The Obstacle to Syria Regime Change?
By Michael Rubin
May 3, 2012
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
Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP,
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 him.
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
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.
is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute AEI. His major research area is the Middle
East, with special focus on Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and
Kurdish society. He also writes frequently on
transformative diplomacy and governance issues. At
AEI, Mr. Rubin chaired the "Dissent and Reform in
the Arab World" conference series. He was the lead
drafter of the Bipartisan Policy Center's 2008
report on Iran. In addition to his work at AEI,
several times each month, Mr. Rubin travels to
military bases across the United States and Europe
to instruct senior U.S. Army and Marine officers
deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan on issues relating
to regional state history and politics, Shiism, the
theological basis of extremism, and strategy.
author or news agency,
expressed in this commentary are solely those of the