SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq – The Kurds of Syria announced on Thursday that they are setting up a federal region – a move that could help defeat the Islamic State in the heart of its caliphate in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Of course the Assad regime denounced the move. But so did the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, while a State Department spokesman also expressed disapproval.
Having just visited the Syrian Kurdish region (known as Rojava) – and having just interviewed one of Rojava’s top leaders, Salih Muslim – I think the naysayers are mistaken.
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The Kurds are practically the only ally the United States has to fight the Islamic State in Syria. After the start of the rebellion against the Assad regime, Kurdish activists organized self-governing structures in their northern heartland, near the Turkish border.
They created three separate cantons and lately linked up two of them by ousting Islamic State fighters from intervening towns (inhabited mainly by Sunni Arabs). Muslim told me the Kurds felt they needed to expand their governing system in order to administer the new territory. Their self-declared region will be called Rojava and North Syria, to emphasize that it doesn’t only involve Kurds.
This move will impact U.S. efforts to fight the Islamic State in Syria.
Washington linked up with Syrian Kurds because they were focused on fighting the Islamic State, which threatens their region. Syrian Arab rebels backed by the United States, on the other hand, were far more interested in battling Assad than taking on the jihadis.
The more secular Syrian Kurds produced tough fighters, including all-female units. So the Obama administration began supporting them with air strikes, and sent in 50 U.S. special forces to coordinate.
This gets complicated. NATO ally Turkey is neuralgic over U.S. help to Rojava, because Kurdish leaders have historic ties to Turkey’s Kurdish rebels known as the PKK (Washington considers the PKK a terrorist organization, but not the Syrian Kurds, a distinction I believe is correct.)
But if the West wants to defeat the Islamic State it needs the Kurds of Rojava. Which brings me to why their creation of a federal region is a good thing.
In order to liberate Raqqa (a Sunni Arab town) from the Islamic State jihadis, Kurds need to ally with local Arab fighters. A purely Kurdish force might scare local Sunnis into standing by the Islamic State.
Kurdish officials also need to convince Sunni Arabs in the areas already liberated, as well as in Raqqa, that the Kurds won’t seek revenge against them after the Islamic State is gone. There is also the question of who will govern liberated Sunni Arab areas to prevent the next variant on the Islamic State from taking root.
Some Sunni Arab fighters, along with Christians and other minorities, have joined Kurds in the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But there aren’t enough Arabs for a Raqqa offensive.
“Our priority is to liberate Raqqa,” Salah Muslim told me, in an interview at a forum sponsored by the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. “But we need Arab fighters.”
I asked whether this new federal arrangement might encourage more Arab fighters to join the SDF. Muslim quickly responded, “Surely.”
“We also have to think who will be there afterwards to govern,” he added. “We need Arab Sunnis who would administrate these areas.”
At minimum, the federal region will give local Arabs a chance to test the Kurds’ bona fides. Muslim told me that Syrian Kurds had just convened a conference with 200 Sunni and other minority leaders and chosen a 31-person committee to set up an administration for new areas liberated from the Islamic State.
On my trip to Rojava I briefly attended a preparatory meeting for this conference. I asked one Sunni attendee, Mohammed Bonian, his opinion about the new dispensation. “We want to keep Syria united,” he said, “but with a federal system where everyone has their rights.” He added that Sunnis were “not for division by ethnic group.”
This new federal region will test whether Kurds can live up to such a promise, and whether Sunni Arabs will feel their rights are protected. Muslim told me that, if the system works, there could be “another conference to decide for all Syria” whether a federal system would work for the whole country.
The concept of federalism is already being widely discussed by Syrians as a possible way to end the fighting in the future. So even if no one presently recognizes the Kurds’ new region, they are leading the way.
Skeptics have asked why the Syrian Kurds would want to expend blood liberating Raqqa. After all, their first priority has been to link up two of the three Kurdish cantons with the third, Afrin, which is under Islamic State (and Turkish) siege.
Muslim told me that both Afrin and Raqqa are Kurdish priorities. “Raqqa is important to us because all the attacks on us come from Raqqa,” he said. “Our people won’t accept that those extremists remain there. We want to be safe in our homes.”
If declaring a federal region can help Syrian Kurds convince Sunni Arab fighters to join them in liberating Raqqa, it is a development Washington should be supporting.
Yes, the declaration may be premature, but federalism is probably where Syria is headed. So two cheers for the federal region of Rogava and North Syria, with a third reserved until we see whether the Kurds can make it work.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.