By Ryan Mauro
A prominent Kurdish activist in the U.S. expressed his personal support for the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act in an interview with the Clarion Project. He urged the U.S. to ally with the Kurds and asserted that an autonomous area for Assyrian Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan is possible.
The comments were made by Yousuf Ismael, an American Kurdish Muslim and director of Media and Policy at the Washington Kurdish Institute.
This comes after the Clarion Project published an interview with Jeff Gardner of Restore Nineveh Now about Assyrian Christian self-defense forces in Iraq and Syria and recent fighting between one such group, the Gozarto Protection Forces, and Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.
Below is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro's interview with Yousuf Ismael:
Mauro: Can you explain to us the attitude of the Kurds, who are Muslim, towards Islamism and the reason for those attitudes?
Ismael: First, I want to thank you for the opportunity. I value the work of the Clarion Project, particularly the work in trying to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Today, there are many terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq like ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, Jayesh Al-Islam, Ahrar-al-Sham, etc., and they all share the two main ideologies of Islamist extremism: The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism. The secular, peaceful revolution against Syrian dictator Assad was converted by these terrorist groups during the vacuum left by the international community from 2011 to 2014, and Syrians of all backgrounds are victims.
Kurds are majority-Muslim, but we also have Yazidis, Kakais and Jewish Kurds. Our people enjoy peaceful coexistence among all these diverse beliefs. The key success of Iraqi Kurdistan is the separation between the state and religion.
The majority of Kurds are secular Muslims who keep their belief at home. Kurds prefer to be called "Kurds" before being called Sunni or Shiite Muslims. With the help of the U.S.-led coalition, Kurds are fighting on behalf of all the world against the most brutal terror groups in Iraq and Syria.
Mauro: The Kurds are sometimes referred to as a single entity but there are competing political parties and they even had a civil war in the 1990s. What are the main differences between the parties?
Ismael: The Kurds are the largest minority without a state of their own. The Sykes-Pincot Agreement of 1916 has divided us into many parts. We are victims of the brutalities of the regimes in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Throughout history, the Kurdish people had revolutions to try to liberate the people.
That being said, we are just like any other nation with political differences. The civil war was a black dot in our history but it did strengthen us to face our challenges. If you look at history, including with the United States, civil wars often take place after revolutions. All the Kurdish parties share the same goal as far as Kurdistan's independence.
Mauro: Who runs the Peshmerga and what is the connection to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the West has designated as a terrorist group?
Ismael: The Peshmerga forces are run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), specifically the Ministry of Defense. As we see today, the Peshmerga forces and the People's Protection Units (YPG) are the most effective fighters against the ISIS terrorists.
Peshmerga and PKK fighters are battling the same terrorist groups and they have spiritual connections in that they both seek an independent Kurdistan. In some areas of Iraq, they share the same frontlines against ISIS. The Kurdish parties in Iraq do not consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization because they've been in the same position as them before.
If Turkey gave rights to its minorities like the Kurds and Christians and Jews, you would not see the PKK or any other group fighting the state. Turkey still denies the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans. The Kurdish language in Turkey is considered a foreign language. Violations of human rights and press freedom are uncountable.
The Kurdish parties in Iraq were designated as terrorist groups until 2014, even when they were fighting Saddam Hussein. It took pressure on the U.S. administration and a great amount of lobbying for them to be removed. The PKK remains designated.
The PKK is not the same as the People's Protection Units (YPG) that is fighting ISIS with American backing. Some Kurds in Syria fled the repression of Assad and joined the PKK in Turkey since they considered it to be part of the nationalist Kurdish movement, but after 2011 they went back to Syria.
The co-chairman of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political party of the YPG, said during last week's Third Kurdish Conference in Washington via Skype that they have relations with all the Kurdish parties, including the PKK, but it's not an organic connection.
