Does Washington have a policy toward Syria’s Kurds?

The view from Washington about US policy toward Syria may be more confusing than it looks from Turkey.

al-monitor People sit in the back of a truck as they celebrate what they said was the liberation of villages from Islamist rebels near Ras al-Ain in the province of Hasakah, after capturing it from Islamist rebels, Nov. 6, 2013. Photo by REUTERS.
Cengiz Candar

Cengiz Candar


Topics covered

turkey, syria, saleh muslim mohammad, rojava, pyd, pkk, nouri al-maliki, kurdish issue, iraq, iran, bdp

Nov 7, 2013

A recent Financial Times blog ended by saying, “Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.”

I spent the last week in Washington, which coincided with the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and every day I reread those lines:  “Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.”

I was in Washington with Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and the party’s parliament member from Van, Nazmi Gur, to participate as a panelist at the first such gathering the BDP had organized. It was titled “New Middle East and the Kurdish Role.’’ Saleh Muslim, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), was scheduled to address the opening session of the daylong panel held at the National Press Club and attended by US experts from the government and think-tank community as well as by 200 Kurds [from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran] living in all parts of the US.

I knew a visa application for Muslim had been made at the US Embassy in Stockholm. The US Embassy in Ankara was also informed of Muslim’s plan to go to Washington.

The problem was that Muslim wasn’t able to leave the Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava to which he had returned after his son was killed in clashes with Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) gangs. He had returned to Syria via Iraqi Kurdistan, but now was being denied passage out.

The moment we landed in Washington, colleague Amberin Zaman and I were informed by BDP officials that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had just that day captured the Tel Kocher [Al Yaroubia] border crossing en route to Mosul in Iraq. Muslim had gone to Baghdad from there, and thence to Dubai and Europe.

Would he make it to Washington in time for the meeting? He had no visa. The result was that Muslim could not be physically present at the opening of the Washington meeting but did speak and join us via Skype.

To have denied a visa to come to Washington to a Kurdish politician — who is resisting al-Qaeda forces in Syria and who has expressed, in fluent English, his ardent desire to establish relations with the Western world — just two weeks after his son was killed by al-Qaeda must have been embarrassing to Americans attending the meeting. One of them later told me: “One day we will solve this problem. Tomorrow there will be a meeting at the State Department about this.’’

In his talk at the meeting, James Jeffrey, the former US ambassador to Ankara and Baghdad, said the US had to watch out for its allies Ankara and Erbil. He implicitly alluded that Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq — which supports various Syrian Kurdish groups against Turkey and the PYD — had a role in the visa denial.

He was partially right.  I discussed the matter with the US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, senior US officials and concerned Turkish diplomats. Nuland had received the BDP delegation and spent more time with it on developments in Syria than on the peace process in Turkey.

My impressions from various encounters suggested that the US had two basic conditions it wanted met with the PYD:

1.     For the PYD to sever all contacts with the Assad regime.

2.     For the PYD to be integrated with the Syrian opposition.

PYD has been constantly denying having a relationship with the Assad regime. One can guess that the first US precondition was based on advice coming from Turkey, but Americans insist that they had their own intelligence reports on the issue.

Referring to the second precondition, when I asked “which Syrian opposition” —alluding to fragmented and chaotic situation of the Syrian opposition — various officials replied, “The Free Syrian Army under command of Salim Idris.” American officials seem convinced that the PYD’s joining forces with the FSA could help bring about the end of the Damascus regime and empower the secular wing of the Syrian opposition.

To keep Washington’s doors closed to Muslim — who has open doors in Moscow and Tehran — may not be all about not offending Ankara and Erbil. It could be well be a product of the not-yet-so-clear Syria policy of the US.

What is interesting is that Maliki (who was being hosted in Washington at the same time) is cooperating with the PYD in the field. I was to learn later from my reliable Kurdish sources in Iraq that Maliki played a major role by cooperating with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces using the name of YPG to recover the Al Yaroubia crossing from ISIS.

As Maliki was about to reach Washington, his op-ed titled “Have patience with us” in The New York Times on Oct. 30 opened with following lines: “Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates are conducting a ruthless terrorist campaign against our people. These terrorists aren’t just Iraq’s enemies. They are also America’s enemies. That is why, when I meet with President Obama on Friday, I plan to propose a deeper security relationship between the United States and Iraq to combat terrorism and address broader security concerns, including the conflict in Syria.”

He did just that. What he achieved remains may be seen in the near future.

The US — while considering Turkey, even Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Qatar as allies against al-Qaeda forces in Iraq and Syria, and while  encouraging Turkey to cooperate with Iraq — is for the time being keeping its distance from Syrian Kurds represented by the PYD.

By contrast, Turkey and Saudi Arabia disagree over Egypt. This will naturally affect their cooperation on Syria. While Turkey is hoping to mend fences with Maliki’s Baghdad, Maliki is supportive of the PKK-PYD in Syria and Turkey is allegedly providing support to armed Salafist groups and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria fighting against the same Kurds.

Among the people I spoke with in Washington was former diplomat Morton Abramowitz, an influential name in the region. In an article in the November/December issue  of The National Interest titled “U.S., Turkey Still Split on Syria,” he wrote:

“It gradually became clear that Washington had no military strategy to hasten Assad’s exit or any intent to get seriously involved in another Middle Eastern conflict. Calls by Erdogan and Arab allies to actively support the rebels and create no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors fell on deaf ears. Lack of American initiative coupled with Turkey’s sectarian approach to the conflict put the two allies at further loggerheads. Worse, Erdogan’s effort to hasten Assad’s departure as well as prevent a Kurdish autonomous area by supporting radical jihadists angered the United States and justified its determination not to get deeply involved in militarily supporting the resistance. The split could recently be graphically seen in recent attacks in major American newspapers on senior Turkish officials providing support to jihadist groups. The Turkish government now declares it is not supporting such groups, but for now that must be taken with a grain of salt.”

In the meanwhile, the US secretary of state is making intensive efforts to convene the Geneva II conference. But the chairman of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, known to be a Saudi protégé, has come out with some conditions that the US is not likely to easily accept for participating in Geneva II. Addressing the recent Extraordinary Arab Foreign Ministers meeting that convened at the Arab League Headquarters in Cairo, he demanded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation as a condition. Jarba also rejected Iran’s participation in the conference and said his coalition will not participate in a conference where Assad’s resignation is not a given and if Iran is allowed to attend.

The relationship between the FSA under the command of Idris and the Syrian National Coalition presided over by Jarba and what kind of structure they work with are not clear.

All this shows that anyone who wants to learn more about Middle East developments and wants to stop in Washington for that purpose assuredly will wind up more confused than ever. This brings me to conclude my article by saying, “Welcome to Washington, and have a nice day!” 

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