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Editor’s Note: There is one bright spot in the darkness of the Middle East: the U.S. relationship with various Kurdish groups. In Iraq and Syria in particular, the Kurds seem the bulwark of U.S. efforts against the Islamic State and appear to be a relatively democratic and positive force in the region. Sloane Speakman, until recently my partner running the Foreign Policy Essay at Lawfare, questions many of these supposed truths. She argues that the U.S.-Kurdish relationship is far more problematic, or at least should be, than most policymakers recognize.
The Kurds have become America’s most important partner in the fight against the Islamic State. After more than a decade of working together on Iraq, the partnership reached new levels following the advance of the Islamic State in northern Iraq and across eastern Syria in 2014. And this renewed “historic” cooperation has brought a flurry of questions and misunderstandings about the Kurds and their ambitions. The image of the Kurds promulgated in U.S. media is usually one of humble warriors defending their homeland—and often includes a focus on female fighters fighting against the Islamic State. Pundits refer to Kurdish areas as a country-in-the-making, while overlooking the persisting challenges to achieving this objective, as well as overlooking a long history of terrorism. Below I dispel some commonly touted myths about our Kurdish allies—a more complex, diverse, and questionable partner than we would like to acknowledge. In the end, our military alliance with the Kurds may be a mistake. Choosing friends based on convenience and near-term objectives—and, in this case, over the protestations of long-standing allies—almost always backfires.
1. The Kurds are Creating a Liberal Democracy in Northern Syria
Many observers have praised the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) “remarkable” and “brave experiment” with democracy, noting that “Kurdistan enjoys more stability, security, political pluralism, and freedom for civil society” than its neighbors. In northern Syria, they point to directly-elected popular assemblies and local councils that possess a “careful ethnic balance.” Elections are held to determine officials and leaders of bodies from the local levels—known variously as kuminat (communes), local councils, and people’s assemblies—to higher-level bodies, such as the Legislative Council of the PYD in Syria and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Parliament in northern Iraq. Each body is led by “co-presidents,” one man and one woman. In theory, local-level bodies are able to take issues up to the highest levels of the government structure, supposedly offering an explicit example of government for the people, by the people.
This account overlooks the facts on the ground, as well as the origins of Kurdish governance itself. Democracy is about more than simply holding elections. It is a set of values that include respect for minority rights, protections for the freedoms of speech and expression, and the development of a healthy opposition. This is where Kurdish “democracy” falls significantly short. The PYD has shown it has little respect for democratic norms and the development of opposition parties or activists, with numerous examples of raids of opposition offices and civil society leaders. A 2015 Amnesty International report argued that the PYD “is using a crackdown against terrorism...as a pretext to unlawfully detain and unfairly try peaceful critics and civilians.” The PYD has also shot demonstrators, arrested political opponents, and shut down media outlets. Activists have repeatedly called the PYD “Ba’athists” and alleged they are siding with the regime (an accusation to which there is some merit).
The issues span beyond PYD in Syria and are representative of practices in other Kurdish governance entities. Kurdish officials in Iraq have accused the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, of “all kinds of intimidation,” as well as ballot stuffing. One analyst observed that rampant corruption has further dampened democratic norms, noting that “political expression and civic participation have been hampered by the overwhelming presence of the KDP and PUK, who monopolize the political space and resources.”
Aside from the blatant disregard for democratic values displayed by Kurdish leaders across state lines, the theoretical origins of “Kurdish democracy” are far from liberal democracy as we know it. The founding document for Kurdish governance is the Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, written by imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, and is heavily inspired by Murray Bookchin, a Bronx-based socialist whose work has been described as fusing “Marxist and anarchist ideals into a vision of a world where citizens’ assemblies supplant state bureaucracy and environmentalism is king.” Ocalan, whose PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization since 1997, drew heavily from Bookchin in his own writings and directives, which have found an opportunity to be lived out in the vacuum created by the Syrian civil war.
2. The Kurds Are Unified
Though the fight for Kurdish independence transcends borders, Kurds themselves are spread across the Middle East and have distinct cultural and linguistic differences and political goals that are often at odds with one another. Roughly 25 to 30 million Kurds—more than the total population of pre-war Syria—live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Oppressive laws under these regimes resulted in varying degrees of preservation of the Kurds’ rich cultural and linguistic traditions. The development of distinct Kurdish dialects is one example. Kurmanji, also known as “northern Kurdish,” is the most common dialect, spoken in Turkey, Syria, and northern Iraq, and written in the Roman script. The Sorani dialect is prevalent in Iraq and Iran and is written in the Persian-Arabic script. Other dialects also exist, such as Zaaki in eastern Turkey and Gorani in northeastern Iraq. In some parts of Syria—which, under Assad, prohibited the Kurdish language from being taught in schools—some Kurdish populations speak only Arabic. Though most Kurds are Sunni Muslim, there is a sizable population of Shia Kurds in Iran that feel religious and cultural ties with the non-Kurdish Iranian population.
