John Saleh

John Saleh

Featured, Islamist Politics, Syria

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Where is Syria headed?  This phrase has become the center of Kurdish political discourse due to their internal suffering and disagreement. Kurds have been unable to come to a consensus on a single strategy because of the debates surrounding them from Kurdistan Iraq, and the role of Syrian Kurds in the PKK-Ankara conflict. The Kurdish region in Syria has been exposed to consistent threats from occupying jihadi and Islamic forces, as well as Assad regime supporters, or shabiha, at times masked by Arab tribes. Ironically, however, these political dynamics have further distanced the Kurds from equal representation in the Syrian opposition coalition, which has replaced them with players loyal to the Islamic political current. Thus, the Kurds are left knocking on the doors of Moscow, Washington, London, and Paris to find an international solution to the Syrian crisis.

The agreement between the U.S. and Russia on negotiating a political solution to the Syrian crisis at the Geneva II conference will determine Syria’s fate, namely the fate of the Assad regime and the political transition. The Supreme Kurdish Authority, in a recent meeting on June 4 with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged by KRG President Barzani, discussed with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov the Syrian crisis and the need to find a lasting political solution in Geneva. Such a dialogue, attendees agreed, is necessary to stop the war, the massacres committed by the regime, and the destruction of infrastructure, and transition Syria to become a sophisticated, modern, democratic state that guarantees the rights of all Syrian people, regardless of their religious, sectarian, or ethnic identity.

The Geneva II conference is an important opportunity to draw a road map to resolve the deepening crisis threatening not only Syria, but also the region as a whole. As such, the Kurdish delegation to Moscow requested that the Kurds be represented in the conference by an independent delegation because the Syrian opposition is fractured,  and all sides have a right to be involved in negotiating the framework. The Kurdish delegation also emphasized that the Kurds are in fact the most cohesive force of the opposition groups and are ready to contribute to the success of the conference for the people of Syria.

Bogdanov expressed his country’s desire to support this independent delegation at Geneva II and emphasized Russia’s support for Kurdish rights in Syria, stating: “We respect the aspirations of the Kurdish people and understand their stake in the Syrian crisis in addition to their historical presence in the region. Their interests and rights in Syria must be respected. There must be a new constitution guaranteeing the ambitions and rights of the Kurdish people. Your stake is the stake of all Syrian people.” He also stressed the historical relations between the Russian and Syrian people in addition to Russia’s position in calling for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. He noted that the current fighting in Syria will last a long time, and will cost Syria huge human sacrifices, fearing Syria could become a new Somalia.

Russian officials are aware of the Kurds’ importance in the Syrian political equation and in the region. It seems that Russia wants to have a complete understanding of the Kurdish discourse and their intentions for a future political system in Syria.  During this visit, Russian officials gained a careful and exact knowledge of the Kurdish position toward the Assad regime, the opposition, and the nature of Kurdish communication and relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and other international actors involved in the Syrian crisis. This reflects Russia’s concern for Geneva II, the possibility of failure within the regional and international conflict, and the problems with the Syrian opposition forces both internally and externally.

Russia’s invitation to the Syrian Kurds demonstrates an attempt to gather all of the Syrian actors into one basket in advance of Geneva II to achieve a consolidation of viewpoints for the Syrian political solution. However, Russia’s position is weakened with the Kurds due to its vision for a political solution, for the Kurdish agenda in Syria aims to topple the Assad regime and dismantle its cultural, political, and economic structure in order to establish a pluralistic, decentralized, federalist Syria.  The Russians adamantly reject this vision, especially with regards to the fate of Assad and his followers and their crimes against humanity. Furthermore, Kurds mistrust Russia because it has historically stood against the rights of the Kurdish people in the four sections of Kurdistan. This is in addition to the strange contradiction of Russia’s policy toward Syria: it is supporting the Assad regime with military and intelligence assistance, yet it is calling for a political solution and dialogue.

In reality, Russia remains present in Syria to ensure its share of the Syrian pie, withholding the keys to the solution from Washington by giving the Kurds hope of bringing an end to Assad and the Baath regime through consensus. The Kurds now see Russia as working to defend Kurdish interests in the region rather than those of the Assad regime. This attitude was expressed by Ismail Hamma, a member of the Kurdish delegation to Moscow and of the Kurdish Yekiti Party’s Political Bureau in Syria, who stated, “the Russians confirmed that they are not holding on to Bashar al-Assad. They are concerned foremost in the future of Syria and the formation of the state, meaning that they want guarantees for their interests in Syria after the toppling of Assad. Russia is a superpower and is influential in the Syrian solution. All of the opposition parties have visited Russia without exception, so why can’t we? Then, if we have the opportunity to talk to Washington, we will not hesitate to meet with them or any other country because we should be knocking on all doors for our cause.”

As the G8 countries renew their focus on negotiations for a political solution to the Syrian conflict at the summit in Ireland, the Kurds are primarily interested in getting international guarantees that Syria will become a truly democratic state with a modern constitution that upholds the rights of all Syrians. This principle has caused the Kurds to lose confidence in the Syrian opposition forces; they are not transparent on their policy toward Kurdish issues due to Turkish, Qatari, and Saudi intervention and the cultural and political distortion practiced by the regime toward the Kurds in Syria.

It is clear that Kurdish leaders now await a similar invitation from Washington to discuss the details of the future map of Syria and a place for the Kurds in drafting a Geneva II solution, or perhaps the new American position toward Syria and Obama’s decision to arm and support the rebels. This could include supporting the Kurds of Syria through the provision of weapons and military experts, which will greatly facilitate an end to the conflict and the Assad regime in addition to ridding Syria of jihadists and armed militias who corrupt and harm the revolution and its goals. But this depends primarily on the Kurdish position vis-a-vis the conference, the extent of their confidence in Washington, and their role in Syria and its future.

John Saleh is an independent Kurdish writer and researcher based in Washington, DC.