Sherkoh Abbas was born in Qamishli in the Kurdistan region of Syria and came to the U.S. in the 1980s. He is the President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria.
He is a founding member of the Syrian Democracy Council, the Kurdish National Congress, the America-Kurdistan Friendship League and the Center for Democracy in the Middle East, of which he is the director. Abbas previously served as the President of the Kurdish-American Committee for Democracy in Syria.
Abbas has briefed officials from the White House and Congress and organized a 2006 conference under the auspices of Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and then-Senator Robert Voinovich (R-OH) that brought together all the Syrian opposition groups, including Kurds, Sunni-Arabs, Christians and Druze.
The following is Sherkoh Abbas’ interview with Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro:
Ryan Mauro: The Islamic State (more commonly known by the acronym for its former name, ISIS) is attacking Syrian Kurdish positions right now. Are they succeeding?
Sherkoh Abbas: Yes. The Islamic State army has heavy U.S. military equipment and has attracted radical Islamists from around the world. Furthermore, Turkey allows the Islamic State to use it terroritory for logistical purposes and medical treatments. As a result, the Islamic State has conquered more than 60 Kurdish villages and towns, and is imposing its dark and violent culture.
Mauro: Can the Kurds in Syria fend-off the Islamic State or even push them back?
Abbas: No. The Kurds are opposed by the Islamic State as well as by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Iran’s mullahs. Sometimes, these three entities collaborate in their attempts to crush the Kurds.
They can be defeated if the Democratic Union Party and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPD) change their policy of working with Assad and Iran and instead join a Kurdish front supported by the Kurdish Regional Government and Western powers.
Mauro: The U.S. Congress just approved a bill to train and equip Syrian rebels. Are you confident that the U.S. won’t arm Islamic extremists?
Abbas: No. Judging from recent history, the Obama administration is creating an “alliance of the unwilling” that includes Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Thus, Islamic extremists will be able to use weapons provided by Obama against America’s regional allies (e.g. Kurds and Jews). Indeed, most of the people who train them are the same people who spread global terrorism.
Mauro: How can the U.S. properly vet Syrian rebels? What should be the standard?
Abbas: The litmus test is accepting democracy, honoring human rights, respecting the Kurdish capacity to achieve self-determination (federalism or independence), and Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
Kurds have earned the right to be viewed as the core of the Syrian opposition group, rather than followers of leadership provided by others. Only the Kurds fight Islamists and identify themselves as Kurds rather than Muslim.
Allowing the Kurds to vet other opposition forces (for they know them all) would necessitate a change in the mindset and philosophy of those who seek darkness.
Mauro: The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is getting a lot of positive press right now but is listed by the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Does the PKK deserve the label? Is it possible to separate the PKK from other Kurdish forces?
Abbas: The U.S. and most E.U. nations consider them terrorists and, thus, the PKK must change its ways and work with the Kurdish Regional Government and Kurdish leadership in Syria (including the Kurdistan National Assembly and Kurdish National Council).
Most Kurds do not trust the PKK (and its allies like PYD/YPG), noting that the Kurdish Peshmerga (Iraqi Kudish militias) are separate from them. The PKK must explain why:
1. It opposes Kurdish self-determination (federalism or independence),
2. It has coordinated activities with the Syrian dictatorship and Iranian regime,
3. It has forced Kurds to join Assad’s forces,
4. It has closed Kurdish political offices,
5. It has collaborated with Assad’s efforts to trisect Kurdistan of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. It has helped to orchestrate forced emigration of almost one million Kurds out of Syrian Kurdistan [the Kurdish areas of Syria] to Iran, Turkey and Europe.
Mauro: Give us a snapshot of the beliefs of the Kurds. Are they practicing Muslims? Are they Islamists who want to implement sharia governance?
Abbas: Overwhelmingly, the Kurds view themselves as Kurds first and see Islam as a tool perverted by Arabs (since the 1920s); Farsi’s (since 1979) and Turks (since 2003) to force Kurds to submit to assimilation.
Most Kurds are Muslims, do not believe in sharia and are tolerant of other religions. Also, there are Kurdish Yazidis, Jews and Christians.
Kurds recognize that they have received support from no Islamic nation during the past century, even after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Kurds in 1988 (the worst chemical weapons massacre in history) and even after the Islamic State attacked Kurds in Syria and Iraq (currently).
Mauro: There is increasing talk about the value of endorsing an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds already have autonomy in Iraq and Syria. Is it possible for this to form without a major war between Kurds and the governments in Iran and Turkey?
Abbas: First, one premise must be corrected: Kurds in Syria do not have autonomy (note that their declaration of independence a few months ago was ignored by everyone in the region except Israel) and Kurds in Iraq have limited autonomy (note that America cannot send arms directly to Erbil).
The regimes of Iran and Syria are using YPG/PYD to manage the Kurds of Syria, preventing them from (1) joining the Kurdistan Regional Government or supporting Kurdistan of Iraq; (2) creating a federal region in Syrian Kurdistan or (3) forming an independent Kurdistan under the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government President Barazani.
Thus, Assad fully controls Syrian Kurdistan but, rest assured, once the Syrian Kurds have served his interest, he will deal harshly with the PKK/YPG/PYD.
Turkey recently endorsed an independent Kurdistan in Iraq and claimed it would endorse an independent Kurdistan in Syria if Syrian Kurds would work with the Kurdistan Regional Government and mirror its positive relationship with Turkey.
Turkey will not, however, accept the PKK or its allies controlling Syrian Kurdistan. Ultimately, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey all oppose an independent Kurdistan.
Therefore, Kurds must do whatever it takes to survive. This is why Kurds are asking the international community for assistance in their struggle against radical Islamists including the Islamic State.
We are resisting efforts by most countries in the region to assimilate Kurds by leveraging Islamist Kurds. We are Kurds first and we have accepted the fact that—just like Israelis—the only forces that could stop the dark forces in the region are those that are targeted for victimization.
Kurds — just like Israelis — view Western civilization as a natural ally. Furthermore, an independent Kurdistan would assuredly promote an inclusive, heterogeneous culture. Were America to endorse this initiative, it would serve to sustain “facts on the ground”; thus it is possible that this dream could be achieved without others feeling compelled to engage in warfare to reverse it.
The result would be a reliable Western ally in a tumultuous region, self-sustaining and an asset to the world.
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 Fox News.