US rejects autonomy for Syrian Kurds

The US responded this week to the Syrian Kurds' declaration of autonomy, with State Department spokesman Mark Toner saying: "We've…made it clear to these Kurdish forces [in Syria] that they should not seek to create autonomous, semi-autonomous zones." He added that Kurdish forces in Syria "should not seek to retain the territory that they liberate, rather that they should make sure it's returned to whatever civilian authorities there are and able to—so that all displaced people can return there." This is a barely veiled reference to accusations that Syrian Kurdish forces are engaging in "ethnic cleansing" against Arabs and Turkmen in areas liberated from ISIS. But not only are these charges dubious, but Toner's statement ignores that often the only "civilian authorities" are in fact those of the Kurdish autonomous administration. More ominously, he warned that the US is in close dialogue with Turkey on the question and understands Ankara's "concerns regarding Kurdish forces in northern Syria." (This as Turkey is wagng a brutal counterinsurgency against Kurdish rebels within its own territory, to Washington's silence.) Ironically, he added that the Kurdish militias in Syria "are effective fighting forces and that they are willing to take on and dislodge Daesh," using the popular pejorative for ISIS in the Middle East.

Officials of the autonomous administration were qucik to respond by assuring that they do not seek to form an independent state. "Syrian Kurds do not struggle for a Kurdish state that will divide Syria; rather they want to make a new kind of administration which guarantees equality and freedom for all Syrian people," said Idris Nassan, the former foreign affairs minister of Kobani canton in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava). "Therefore, they [Syrian Kurds] believe that federalism is the most suitable system to keep the Syrian diversity united." (ARA News, May 25; Kurdistan24, May 24)

Ironically, the US comments come just as the Pentagon is helping the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prepare an offensive on Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital. US Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel is even reported to have paid a secret visit to an "American camp" in Kurdish-controlled territory (presumably Rmeilan) to meet with SDF commanders. (Jordan Times, May 24)

Lecturing the Syrian Kurds to restrain their autonomist aspirations is not exactly a winning way to secure their good will on the eve of such a critical operation. Very bad timing. We've repeatedly emphasized that the US must ultimately choose between Turkey and the anti-ISIS fight. Predictably, it does not seem capable of doing so.