Published by The New York Times 11 April 2016
This week, United Nations talks meant to chart a path toward a peaceful, democratic future for Syria are set to resume in Geneva. But, in an absurd twist, the legitimate representatives of a large, democratically governed area in the country will not be invited to attend.
This area is called Rojava, in the northern part of Syria, and despite its frequent description as “Kurdish,” it is governed inclusively by Kurds, Arabs, and the area’s other ethnic groups. Furthermore, its self-defense forces are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States that have advanced toward Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s power in Syria.
Both in strategic and moral terms, Rojava’s existence is a rare bright spot in this conflict. So the exclusion of its representatives from the U.N. process is not only unfair, but makes no sense if the aim of the talks is to establish a viable path to democracy in Syria.
The primary reason for this injustice is that Turkey opposes Rojava’s military force, the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., claiming it is one and the same with the P.K.K., a Kurdish group with a long history of armed conflict with the Turkish government.
This is not true. Both groups are Kurdish, but the Syrian Kurds, with their Arab allies and international support, are locked in a difficult, but thus far successful, battle against the Islamic State. The Y.P.G.’s fight is about Syria, not Turkey. Its role is to defend the institutions of self-government in Northern Syria (the party of which I am co-president, the Democratic Union Party, is part of this political coalition, along with other parties and civil society organizations).
It’s a fair question to ask what kind of democracy this is. Its central philosophy is that people should govern themselves from the bottom up, and so as much decision making as possible is left to local assemblies. These assemblies, furthermore, are designed to ensure a voice for non-Kurdish minorities and for women. This is real and genuinely inclusive democracy, and it deserves to be supported, not ignored.
This system could be a model for all of Syria, a country where any functioning democratic system would have to include all ethnic groups and religions in order to survive. This is why we have proposed a federal model of government for Syria. More local autonomy, without breaking up the country, offers more stability and inclusion than distant rule from Damascus. This realistic and pragmatic solution should be on the table for discussion in Geneva.
Unfortunately, while the Kurdish National Council, which is sponsored by the Kurdish administration in Northern Iraq and claims to speak for Syrian Kurds, was invited to the talks as part of a coalition of opposition groups, they do not legitimately speak for Rojava. The decision was made not to invite our own representatives.
The European Union and the United States, both of whom could have pushed for our inclusion, have their own incentives to placate Turkey, including its cooperation with Europe’s response to the refugee crisis and a need for Turkish support in the military campaign against the Islamic State. We understand the demands of realpolitik, but the exclusion of Rojava from the U.N. talks is shortsighted and unjust.
Turkey has tried to legitimate its opposition with propaganda falsely depicting Rojava as an ethnic project for Kurdish dominance that aims to divide Syria. They have spread grotesque accusations of “ethnic cleansing” by Kurdish forces, reports not supported by more measured analyses, for instance, those by the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria.
We have cooperated with the United Nations as well as international human rights organizations. If there are wrongs, we aim to right them. I urge skeptics to come and see the reality of our inclusive democracy for themselves – it’s happening now, even if it’s not heavily covered in the international press.
We want to make common cause with democratic opposition throughout Syria, and so we ask the United States and the international community to immediately act to end our exclusion from talks about the country’s future.
These negotiations should involve everyone who supports peace and democracy. It’s a travesty that the people in Syria most strongly demonstrating their belief in these principles have been left out in the cold.