|Kurds, Marginalized, Could Be Key to Syrian Revolt’s Success|
LONDON — The Kurds of Syria could provide the tipping point in a year-long revolt against the dictatorship
of Bashar al-Assad. But on Tuesday night their delegates walked out of opposition unity talks in Istanbul over the failure of their Arab partners to acknowledge their national rights.
There are about 2.5 million Kurds in Syria or around 10 percent of the population — the Damascus regime never formally counts them for fear of acknowledging the size of their community. By some estimates, Kurds may be Syria’s largest minority, larger even than the ruling Alawite sect.
A new report by the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank, describes them as “the decisive minority” in the Syrian revolution. Their participation in a unified opposition that would be “in the interests of the U.S. for a stable and inclusive Syria and would boost the rapid overthrow of the Assad regime,” the report says.
The importance of the Kurdish position has been marginalized in the mainstream opposition narrative of the Syrian revolt, despite the fact that some of the earliest demonstrations took place in the northeast where Kurds inhabit a strategic area bordering Turkey and Iraq.
The Kurds are a combative people. In the face of more powerful enemies, they have had to be. As a nation of more than 20 million with their own language and culture, they have defended their presence for millennia in what is today the troubled borderland of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. “Fighting is better than idleness,” as the Kurdish proverb goes.
Yet overall their participation in the revolution has been muted — and so, notably, has been the response of the regime. It has spared this traditionally oppressed minority the worst excesses of its crackdown, as it attempts to play a “Kurdish card” in a strategy of divide and rule.
The Kurds have reasons enough to bide their time. When they rose against the Assad regime in widespread rioting in 2004, their short-lived revolt was met with disdain and even hostility from potential allies in the Arab opposition.
They now find themselves on the margins of an opposition movement dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists, two tendencies implacably opposed to recognizing Kurdish minority rights.
Worse still, from the Kurdish perspective, the Syrian opposition is being shepherded towards unity by Turkey, a country with a long history of repressing its own 14 million-strong Kurdish minority.
“The U.S. outsourced the task to Turkey,” Michael Weiss, a Syria expert and communications director at the Henry Jackson Society told Rendezvous. “If the unity conference were hosted by the U.S., the Kurds would have been much happier.”
The main Kurdish opposition alliance — the Syrian Kurdish National Council or KNC — has been pressing for the past year for its Arab allies to recognize the Kurdish people and their national identity in a post-Assad constitution. If the Assad government fell, the Kurds would likely press for reparations for past forced “Arabization” of Kurdish land.
But the current talks on unity have hardly been felicitous. As recently as Monday night, Kurdish delegates in Istanbul obtained a copy of a “national pact,” penned by the Arab-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC), which contained “no single word” on the Kurds in Syria, according to a Kurdish activist familiar with the document.
Recent efforts by the U.S. and others to cajole the SNC into embracing the Kurds may have come too late, as President Assad seeks to re-impose his control.
The Kurds have at least one loyal ally — the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan, the most peaceful and prosperous region of post-Saddam Iraq. Masoud Barzani, president of the region, has acted as the godfather of the KNC in Syria.
It is a partnership with a downside: the prospect of an alliance between an influential Iraqi Kurdistan and a possible autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria only serves to heighten Turkish fear about the unsettling effect it might have on its own Kurdish population.
As Syria’s Kurds debate their next move, they face divisions within their own ranks — the curse of Kurdish politics throughout the ages.
The Assad regime appears to have renewed its links with the cultish Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK, and is accused of employing a local offshoot of the PKK to crack down on other Kurds.
Although it proclaims itself to be a pan-Kurdish movement, the PKK is essentially a Turkish-oriented movement that Damascus has in the past used as a cat’s paw in its relations with Ankara.
A number of moderate Kurdish leaders have been assassinated since the PKK affiliate attacked Kurds demonstrating against the Damascus regime.
There is no mystery in why the regime seeks to divide the Kurds, according to Heyam Aqil, London representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria that is prominent in the KNC. “Assad knows the Kurds are well-organized,” she told Rendezvous. “If the SNC allied with the Kurds, other minorities would join.”
The Kurds and their supporters claim it would be a tragedy if they were cut out of the Syrian equation. They say the Syrian Kurds are predominantly secular, western-oriented and embrace a pluralistic vision for a “new” Syria, in contrast to some other opponents of the Assad regime.
Just the kind of people who deserve support, you might think.
Editor’s Note: Harvey Morris is (in addition to be terribly British about some things) the co-author of “No Friends but the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds.”