Some Turkish experts argue that if you visit Rojava in Syria you will see many photos of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. That's because he was in Syria from the early 1980s to 1999 and had a great amount of impact on the Kurds, therefore many Kurds in Syria consider him to be a leader. Even in Iraqi Kurdistan, there are many supporters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party and they hang photos of PKK leader Ocalan.
It's similar to how in Turkey there are different political parties but many will agree that Mustafa Kamal Ataturk was a Turkish leader and hang his photo. As former U.S. ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey said, "The PYD and PKK are closely linked, but that does not mean Washington should consider the former a terrorist organization. In U.S. law, having ties with a terrorist organization does not necessarily make one a terrorist, and U.S. officials should make that distinction clear in the PYD's case."
If the YPG/PYD is to be considered a terrorist organization because of its relations with PKK and other Kurdish parties, then the ruling party of Turkey (AKP) should be considered a terrorist organization since they have ties with Hamas.
Mauro: If you talk to those involved with the persecuted Assyrians and Christians in Iraq and Syria, a common complaint is how Kurds treat them. What is behind this mistreatment and what is the Kurdish leadership doing to address it?
Ismael: The Kurdistan region of Iraq hosts tens of thousands of Christians from Mosul and Baghdad. When Christians were killed in Basrah by militias, they took refuge in Kurdistan. When Al-Qaeda blew up churches in Baghdad, Christians migrated to Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. In Syria, the self-managing administration of Rojava includes senior Christian political and military figures. They have a voice within the KRG and Rojava administration.
In most cases, the Kurdish leadership was always supportive of the rights of Christians. President Jalal Talabani supported a self-ruled area for Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan but some of the Christian leaders refused it. I don't think there are or will be any major issues between Christians and Kurds.
I believe Christians should have their federalism or a state-status within Kurdistan, similar to the Vatican in Italy. Having multiple Christian parties affected their message. In 2014's election in Iraq, there were nine different parties of Christians. If it was not for the quota, they would not get one representative in the Iraqi parliament, which isn't right.
That all being said, Christians deserve more attention and care from the KRG.
Mauro: Opponents of having an independent Kurdistan at the moment say it will throw gasoline on the region's fires, with the Syrian Assad regime, Iran, Turkey and the Iraqi central government all potentially going to war to stop it from forming. Is there a more productive way to go about it?
Ismael: The gasoline was poured on the region when the Kurds were divided into four pieces. The only friends that the West and particularly the U.S. have in the region are the Kurds. The U.S. operates freely in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Turkey's ruling party is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of Kurds have been killed since July 2015 by the Turkish state forces, in addition to the abuses through the lack of freedom and press.
In Syria, Assad is a dictator and he's the reason for the mess today in the country.
Iran's role in the region has been nothing but trouble, especially for the U.S. in Iraq after 2003. Repressive policies by the Iranian regime would take days to talk about.
Iraq's government has so many internal challenges that no party or power can figure it out.
The only people who are with America, with the war against the terrorist groups, with secularism and with democracy are the Kurds. It's time for a century of mistakes to be corrected.
Mauro: The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) opened up an office in Moscow earlier this year. Is Russia increasing its ties to the Kurds and, if so, what is the objective of both sides?
Ismael: The PYD will also open an office in Washington, as I've heard form the media. The Kurdish parties in Syria are going through what the Iraqi Kurds went through in 1991. They need diplomatic support from everyone possible.
Many opposed the autonomous Kurdish region in 1991, especially Turkey, but now they enjoy a great amount of trade with Iraqi Kurdistan. Russia was the first country to allow PYD to open an office, then the Czech Republic did, and now they have an office of the Rojava administration in Sweden.
Russia is another great power that seeks to take advantage of the Kurds in the Middle East. Of course, Russia has its own agenda against Turkey, which shot down a Russian jet last year.
PYD co-chairman Salih Muslim has been denied a visa to enter the U.S., yet his party wants to have closer relations with the United States. Syrian Kurds value and praise the role of the U.S. in supporting the People's Protection Units (YPG) fight against ISIS.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.