The differences span beyond culture and language, a natural result of non-contiguous populations: they have also developed deep political divisions, conflicting interests, and opposing ideologies. In particular, debates over independence on the one hand and the creation of federal systems on the other have divided the Kurdish leadership between states. Turkey’s PKK transformed from a state-centric, Marxist-Leninist group fighting for the creation of an independent Kurdish nation-state in the 1980s and 1990s to a rejection of separatism in favor of Ocalan’s “democratic confederalism.” The Syrian PYD has largely adopted Ocalan’s political views. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds, led by Masoud Barzani, purport to be pro-capitalism nationalists. Syria’s KDP, the main opposition to the PYD, has largely aligned itself with Barzani and the Iraqi KDP. Even within individual states, competition is rampant—including a civil war between factions in Iraq—with different parties striving to undermine each other. Over time, according to one observer, “differences in dialect, tribal affiliation, leadership, ideology, [and] historical experience” may ultimately mean that “what sets them apart may be more significant than what they have in common.”
Of course, the nation-states that govern these regions don’t offer much assistance in the way of Kurdish unity. Turkey is actively fighting the PKK within its borders and opposes the PYD in Syria, which is sees as an extension of the PKK, while supporting Iraqi Kurds through investment and trade. Iran exploits competition between Iraq’s two main Kurdish factions—Barzani’s KDP and his rival Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—while supporting the PKK and PYD against their Iraqi rivals. Kurdish leaders have played into this by courting states oppressing their Kurdish kin elsewhere in order to obtain resources and aid in their battles at home.
3. Turkey Completely Opposes Kurdish Autonomy
Turkey has made clear its displeasure with the U.S. partnership with Kurdish forces in northern Syria, where the Syrian PYD has carved out a self-proclaimed autonomous region bordering Turkey. The PYD’s links to the PKK in Turkey have Ankara on edge about its own restive Kurdish population. Their concerns aren’t completely unfounded: decades of conflict between the PKK and Turkish forces left over 40,000 dead. Attacks in predominantly-Kurdish eastern Turkey have increased over the last year. Turkey not only fears renewed violence, but also an elevated international standing for Kurdish leaders following their contributions against the Islamic State that could lead to greater political demands. Turkey’s opposition to and repression of its Kurdish population and its conflict with Kurds in Syria are certainly not new, but the Syrian conflict has renewed tensions and has effectively collapsed the 2012 peace process that many hoped would reconcile the PKK and the Turkish government.
Yet Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish movements is generally restricted to within and along its border. In fact, Turkey has openly supported Kurdish movements in Iraq. Turkey has allowed Iraqi Kurds to cross its border on the way to Syria, though it prohibits Kurds in Turkey from doing so. More important is Ankara’s extensive economic and resource ties to the KRG in Iraq. Turkish companies have invested heavily in Kurdish areas of Iraq, particularly in infrastructure, including the Erbil International Airport, upgrading highways, and constructing pipelines. Iraq is Turkey’s second largest export partner, and Turkey gets 120,000 barrels of oil a day from northern Iraq.
4. Kurds and Arabs Can Never Get Along
Ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs have been at the forefront of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, there are widespread reports of Kurdish abuses against Arab civilians, including arbitrary arrests, forced displacement, and rumors of YPG forces razing villages. Similar reports of Kurdish forces destroying Arab homes have emerged in the fight for Mosul.
These concerns, though real and serious, have unfortunately overshadowed a long history of coexistence between Kurds and their neighbors. It could be argued that part of this coexistence derives from state policies of forced assimilation or “Arabization,” including population transfers, confiscating Kurdish land, and banning Kurdish language and cultural displays. Still, in my own conversations with those living in northern Syria, criticisms appear to target higher-level bodies and security forces, such as the PYD’s armed wing, the YPG, and its Asayish police forces, which have been accused of harassing Arab residents. Kurdish and Arab residents repeatedly emphasize that relations between neighbors have not changed. As I’ve written about elsewhere on this site, Syrians of an array of confessions and ethnicities have lived amongst each other for generations, often intermarrying between groups. Northern Iraqis have long prided themselves on the diversity of their region, which includes Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, and other ethnicities, as well as Sunni, Shia, Christians, and Jews. Many Iranian Kurds have cultural, linguistic, and even religious ties with their Iranian counterparts.
This does not mean we should overlook the deep traumas of the communities involved in the Syrian, Iraqi, and other sectarian-charged conflicts of recent decades. But it does offer contrast to the black-and-white picture so often portrayed by the media and by various parties to the conflict. It also affirms the need for constitutional protections for minorities in Middle Eastern states and the need for signs of good faith from all sides moving forward.
What Is the United States to Do?
There is a lot of myth surrounding the Kurds, thanks in no small part to the media and a strong Kurdish lobby. As with any foreign-policy solution, the Kurds should not be seen as the silver bullet of partners we’ve been missing in the Middle East. They are enmeshed in a complicated web of enemies and odd bedfellows, often in conflict with other Kurds: in fact, it is difficult to refer to “the Kurds” as a single group.
The United States has found itself in a difficult position. It has cobbled together an alliance of groups bound only by their opposition to the Islamic State. The Kurds are at the heart of this conundrum: the United States has partnered with Kurds in Iraq and Syria at the expense of a long-standing NATO ally in Turkey and a delicate relationship with Baghdad. What happens between these parties when the Islamic State falls could have significant consequences for U.S. policy in the region. The Kurds expect U.S. support post-Islamic State, but they will likely be disappointed. The U.S. partnership with Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, along with Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism, is damaging the U.S.-Turkey relationship. And the United States has long-supported a unified Iraq, a reality that is once again being called into question. And all of this falls during a time when many of our traditional alliances are facing an uncertain future. The United States needs to assess its core strategic priorities, rather than react to near-term objectives. In the end, this is a problem of our own creation and one that we will continue to struggle with (and repeat) without a coherent strategy.