Journalism

What the World Loses if Turkey Destroys the Syrian Kurds

This article was originally published in The New York Times on October 14th, 2019, by Fuller Project Correspondent Jenna Krajeski. 

Members of the American Rojava Center for Democracy, which supports the Syrian Kurds, protesting outside the White House on Saturday.

In spring 2015, the only semiofficial way to enter the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, referred to by Kurds as Rojava, was by boat across the narrow Tigris River from Iraqi Kurdistan. The boats were small and rusty. Weighed down with migrants and supplies, they moved with the urgency of sunning water buffalo. It was a trip for desperate people — I shared the boat with an elderly couple headed for Islamic State-held areas hoping to save their family home from occupation — taken at a tourist’s pace.

Like much of Rojava at the time, the border crossing was part reality and part wishful thinking. Our rickety boat flew the green, red and yellow Kurdish flag as proudly as a naval warship. The security forces wore badges declaring themselves to be members of the People’s Protection Unit, or Y.P.G., a fledgling force devoted to protecting the would-be autonomous region. Distributing handwritten permits that would allow us to pass through checkpoints, they welcomed us as though Rojava wasn’t still mostly a Kurdish dream.

Over decades of United States intervention in the Middle East, Kurds have been most often measured by their worth as military allies, and in relation to how much or how little they have helped Americans defeat an enemy. In Rojava, that enemy was the Islamic State; in Iraqi Kurdistan it was Saddam Hussein. Since President Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, opening the doors for a Turkish incursion, outcry in the West has been focused on the abandonment of fighters who led a dangerous charge against ISIS. The withdrawal has been rightly characterized as a “betrayal” and the ensuing bloodshed provides more than enough evidence of the brutality of Mr. Trump’s decision.

But to see the move as simply a betrayal of military allies is to miss much of what is currently at stake in northern Syria, where a would-be Kurdish autonomous region is also the site of a deeply ambitious — if young and controversial — attempt at democracy, equality and stability. While the Y.P.G. and their all-female counterparts in the Women’s Protection Unit, the Y.P.J., fought on the front lines, Kurds in Rojava worked to fulfill a plan for Kurdish democracy at least three decades in the making. That plan included equal representation of women and minorities; fair distribution of land and wealth; a balanced judiciary; and even ecological preservation of northern Syria’s rural landscape.

Read the full article here. 

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