AMUDA, Syria – To cross into the Kurdish region of Syria you scramble onto a scruffy motorboat at Fishkhabour in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan, near the remote corner where Iraq, Turkey and Syria meet.
Then you chug across the dun-colored Tigris River and disembark on a barren rocky shore in Syria. A few hundred yards away, long lines of trucks and oil tankers cross back and forth between Syria and Iraq atop two shaky pontoon bridges, the Syrian Kurds’ only commercial lifeline.
Welcome to the self-declared, federal region of Rojava and North Syria, which stretches along the Turkish border and is recognized by no one. Allied with the Americans, helped by the Russians, despised by the Turks, at odds with its Iraqi Kurdish cousins, the region is a study in contradictions.
But little Rojava already plays an outsized role in the international fight against the Islamic State. The Kurdish Peoples’ Protections Units (half of whom are women) are the only Syrian ground forces that have succeeded in fighting the Islamic State, or even want to do it (most of the groups the United States tried to train were far more interested in fighting the regime of Bashar Assad).
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Rojava’s leaders want to play an even bigger role, with more U.S. assistance – maybe even taking out the crucial Islamic State home base in Raqqa. Could they do it? Should we give them more help? What motivates them?
Here are my thoughts from a recent trip.
Rojava is a land of martyrs. Drive from Fishkhabour past desolate fields dotted with small oil derricks, and you reach a string of towns where posters of dead male and female fighters adorn every light pole.
On the day I arrived the Kurds were marking the 12th anniversary of the stadium massacre in Qamishli, their largest city. On that day, Assad’s troops mowed down 54 protesters at a football match.
But, despite their loathing for Assad, the Syrian Kurds refrained from joining the Arab Spring uprising. (Indeed, in Qamishli, there is still a small regime military contingent uneasily on guard at the entry to the airport.)
“There is no collaboration with the government,” I was told by Aldar Khelil, a senior politician who had worked for years in the Kurdish underground. “We tried to make use of the situation (to build up our own institutions) while the regime was busy with other things.”
In every town I visited, big banners hung across traffic circles featuring the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Turkish Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, who now sits in a Turkish prison. The United States has designated the PKK a terrorist organization, but has not labeled the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party, or PYD, as such.
Rojavans insist that their organization is separate from the PKK, although they share a fervent belief in Ocalan’s ideology, which Kurdish officials here are constantly quoting.
“The PYD has never been a part of the PKK,” I was told by Amina Osse, the party’s deputy foreign affairs manager and one of several strong women holding top posts in the Kurdish government. “There is only one main link,” she added, “and that is the theories and philosophy of Ocalan.”
The Turkish ideologue’s theories shifted in the mid-1990s from a variant of Marxism to a focus on building local self-government – based largely on the works of a 1960s U.S. leftist, Murray Bookchin. Opo – as Ocalan is called here – focused on promoting the rights of women, and officials pursue that goal with a seriousness I’ve never seen elsewhere in the Mideast.
Whatever their historic ties with their Turkish counterparts, the Rojava Kurds are not interested in fighting Ankara – or Damascus. As Redur Xelil, the spokesman for the Kurdish military noted, Syrian Kurds have not attacked Turkish soldiers on their long border, even as the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish military heats up.
Instead, these Kurds are heavily focused on two fronts, both of which are critical for U.S. policy efforts in the region.
First, they want to build federalism within Syria. Osse says her party envisions five federal states within the country: the first would be Rojava and North Syria, including Raqqa if liberated (to ensure that the Islamic State can’t return). The other four: Jebel Druze; Latakia, the redoubt of Assad’s Alawi community; the major Sunni area that includes Hama and Homs; and the capital, Damascus.
Aldar Khelil dreams of a “Middle Eastern Union, like the European Union,” in which federal Kurdish regions within Turkey, Syria and Iraq would have relations. “No, we do not want one big Kurdistan,” he insists.
These ideas worry Turkey, which fears that the Rojava experiment will inspire its own Kurds. The Turks have closed their border to Rojava.
Yet the idea of federalism as an antidote to collapsing Middle East states is being debated throughout the region. Such formulas may be the only hope if peace talks ever get serious.
The Syrian Kurds haven’t been invited to peace talks in Geneva because the Turks are opposed to their presence. This is nuts.
The Syrian Kurds’ second goal is to get rid of the Islamic State. “Only the Kurds have stopped ISIS (in Syria),” says Osse, using another name for the Islamic State. She is correct.
With U.S. air support, and coordination by 50 U.S. special forces operatives, the Kurds have been taking back swaths of Syrian territory and critical towns such as Shedadi. They have formed a joint force with Sunni Arabs that would smooth the way in retaking Arab areas.
“We think we should make more progress in relations with the United States,” says Xelil, sitting beneath a drawing of historic Kurdish heroes.
On his coffee table are two dozen passports from Russia, Kazakhstan, Libya and Tunisia, lifted off Islamic State fighters killed in recent battles. All these jihadis entered Syria via Turkey – which did too little to stop them – something the Kurds have complained about for years.
Khelil said that much-touted Russian help to the Syrian Kurds – bomb strikes on rebel groups that were shelling their towns – was “never on the same level” as their cooperation with the Americans. The Russians, he said, pitched in only to annoy Turkey, which had just shot down a Russian plane.
He added that, at U.S. request in order to calm Ankara, the Syrian Kurds had “put on hold” their effort to extend their self-proclaimed region the whole length of the Turkish border. They were willing to focus on liberating Raqqa if Americans gave “more technology and weapons” – and recognition.
Maybe this idea is unworkable, but shouldn’t we at least ponder it, and provide the Kurds with more assistance? After all, unlike all the other groups that Washington has tried to train in Syria, the Kurds have proved they have the will to fight the jihadis. If we ever want to liberate Raqqa, they may be the best hope.
Trudy Rubin’s email is email@example.com.