Will the State Department betray Syria’s Kurds?

By Michael Rubin:

Syria has always been among the Middle East’s most repressive regimes. Any hope that Bashar al-Assad would usher in reform were naïve to begin with, the stuff of diplomats’ fantasies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought shame on the United States when, even after Assad met Arab Spring revolts with automatic weapons fire, she described Assad as a reformer.  “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer,” she said on March 27, 2011, holding out hope that Assad’s rule might survive. Just this last week, Clinton dismissed the idea of demanding the murderous Syrian dictator leave. “It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go,” she said to an audience at the National Defense University. “OK, fine,” she continued rhetorically, “What’s next?”

The question of what might come after Assad is a difficult one for American diplomats who have spent far more time trying to engage Assad and his functionaries than in reaching out to the Syrian opposition. On August 18, however, Obama cast aside Clinton’s dismissive attitude toward the Syrian opposition, and declared, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Syrian Kurds can expect no good news from Washington as American diplomats try to answer Clinton’s question and influence what a post-Assad Syria might become. The State Department’s failure to recognize the plight of the Kurdish minority in Syria is long. While the arrests and killings of Kurds in Qamishli might receive occasional mention in the State Department’s annual human rights report, the State Department pays no sustained attention to the much deeper plight of the region’s population.

Of the four Middle Eastern states over which the majority of Kurds are spread, their plight in Syria is now the worst. Trouble started for Syrian Kurds shortly after independence, and reached a fever pitch by 1957, when an arson attack allegedly perpetrated by Arab nationalists on a cinema killed 250 Kurdish children, an attack which would remain Syria’s deadliest for a quarter century.

Soon, the government surpassed vigilantes to move to the forefront of discrimination. In 1958, the Syrian government banned all Kurdish-language publications.  Five years later, when the Ba’ath party seized power, it promoted an ethnic chauvinist platform that relegated the Kurds to second-class status.  Almost fifty years of Ba’athist rule has only intensified the Kurds’ pariah status in Syria.  More than a quarter-million Syrian Kurds remain without citizenship, after the Syrian government, seeking to Arabize the population in potentially oil-rich eastern Syria, stripped them of Syrian nationality.  Accordingly, many Kurds cannot own land, marry legally, attend public school, or receive state medical care, although Assad’s regime makes an exception to their dismissal of the Kurds and conscripts them forcibly into the army.  While the European Union and even the United States long criticized Turkey for restricting Kurdish language instruction, both remain largely silent as Damascus continues to ban the teaching of Kurdish in even private schools. When the Iraqi government in Baghdad formalized rights for Iraqi Kurds by signing first the Transitional Administrative Law in 2004 and then the new Iraqi constitution, the State Department did little to pressure the Syrian government to stop their repression of Syrian Kurds demanding the same rights. The Obama administration may pride itself on its human rights rhetoric, but when faced with a choice between coddling the Syrian regime and condemning its attacks on its citizens, Obama showed that his administration had learned little since the Reagan administration Iraq realpolitik in 1988.

Against the backdrop of a Kurdish lobby in the United States more interested in enrichment and investment than in advocating for Kurdish rights, there is little to influence the State Department during Syria’s Kurds hour of need. According to the Hudson Institute’s Herbert London, when the State Department issued invitations for a number of Syrian oppositionists to come to Washington, they heavily favored groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood but omitted representatives from many secularist groups, Syrian Kurdish groups as well as officials from other Syrian ethnic and religious minorities.  Nor has the Turkish government rushed to include any political faction which might result in federal rights for Syria’s long-repressed Kurds, let alone equality under the law.

The Kurdistan Regional Government pays millions of dollars to lobbyists in Washington, and the latest newsletter of its Washington representation brags about an ever-expanding Kurdistan caucus in Congress. Perhaps it is time to demonstrate that such advances are substantive and not simply the product of an overemphasis on public relations at the expense of real influence. Perhaps it is time to transform the influence into demands that Syrian Kurds have the same opportunities to influence events after the Baathist collapse that they did in Iraq just nine years ago, as the Iraqi opposition mulled the same questions that their Syrian brothers do now.

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