News from the Revolution in Rojava and Wider Kurdistan
In a historic conference entitled “The Kurdish Role in the New Middle East,” which took place yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C, prominent Kurdish leaders and academics joined with American politicians and regional experts to discuss the future of the Middle East and the changing place of Kurds in the region. The conference consisted of four separate panels, each of which addressed a different topic.
Salih Muslim, who was scheduled to attend the conference in person but was unable to for reasons that were unclear, reaffirmed his desire to establish relations with the United States and to cooperate in the building of a democratic Syria. When a representative of the KRG, Karwan Zebari, was asked about Muslim’s absence at the conference and the role that the KRG had played in the matter, he said he had no information and declined to comment. Later in the afternoon the former US Ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffery, hinted that Washington would be unwilling to meet with Muslim while the governments in Hewler (Erbil) and Ankara continued to object. Muslim’s absence drew repeated criticism from attendees of the conference.
Karwan Zebari himself emphasized the rapid development of the KRG, its opening of its markets to foreign investors and to international oil companies in particular, and he went on to draw comparisons between the development of Erbil and Dubai.
Three Kurdish academics – Kejal Rahmani, Kirmanj Gundi, and Hisyar Ozsoy – discussed and debated new models for the Middle East based on the historical experience of Kurds and others. Rahmani, who said she was optimistic about the growing prominence of the Kurds in international and regional discussions about the region, but warned off complacency and the dangers of further colonial interference. She emphasized that was a natural progression to a new kind of government based in localities, and that the nation-state form itself was a mutation affected by foreign powers.
One of the most heated discussions of the day revolved around events in Rojava, and the role that regional powers were playing in Syria. Saif Badrakhan, the representative of the Kurdish National Council (KNK) in the United States, spoke of the oppression of the Kurds under the Baath Regime, and the role that the PYD had played in organizing resistance. He said that Kurds had been “treated like enemies and second-class citizens.” He characterized the Syrian opposition as consisting of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian Military Council and the Free Syrian Army, but also of significant foreign elements affiliated with radical Islamic groups and supported by regional powers.
Badrakhan harshly criticized the economic and social embargo that has been put in place around Rojava, a fact strongly symbolized by Turkey’s construction of a wall along its border with Syria. He went on to emphasize that the PYD is supported by the majority of Kurds in Syria, and that the only goal of the PYD is to organize and protect the Kurdish people, not to take sides between the regime and the opposition. Finally he made it clear that the YPG was winning in its fight against the jihadist elements in the opposition that have been attacking peoples of all faiths and ethnicities in the region; al-Nusra and the Islamic State or Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were defeated in Serekaniye, Qamişlşo, Afrin and parts of Aleppo. He wanted to US and Turkey to understand that the PYD was a significant actor in the conflict, and that both powers needed to take this seriously.
The journalist Amberin Zaman, who writes for the Turkish paper Taraf, shared her disgust with the way in which Salih Muslim had been treated by the KRG after he returned to Rojava upon the death of his son, saying that it violated “all Kurdish codes of honor.” She went on to harshly criticize Turkey’s policy of holding negotiations with Öcalan while also carrying out a proxy war in Syria. She emphasized that the policy was backfiring and weakening the ability of Kurdish leaders in Turkey to legitimate the peace process to their own constituents. Finally, she expressed her dismay that the United States, Turkey, and other NATO powers had ignored the PYD, which she described as the strongest, best organized opposition group in Syria, representing ten percent of the Syrian population, sharing Western values and advocating for secularism.
Alan Şemos, a member of the PYD’s foreign affairs committee, joined the conference via Skype from London. He said that the revolution in Syria had been hijacked by jihadists backed by foreign powers, but that the PYD was working for a democratic revolution for all of Syria and all of its ethnic and religious minorities. The PYD, he emphasized, is to expand its model of democratic governance to the whole of Syria as well as the greater Middle East. When asked if his party continued to be members of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change – an independent organization of Syrian left opposition parties – he said that they were not only members but founders, and that the PYD was committed to the democratization of the entire country.
The Peace Process in Turkey
In the last panel of the day, Selahattin Demirtaş – the co-chair of the BDP – spoke alongside US Congressman Lincoln Davis and former US Ambassador James Jeffrey. Demirtaş began by thanking all those in Turkey and the United States who had made the conference possible, saying that it was a “historic moment” for the Kurds and their struggle for recognition. He went on to talk about the new model that his party, and the Kurdish movement more generally, are proposing for the Middle East. He said that Kurds could not reject the other faiths and languages in Kurdistan, nor could they say that Kurdistan was just for Kurds. He said that the nation-state model itself, with its monist, hegemonic identity, could be never be successful in the region. He went to explain how the Kurdish experience of oppression gave them a special insight into the shortcomings of the nation-state model, and that he criticized Turkish domestic and foreign policy for showing a lack of interest and sincerity in the course of the peace process. He asked that Turkish government and Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan look at the opportunity to speak with the Kurds as a blessing that could bring peace and future prosperity to the country.
He also shared his disappointment that Salih Muslim was not allowed to attend the conference, and harshly criticized Turkish policy towards Rojava. He went to say that the PYD should be able to propose its model in the United States, and that their model was the same model that the BDP was struggling for in Turkey. Finally, he deplored the Turkish blockade on Rojava, arguing that even if one disagreed with the PYD’s policies in Syria an approach that brought deliberate suffering to civilian populations should be condemned by all sides.