|Syria's Kurds: part of the revolution?|
Kurds are actively engaged in protests in Syria, despite claims to the contrary, and their voices should be heard more widely
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 26 April 2012
Reports on the Syrian revolution over the last year have often portrayed the country's Kurds as silent and inactive. The latest example comes from Michael Kennedy in the New York Times. His article places the Kurds on the "sidelines" of the revolution, where they are "hedging their bets as they watch to see who will gain the upper hand".
It is with frustration that I read such accounts, as they minimise Kurdish participation in spite of an extensive YouTube archive documenting the routine nature of Kurdish dissent. What will it take for Kurdish participation to be deemed widespread, given that videos are uploaded daily from every town or area with a Kurdish population?
For example, a random and non-exhaustive search for just one day (13 February – not a Friday or day of particular significance for the Kurds) shows demonstrations taking place in Serî Kaniya, Dêrîk, Amuda,Derbasiyya and Qamishlo, as well as the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo.
While the fact that many of these videos are uploaded with Arabic titles may explain why some international commentators seem unaware of the evidence from the streets, various forms of cognitive bias may also play a role in limiting recognition of Kurdish participation when journalists have little contact with the field.
Kennedy's description of Kurds "largely staying out of the fighting" reflects a dual distortion. Firstly, it is a case of analytical conservatism – affirming the received idea of Kurdish passivity regardless of new evidence to the contrary. Secondly, a powerful recency effect has obscured, for Kennedy, the peaceful origins of the protest movement.
At the very beginning of the revolution, Kurds were indeed reluctant to participate, knowing that this might result in exceptional victimisation (as happened following the 2004 Kurdish uprising) or that they could be used by the regime to delegitimise the revolution as a separatist, sectarian movement.
However, Kurds have long been active, and were quickly integrated within the revolution, affirming that "the Syrian people are one". Protests in the Kurdish regions often state their support for besieged towns elsewhere in Syria, and until recently shared the same Friday demonstration slogans.
In judging Kurdish participation, it is important to make a distinction between the levels of popular opposition (street demonstrations) and institutional opposition (the parties and their representatives in the diaspora). Many mobilised in the Kurdish streets long before the established parties took a firm stance on the revolution (and some still have not). However, commentators often primarily focus on the latter group, giving inadequate consideration to the existence of non-party mobilisation.
Two studies of recent Kurdish politics – The Decisive Minority from the Henry Jackson Society and Kurdwatch's Who is the Syrian-Kurdish opposition? – both neglect to mention by name the largest Kurdish organisation operating in Syria, Tevgera Ciwanên Kurd (the Kurdish Youth Movement).
In March 2011 as the revolution was still unfolding, the Kurdish Youth Movement made a clear statement in support of peaceful protest against the regime across Syria. This group has considerable support and influence on the ground and is active in calling for and organising protests. It works with other youth groups, coordinating committees and activists throughout Syria and has considerable political reach within revolutionary circles in Syria.
Such widespread popular participation is not necessarily accompanied by strong and unified commitment from the Kurdish parties. Yet, it is inaccurate when writers extrapolate from the weakness of institutionalised (party-based) Kurdish representation to assume that Kurdish participation in general is very limited or non-existent.
This is not only insulting to those who have risked (sometimes sacrificed) their lives to participate, but it will also be a disservice towards to Kurds during political negotiations, now or in a post-revolutionary future.
Can we blame those Kurds who remain silent when those who do not are still not recognised by western commentators? If Kurds find themselves at the revolution's sidelines, there are undoubtedly those fighting for a more central position. In response to the recent failure of the Syrian National Council – the internationally acknowledged opposition body – to recognise Kurdish national rights, the mode of participation for Kurds has changed towards contestation of exclusion and insistence upon a particularist identity.
Kurds have recently deviated from the tradition of unified Friday protests across Syria under a single name, instead selecting their own: "Friday of Kurdish Rights", "Friday of Putting Kurdish Rights above any Council" and "Friday of Here is Kurdistan".
At street level, the Kurdish youth is certainly actively engaged in demonstrations, but whether their revolution is to remain that of the rest of Syria will largely depend on their participation being recognised, both by the Arab opposition and internationally.