Looking for allies in the Syria mess? Try
By Benny Avni
New York Post
could be key to saving Syria
They’re one of the wild cards in the Middle East
that could provide a turning point in the Syrian
war: the Kurds.
The largest Syrian opposition group has picked a
Kurd as its new leader — which might help the rebels
gain critical mass.
Meanwhile, Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad is trying
to use the Kurds against Turkey. That might prompt
Ankara to send troops across the border, further
escalating the war — though for now Ankara is
instead allying itself with other Kurds in the
Good move. So should we.
Yes, divisions and competition among Kurdish leaders
(whose homeland is split among Syria, Iraq, Turkey
and Iran) makes relying on them an iffy proposition.
But for generations this non-Arab ethnic group has
been an American ally (when we didn’t desert them) —
and a marked rise in Kurdish power is one legacy of
our wars with Saddam Hussein. Renewing and
tightening this alliance could help us navigate the
treacherous Mideast transitions.
Last week the Syrian National Council named
Abdulbaset Sayda, a Syrian Kurd exiled in Sweden, as
its new leader. The clear hope is that the
mild-mannered scholar will unite the opposition’s
many ethnic, religious and political factions, which
now push in all directions.
And also win more support in the West. Sayda isn’t a
Kurdish activist. As Kani Xulam of the
American-Kurdish Information Network, tells me, he
“became a consensus leader of the opposition because
of his democratic credentials, rather than because
he’s a Kurd.”
Yet the move might move the Kurds off the sidelines
in the 14-month-old uprising, which pits mostly
Sunni Arabs (the majority in Syria) against a regime
dominated by members of the obscure Alawite sect.
Syrian Kurds are shocked by Assad’s murderous ways,
but suspicious of the Sunni majority — and of
Turkey’s Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) for decades
waged a violent struggle against the Turkish
government (which refused to even acknowledge that
Kurds in Turkey were Kurds); many deem the PKK a
And PPK leader Abdullah Ocalan fled to Damascus in
1978, where Assad’s father sheltered him for 20
years. Hafez al-Assad also favored Syria’s Kurds
during that time — a status that ended when Turkish
military and political pressure forced him to expel
Ocalan in 1998.
But since the uprisings began, Turkish Prime
Minister Tayyep Recep Erdogan has become a vocal
supporter of Assad’s overthrow and hosted opposition
In response, Bashar Assad has allowed the PKK to
reopen its bases in Syria. Ankara fears that the
next step will be intensified attacks against its
citizens and troops.
To date, Erdogan’s counter has been to cultivate to
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani (who visited
Ankara in April), in hopes he’ll blunt anti-Turkish
sentiments among Syria’s Kurds — or even dismantle
PKK camps in Iraq’s Kurdistan.
Prospering and democratic (by regional standards,
Kurdish Iraq has emerged as leader of all the
region’s Kurds, says Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv
University’s Dayan Center for Mideast Studies.
That’s why everyone in the region (including Israel)
is now seeking Kurdish ties. But Iraq’s Kurds owe
much of their good fortune to America, which
protected them from Saddam.
The Kurds would be useful allies not only in the
current fight against Assad, but the larger struggle
with his Iranian sponsors and jihadists across the
A promise of limited autonomy, like that enjoyed by
Iraq’s Kurdistan, could bring Syria’s Kurds into the
opposition, moderating it and pushing the next
Syrian government toward the West.
Yes, once more in the Mideast, it’s time to play the
A New York Post op-ed contributor since late 2008,
Benny Avni has covered America’s foreign policy and
international affairs for various American and world
publications since moving to New York in 1986.
Before the Post, he was the New York Sun’s United
Nations correspondent and world affairs columnist,
breaking exclusive stories during the lead-up and
the aftermath of the Iraq war and leading the UN
press corps in exposing Turtle Bay corruption. A
native of Israel, he has covered the Middle East
beat since the 1970s.
Copyright ©, respective
author or news agency,
does not take credit for and is not responsible for the
content of news information on this page