is led by members of the Alawite sect] that the West are serious about stopping Kurdish encroachment on their territory,” said Oweis.
“If you look at social media, you’ll see a rising Kurdish chauvinism in which anyone who criticises the PYD rationally faces verbal abuse or worse.”
Oweis’ paper traces cooperation between the PKK and the Assad regime to the 1980s when the PKK launched a war against Turkey for Kurdish secession, although Hafez Assad subsequently came under threat from Ankara and in 1998 curbed the PKK and expelled its leader Abdullah Ocalan. The paper also depicts a tactic used by Assad when revolt broke out in Syria in March 2011.
“The Assad regime moved to strengthen its former PKK clients,” Oweis wrote. “Assad’s support for the PYD rekindled Turkish fears of a Kurdish state but it appeared primarily to be a means of undermining the non-violent core of the revolt and build up militia that could be allied to Assad.
“By the middle of 2011, dozens of PKK operatives had been released from prison… The PKK militia’s new local recruits, including women, helped the PYD act as enforcers for Assad… Following Tammo’s assassination, a string of activists who publicly opposed the PYD were beaten, killed, or disappeared, with the PYD always denying responsibility.”
Oweis said that the PYD should have a role in Syria once Assad falls but only alongside other Syrian Kurds, including those allied to Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader, and independents like the late Mashaal Tammo who stress the value of Kurdish integration in Syrian society.
Oweis said that for the PYD to control the Kurdish movement would be a recipe for separatism, “civil war in Turkey” and rising Arab support for ISIS and other extremists. For the West, backing the PYD is no solution to the refugee crisis, said Oweis, because most refugees are not fleeing ISIS.
“Assad’s emptying the country of Sunnis,” he explained. “My anecdotal data is that most refugees are Sunnis and victims of ethnic cleansing. Homs, a majority Sunni city, has become majority Alawite.
“It seems Damascus is now also minority Sunni. Most of the displaced in the war are Sunnis,” he added. “The Christian areas haven’t been bombarded by aircraft or heavy artillery. Most of the Alawi houses haven’t had a light bulb broken, let alone been bombarded.”
But to see Syria — including the Kurds — solely in sectarian terms is a costly mistake, said Oweis. “You can call it a civil war, but it’s really a revolt against a repressive dictatorship. Bashar Assad helped the PYD and rehabilitated it militarily to create the mess we’re in now. If you don’t address the problem of Assad, nothing is going to be solved.”