The odds that Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad will survive the insurrection against him are increasingly slim, but the civil war might last a lot longer. The opening chapter pits the Baath Party regime and its paramilitary units against the Free Syrian Army, but there are other factions that have a stake in what happens next. Most of Syria’s Alawites—who make up roughly twelve percent of the population—are with the regime. They may face persecution from the majority if Assad loses. They might also mount a terrorist war against a new government, either from the alleyways of Damascus or from a breakaway state of their own on the Mediterranean.
The Sunni Arab majority is not only divided between Islamists and secularists, but also by region and tribe. The Christian and Druze minorities are nervously watching and waiting. And the Kurdish minority in the northeast hopes to divorce all of the above and go its own way like the Kurds have in Iraq.
Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist groups have never been able to get much traction in that community. The Muslim Brotherhood is an exclusively Sunni organization, and it’s also, for the most part, an Arab one. Rather than viewing Islam as “the solution” to what ails them, most Kurds in Syria as well as Iraq view freedom and independence as the solution, along with an alliance with the US and Israel.
I recently spoke with Dr. Sherkoh Abbas, leader of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria.
MJT: Okay, let me start by asking you what’s going on right now in Syrian Kurdistan. I’ve hardly seen any mention of it whatsoever in the Western media.
Sherkoh Abbas: We’ve been ignored by the Western media, by the Middle Eastern media, and by the international community altogether. Maybe it’s because we don’t hijack planes, kidnap and kill people, or blow-up any buildings. The wheels that make the noise get the grease, and we haven’t made any noise until recently, beginning with a major uprising in 2004. Today the Kurdish street will not accept anything less than federation or at least a Kurdish Federal Region.
The Kurds of Syria are primarily poor because of the Arabization policies that were implemented during the Baath Party’s time. Even though oil and gas come from the Kurdistan region, less than one percent is invested there. Most Kurds are educated, but we have been deprived of basic human and national rights.
Today, the Kurdish street is vocal and is against Kurdish political parties because of their failed strategies, their bickering and fighting with each other, and their alliances with non-Syrian Kurds. We have three major classical Kurdish political parties; one group allied with Barzani from Iraqi Kurdistan, another group allied with Talabani from Iraqi Kurdistan, and one allied with the PKK.
Since 2006 we in the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria have supported regime-change and the creation of a Kurdistan Federal Region in Syria. In contrast, most of the above groups promote vague goals such as democracy and limited administration. They have not been clear on regime-change, so most Kurds now reject them even more. In recent days they’ve been saying they want the right of self-determination within Syria, a contradiction. Last week Kurds in Syria came out and said that they support federalism and our road-map for the creation of a Kurdistan Regional Government.
We need assistance from the international community because the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish AK party are promoting and supporting groups that aren’t democratic and don’t fully support the Kurdish cause. The outsiders are aware that Kurds are not happy with their traditional political parties, so they’re providing money and assistance to steer people toward Islamic organizations.
MJT: What do you think of the Free Syrian Army? Should the United States provide assistance to them or let them fight the Assad regime on their own?
Sherkoh Abbas: The Free Syrian Army is made up of defectors from the regular Syrian army who grew up with the doctrine of the Arab Socialist Baath Party. It is also influenced in part by the Muslim Brotherhood. This means it is not established with principles of democracy and freedom. It is therefore uninterested in helping the Kurds in Syria or in promoting our rights due to their values. The Free Syrian Army’s views on the Kurdish issue in Syria is no different from that of the regular army. In the future it will be another obstacle to freedom and democracy in the region.
The United States can’t influence the Free Syrian Army without strenuous efforts in education which should focus on protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in the country.
MJT: Why does the Assad regime support the PKK [the Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization that has been waging war against Turkey for decades]?
Sherkoh Abbas: Assad's regime doesn’t just support the PKK. It also works to revitalize the Armenians and Alevis in Turkey. It is aligned with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in a desperate attempt to expand the spread of fire from Syria.
MJT: Is it true that the Assad government has withdrawn its security forces from Kurdish cities?
Sherkoh Abbas: Assad has removed some key army units, but his security agencies are still in place to prevent unfriendly groups from taking over. And, of course, there are groups that work with the regime, including Arab settlers, Assyrians, and Syriacs along with some Kurds.
The Kurdistan region in general is anti-Assad, anti-Baath, anti-Arab Nationalism, and wants regime change, but we do not want the Muslim Brotherhood to control us, nor any groups associated with the above ruling elements.
MJT: What kind of relations do you have with the Barzani government in Iraqi Kurdistan?
Sherkoh Abbas: We have very good and brotherly relations, though we see tremendous pressure on our brothers in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. At times their policy is geared more toward survival than helping us. And we are accustomed to the United States abandoning us by supporting Iraq's central government and the Turkish government at our expense.
MJT: What do you and most Syrian Kurds think of Israel? If the Israelis offered to help, would you accept it?
Sherkoh Abbas: I have said this many times: Israelis never killed or slaughtered Syrian people the way the current regime is doing. We have no issues with the Israelis. We want to solve our problems peacefully through dialogue and negotiations. Israelis, like Kurds, are targeted for elimination by the tyrannical regimes in the Middle East, so we are natural allies.
We ask Israel to help the Syrian people—all the Syrian people—and to use its political influence in the world to support the revolution and promote democracy in the region. We need all the help we can get from every country willing to help us.
Look, 400 Syrian men, women, and children were just slaughtered by the regime. Aside from the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, who wouldn’t want help from Israel? The Israelis don’t kill people arbitrarily or oppress anyone in Syria the way most Arab governments do.
For fifty years Middle Eastern dictatorships turned Israel and the West into excuses to oppress people. We need to move beyond these failed dictatorial regimes and construct decentralized democratic systems where both minorities and majorities enjoy peace and freedom.
MJT: What changes would you like to see in American foreign policy?
Sherkoh Abbas: The United States uses an outdated policy from the Cold War. It needs a more pro-active policy based on human rights, democracy, freedom, and national interests. You should not continue on the current path of supporting ruthless dictatorships at the expense of human rights. We want American foreign policy to back democracy and minority rights, even if it might undermine current alliances, in order to build long-lasting relationships based on mutual interest. And we need American support for a democratic and decentralized Syria.
MJT: Has President Barack Obama reached out in any way to Syrian Kurds?
Sherkoh Abbas: Yes, to pressure us into watering down our demands to such an extent that it would be suicidal for any Kurdish leader to accept it. The Kurdish street loudly supports federalism. We want the Obama administration to be sensitive to our needs.
There are 22 Arab countries and none of them are democratic. We have suffered under nationalists, secularists, Arab Nationalists, Islamists, and Baathists. We cannot believe that the Free Syrian Army and its supporters in Qatar and Turkey who say regime-change and democracy should be enough to fix all our problems.
MJT: What do you expect will happen if Assad is overthrown?
Sherkoh Abbas: Full scale civil war. It has already started. Syria could change from a failed dictatorship to something that looks like Somalia or Afghanistan, or—at best—Lebanon during its civil war. The fighting will continue and Syria could become a haven for Islamists.
The United States should work with Russia and create a federal system. Russian interests can be guaranteed in an Alawite state while American and Israeli interests can be guaranteed in Syrian Kurdistan.