Day by day, Turkey’s onslaught against the Kurds is intensifying. Just last month, Ankara launched over 500 air strikes against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), while targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) only 3 times. By now, even senior U.S. officials are admitting that Turkey’s claim to have joined the fight against ISIS was simply a ploy for bombing the PKK.
‘Both within Turkey and northern Syria, the propaganda about Kurds being separatists is simply a pretext for wiping out their democratic achievements. There is no telling what will occur as a result of Turkey’s military campaign against the Kurds. Their pluralistic democratic experiment—not to mention their formidable combating of ISIS—may well crumble under the barrage of Western-backed violence being thrust upon them.’
Nevertheless, many in the West continue to justify Turkey’s aggression under the pretense that Kurdish advances against ISIS in Syria represent a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. The Kurds, we are told, seek an independent state in the region and, thus, cannot be allowed to control a 250-mile stretch of land along Turkey’s southern border.
But how credible is this threat of Kurdish territorial ambitions? Are the Kurds really vying for a separate state in the region? To answer this, it would help to look at actual facts and events on the ground.
In 2012, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime relinquished authority in the northern Kurdish-populated provinces of the country. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) quickly stepped in to fill the vacuum, introducing a multi-ethnic Social Contract and decentralized administrative structure in the region. Their officially stated goal was to institute democratic autonomy and ethnic solidarity within Syria.
Since then, numerous observers have traveled to the Kurdish-led regions in northern Syria to cover the Kurdish battles against ISIS. In the process, various reports have emerged noting the unique form of popular democracy being instituted in the areas taken over by the Kurds.
To better understand the facts on the ground, I decided to meet with two leaders of the Armenian community in northern Syria this past summer in Yerevan. Both individuals (who requested to stay anonymous for this article) are from Kamishli, the administrative center of the Kurdish regions in northern Syria, which has historically had a sizeable Armenian population. Up until fleeing the war about a year ago, they had lived in Kamishli and represented the Armenian community in various local assemblies. Despite being from different political persuasions, both had very similar insights regarding the nature of Kurdish rule in the region.
The first point they made when we sat down was that, over the last three years, they saw no trace of separatism among the Kurdish leadership. “None of them were saying we are going to break away, that’s for sure,” said one of the interviewees, adding how, instead, they were working toward autonomy within a federated Syria. “They have an idea called idara zahtiyeh which means self-governance, self-rule,” he explained. “The Kurds would say, ‘Why should the regional governor come from Damascus? Let’s find an Armenian, a Kurd, or an Arab to do the job, but let them be a local. Let’s rule ourselves.’”
“They want Syria to be a multi-ethnic, multi-party system,” declared the other interviewee, insisting that the Kurds want harmony in the region. “They want to stand alongside the other ethnicities and groups. They want to approach issues in a multi-colored fashion.”
Indeed, this emphasis on local management and ethnic solidarity has been the hallmark of the Kurdish liberation movement since at least 2005. Under what PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has termed “Democratic Confederalism,” the movement abandoned its earlier goal of independence and sharply disavowed the concept of nation states altogether. Instead, they have been calling for grassroots democracy based on local assemblies, social equality, and federated communities. Following the withdrawal of the Assad regime, it is this program that they are trying to implement in northern Syria, while reiterating that they are not interested in secession.
Both community representatives described a state of affairs in the Kurdish region where citizens of all faiths and ethnicities participate equally in district committees and councils, working together to resolve such problems as employment, irrigation, sanitation, education, electricity, and other societal issues. Participants also elect delegates to regional assemblies, with strict quotas for multi-ethnic balance and female representation (the top three officers in each municipality are Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian or Armenian, and at least one has to be a woman).
Recalling his time as a member of an Armenian advisory council, one of the interviewees explained, “Kurdish leaders would come to our community and say that we must extend a hand to one another and do what is best for all local residents; that we must demand equality and aid from the government.” And despite the tension that existed among Kurds and Arabs in the region, the Armenian community members bore witness to the fact that virtually all of their meetings included local Arab representatives, as well.
My interviewees also stressed that the Kurds go out of their way when it comes to Armenian issues. “Whenever we brought up an issue or problem, more than half of the time, it would be solved immediately,” said one of the representatives. The other attributed the camaraderie shown toward Armenians to remorse for the role Kurds played in the Armenian Genocide. “It’s as if they want to, one by one, plead for forgiveness from us for what they did in the past,” he said.
Despite describing the Kurdish leadership as principled, honest, and educated, the two expressed some reservations. Several times during the interview, they expressed caution towards the Kurds based on the legacy of the late Ottoman period. “If I say they are not my adversary, my grandfather, my ancestors won’t accept that,” said one of them.
Nevertheless, the picture they painted was one of inclusiveness and genuine democratic engagement—a remarkable achievement considering the region’s penchant for dictatorship and sectarianism. They were sincere in insisting that the Kurds did not want Syria to disintegrate but, rather, wanted all groups to work together to resolve the problems plaguing them.
Facts on the ground show that the Kurds are simply striving to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, not to redraw borders. This can be seen both in northern Syria and Turkey, where a campaign based on peace and solidarity helped the Kurdish People’s’ Democratic Party (HDP) gain a momentous victory in the June parliamentary elections—effectively blocking Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic ambitions.
Ankara’s current assault against the Kurds can therefore not be considered a battle against separatism but, rather, against genuine democracy. Indeed, many have accused Erdogan of launching the attacks to take away votes from the HDP in snap elections scheduled for this November. Both within Turkey and northern Syria, the propaganda about Kurds being separatists is simply a pretext for wiping out their democratic achievements.
There is no telling what will occur as a result of Turkey’s military campaign against the Kurds. Their pluralistic democratic experiment—not to mention their formidable combating of ISIS—may well crumble under the barrage of Western-backed violence being thrust upon them. Both Armenian interviewees expressed doubt about what would happen if the war against the Kurds intensifies.
Those interested in truly advancing humanity and freedom would do well to back the Kurds by calling for Western governments to stop supporting Turkey’s aggression; instead, they should live up to their promise of fighting against ISIS by backing the Kurdish-led democratic forces.