The Obstacle to Syria Regime Change? (COMMENTARY MAGAZINE) Michael Rubin 05/03/12)
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I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists
last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’
minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million
people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I
asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these
Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud
Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the
Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK.
Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the
Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds
favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and
so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to
The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group.
The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the
course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish
and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of
secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK.
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and
imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective;
he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its
popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’
popularity in the Gaza Strip.
After years of singing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s praises,
Erdoğan has shifted his tune and called for Assad to step down. Like
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, however, Erdoğan has
been unwilling to move such calls beyond rhetoric into reality. By
seeking to lead from behind and work through Turkey, however, Obama
and Clinton may simply be enabling Turkey to sacrifice any serious
Syrian political developments on the altar of its fear of empowered
Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.
Perhaps the time has come for the Obama administration to have a
serious discussion about the PKK and whether Turkey’s antipathy
toward the group should trump freedom for 22.5 million Syrians.
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