In the fall of 2014 many Americans watched anxiously, then exuberantly as Kobane’s Kurdish defenders in Syria resisted and finally repulsed a sustained attack by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And given the conflict’s stakes, how could we not? Holding out against ISIL’s savagery, Kobane quickly became a modern-day Stalingrad, and its fighters, in turn, became heroes.
The emergence of Rojava, a semi-independent Kurdish state in Syria, has also inspired particular praise. Alongside photo galleries of Kurdistan’s badass female fighters, we’ve seen fawning coverage of the Kurdish administration’s progressive politics. Rojava has been presented as an island of secular democracy and female empowerment in a region full of Islamism, authoritarianism and misogyny. For the left, Rojava’s politics give it a particular appeal: It is a secular utopia or a radical democratic experiment where minority rights are respected, power is held by local councils and wealth is shared among the people.
Rojava’s ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) earned a shout-out from Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Dec. 19 Democratic debate. It has seduced a coterie of Republicans as well. Over a series of GOP presidential candidates’ debates, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina all advocated increased U.S. support for Syria’s Kurds. Needless to say, this is a remarkable feat for a group whose emblem is a large red star. Clearly, there’s friendship to be found in fighting a common enemy.
But the excitement generated by Rojava’s very real accomplishments has largely obscured the small amount of criticism that’s out there. In 2014, Human Rights Watch issued a report on Rojava that focused on “arbitrary arrests, abuse in detention, due process violations, unsolved disappearances and killings and the use of children in PYD security forces.” A subsequent Amnesty International report “uncovered a wave of forced displacement and home demolition” that targeted non-Kurdish residents and included “razing and burning entire villages ... with no justifiable military grounds.”
Some of Rojava’s defenders denied these charges; others acknowledged their validity but said that, given what the Syrian Kurds where up against, it was simply not an appropriate time to discuss them. In any case, they generally agreed that Rojava’s government has behaved far better than its rivals. Even Human Rights Watch prefaced its critical report by mentioning “war crimes” committed by the Syrian government and rebels groups, then going on to assert that the PYD’s transgressions “are far less egregious and widespread.”
The Kurds’ Western allies can acknowledge the PYD’s shortcomings while still supporting them against ISIL. Given the stark contrast between the Kurdish army and ISIL, it shouldn’t be hard. The Kurds and their Western admirers can maintain confidence that Rojava will retain the moral high ground against its enemies, and honest and well-intentioned criticism, which the Rojava government has at times even welcomed, will help ensure that it does.
There’s a complicating factor, though, and that’s the Turkish government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party has relentlessly targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — which has been violently demanding greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds for decades — with criticism that is neither honest nor well intentioned. And unlike U.S. politicians, Turkish leaders see little difference between PKK guerrillas in Turkey and PYD fighters in Syria, insisting that the PKK and the PYD are no better than ISIL.
This kind of moral equivalence is absurd, even offensive, in light of ISIL’s gleeful enthusiasm for mass murder. But to reconcile romanticized Western depictions of Kurdish rebels with Turkey’s insistence they are indistinguishable from jihadist zealots, it might help to look at how the PKK has moderated its ideology and behavior over time. Take the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan: Since his imprisonment in 1999, he has tried to turn himself from a militant into something of a senior statesman, renouncing the goal of Kurdish independence and now advocating for increased Kurdish autonomy within a democratized Turkish state instead. Still, that isn’t the Ocalan that’s imprinted in the minds of many Turks.
Americans turning their attention to the region today see a much milder Kurdish movement than the one most Turks remember. As Aliza Marcus explores in her excellent book, “Blood and Belief,” the PKK, if never as gratuitously bloodthirsty as ISIL, certainly used to be more murderous than it is now. In fact, a stated commitment to violence was one of the factors that secured the PKK’s prominence among a number of competing Kurdish and leftist groups in the early 1980s. At various points the group’s tactics included killing villagers who supported the Turkish state, executing young recruits accused of ideological crimes and assassinating Turkish schoolteachers working in the southeastern part of the country.
Similarly, Turkey’s main Kurdish political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party has recently worked to distance itself from the PKK and the group’s violent past. But it wasn’t long ago that members of the party were holding birthday celebrations for Ocalan and lobbying to improve his prison conditions as a key part of their platform.
As long as the Kurds in Turkey and Syria remain caught up in conflicts against more powerful and more vicious rivals, respectively, Western observers will continue to take their side and turn a blind eye to their transgressions. But maintaining a measure of objectivity and holding them more accountable would ultimately help them achieve their goals in the region. If tensions between Kurdish fighters and U.S.-backed Arab militias in Syria lead to further accusations of abuses on both sides, for example, a more balanced perspective would help the U.S. anticipate and navigate this possibility.
Meanwhile, Washington faces the challenge of supporting its anti-ISIL allies in Rojava while maintaining good relations its NATO ally Turkey. Taking a more critical view of the PYD’s and the PKK’s behavior should not lead Americans to abandon Syrian Kurds or turn a blind eye toward Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish population. Instead, a more clear-eyed approach could lead to stronger and sounder alliances on both sides.