Syrian Kurds hope to ride wave of regional change

Jerusalem Post, 29/7/11

The uprising against the rule of Bashar Assad in Syria is continuing to grow. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are now taking part in the protests. As the month of Ramadan approaches, the prospect is for intensified strife.

Still, serious fissures have yet to appear in the regime, and the Assads show every intention of fighting on. This opens up the prospect of a long period of violence ahead.

One of the signs of the unflagging strength of the uprising in Syria is the broadening involvement of different sections of the population. An example of this is the Kurdish minority in Syria, which in the last weeks has begun to play a greater part in the protests. The role of the Kurds is complicated, however, by indications that elements of the Syrian opposition are determined to preserve the overtly Arab self-definition of the country, even following the hoped-for downfall of the Assad regime.

Last week saw the first major attempt by the Assad regime to crack down on Kurdish support for the uprising. Syrian police and militiamen loyal to the authorities used batons and tear gas against demonstrations in Qamishli, a Kurdish-majority city in the north-east. In the Kurdish neighborhood Ruknuddin in Damascus, meanwhile, two protestors – Zardasht Wanli and Khezwan Safwan – were killed and dozens more injured.

Demonstrations by Syrian Kurds in Qamishli, Hassake, Amouda and the surrounding villages have been steadily increasing in size over the last month. The Kurds were slow, however, to join the uprising against the Assad regime. This was not out of any sentiments of loyalty to the dictatorship, but rather because of wariness and skepticism regarding the Arab opposition. This skepticism was the product of experience.

In March 2004, a small prelude to the current uprising in Syria took place. Kurdish citizens of Syria, encouraged by the toppling of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, rose up against the Assad regime. The revolt was swiftly and brutally crushed. 36 Syrian Kurds were killed. Hoped-for support from the Syrian Arab opposition did not emerge. This experience made the Kurds reluctant to join the current revolt until it became unmistakably clear that the rebels were in earnest.
There is no remaining doubt in this regard. Still, the regime has done its best to induce the Kurds to stay on the sidelines in the last months by offering a series of cosmetic ‘concessions.’

The nature of these gestures highlights the depths of systematic brutality that characterize the Assad regime. This is because of the details they reveal regarding the existing reality of life under Assad.

Since the coming to power of the Arab nationalist Ba’ath party in Syria in 1963, Kurds have suffered systematic discrimination in all areas of life.

Kurds number between 10-15% of the population of Syria. They are the largest non-Arab minority in the country. Among this community, there is a population of around half a million Syrian-born Kurds who lack citizenship, depriving them of even the most minimal entitlements from the state under whose rule they were born. They have limited access to education and health provision, and no ability to acquire a passport.

This population is further subdivided into two groups, ‘maktoum’ (people of no country)– who lack all citizenship rights and ‘ajanib’ (foreigners) – who have ID cards and some limited rights.

The Ba’ath regime systematically de-populated Kurdish areas, attempting to create a belt of Arab population along the border with Turkey. The use of the Kurdish language and Kurdish names for children were banned, as was the celebration of Kurdish festivals.

In an act of characteristic cynicism, as the uprising against his rule began to spread, Bashar Assad on April 7 announced the provision of full citizenship rights to those Syrian Kurds known as ‘ajanib.’

Activists say that this promise has yet to be fulfilled. In any case, it leaves around 200,000 remaining Kurds lacking any status. But it was the first evidence of the regime’s determination to keep its most oppressed minority out of the circle of dissent.

Further gestures followed. For the first time this year, Kurds were permitted to celebrate their Nowruz new year festival. Then representatives of 12 Kurdish parties were invited to meet with Assad (they declined.)

This attempt to placate the Kurdish population now seems to have been abandoned. Increased Kurdish participation as the revolt gathered steam may have led the Assad regime to conclude that any further gestures were irrelevant. The default option of unambiguous repression has returned.
For Syria’s Kurds, unfortunately, there have recently been discouraging signs of Arab nationalist sentiment also among the opposition. Kurdish organizations withdrew from participation in a ‘National Salvation’ conference of Syrian oppositionists held in Istanbul, Turkey, earlier this month. They did so to protest the fact that the conference was held under the title of the ‘Syrian Arab Republic.’ The Kurds want to see the name of the country changed to the ‘Syrian Republic’ to reflect their own status as a national minority.
This symbolic issue reflected deeper concerns regarding Turkish backing for the emergent opposition leadership, and the prominent role of the Muslim Brotherhood within it.

Shirzad al-Yazidi, a Syrian Kurdish opposition activist, told the Sharq al-Awsat newspaper that “The alternative to the ruling mob in Damascus must be a democratic one that is agreed upon by all Syrians, both the Arabs and the Kurds, and not a tyrannical alternative that is tailored to well-known regional standards.” Should such an alternative fail to emerge, Yazidi added, then Syrian Kurds will look to the recent declaration of ‘democratic autonomy’ in the Kurdish region of Turkey as a model for their own situation.
Far from the media attention afforded the ‘Arab Spring’, the past months have been eventful and dramatic ones for the region’s Kurds, too. The declaration of ‘democratic autonomy’ in Turkey and Iranian attacks on Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq have combined with the dramatic events in Syria to produce a sense of ferment, flux and imminent change. The Kurds of Syria remain divided into 16 different political factions. They are nevertheless genuinely determined this time to ride the wave of change – rather than be crushed once more beneath it.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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