Kurds struggle for recognition in Syrian
March 30, 2012
People stand in front of a Kurdish flag during a
protest against Syria's President Bashar Assad, and
celebrating Kurdish New Year Newroz held by Kurdish
community in Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan [Western
Kurdistan]s March 21, 2012. Photo: Reuters
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ISTANBUL,— Veteran Kurdish human rights
campaigner Radeef Mustafa lived in the shadow of
huge Syrian secret police compounds towering over
his decrepit hometown on the border with Turkey.
When security police cracked his son's head open
with an iron bar in a demonstration last year,
He and his family came to Turkey where he joined the
opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), hoping the
year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad
would end discrimination against the country's
largest ethnic minority.
His hopes were dashed, though, when the SNC,
dominated by Islamists, vetoed a proposal at a
meeting in Istanbul this week to recognize Syria's
Kurds and their demand for self-rule.
"This is chauvinism. The international community is
worried about civil war and is demanding that the
opposition guarantees minority rights," Mustafa told
"The Kurdish issue is a time bomb. It cannot be left
to be decided when Assad falls."
Constituting about 10 percent of the population,
Syria's Kurds have long opposed the ruling Baath
Party, but have largely stayed out of the latest
If the Kurds fully joined attempts to overthrow
Assad, it could prove decisive, a recent report by
the Henry Jackson Society, a Britain-based
But deep internal divisions among the Kurds and
distrust of the SNC and the other Arab-dominated
opposition groups have so far kept the Kurds largely
out of the fight.
The Istanbul opposition meeting succeeded in
reaching an agreement to expand and reform the SNC,
and promised a democratic state and reconciliation
once Assad is removed.
But the Kurds walked out and refused to sign the
declaration as there was no reference to rights for
them as a community, only promises to recognize
individual rights for all.
SEPARATISM OR RIGHTS?
Unlike Iraq, where Kurds rule a semi-autonomous
region in the north, Syrian Kurdish leaders say they
only want a federal system that would guarantee
citizenship, property rights, Kurdish language
education and an equitable budget distribution.
They point to a wide distribution of Kurds across
several regions of the country, and their
integration into Syrian society and the job market,
which makes autonomy impractical.
Most of Syria's Kurds live in the east, where the
country's oilfields lie, in the arid region of Ayn
al-Arab, and in the Ifrin agricultural area on the
border with Turkey.
Large neighborhoods of the capital Damascus and the
commercial hub of Aleppo, just 45 km (28 miles) east
of the border with Turkey, also are dominated by
"When I went to school I did not know a word of
Arabic and I was wondering why the teacher did not
teach us to write Kurdish," said Mustafa, who is
from Ayn al-Arab, a Kurdish town despite its name.
"Our demands are about the right to learn our own
language, to sing and to dance, and for compensation
for historic discrimination," the burly, soft spoken
activist said, referring to what he described as
land taken from Kurds and given to Arabs along the
Turkish border in the eastern province of Raqqa.
But some in the opposition are wary that Kurdish
demands could lead to separation and a copycat
movement among other ethnic groups. Too much leeway
for Kurds, they say,www.ekurd.net
also could upset neighboring Turkey, which has a
large and restive Kurdish population of its own, and
undermine Ankara's support for the revolt.
"The priority is to bring down Assad. We have agreed
on general democratic principles and guaranteeing
the national rights of everyone under the umbrella
of the unity of Syria as a people and a landmass,"
said senior opposition figure Najati Tayyara, a
liberal Sunni respected by the Kurds.
In the middle of Ayn al-Arab, secret police
headquarters and observation points stand like
fortresses, in marked contrast to Mursitpinar, the
neat Turkish town just across the border. The towns
are separated by the old Berlin-to-Baghdad railway.
Intelligence agents fled the compounds during
protests that swept Kurdish areas of Syria in 2004,
returning after Assad's forces put down the revolt,
in which 30 people were killed.
When the revolt against Assad's rule broke out in
southern Syria, crowds took to the streets across
Kurdish regions to denounce the president.
Authorities, fearful of provoking the Kurds,
generally have refrained from using deadly force to
put down protests in Kurdish regions.
The Kurds also are deeply divided among themselves,
with regional Kurdish parties backing rival groups
and one Syrian Kurdish party taking sides with Assad
and his government.
Most Kurdish political parties united under the
Kurdish National Congress (KNC) umbrella group this
year to support the uprising and push Kurdish
demands, but this has not translated into action on
the streets, where demonstrations mostly are staged
by young men with little party affiliation.
The KNC is backed by the Kurdistan Regional
Government in northern Iraq and was the main Kurdish
faction that walked out of the Istanbul meeting.
The other main Syrian Kurdish faction, the
Democratic Union Party (PYD), is backed by the
Turkish Kurd militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)
and has kept out of all opposition activities.
Assad's father, the late Hafez al-Assad, for years
sheltered PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, before the
threat of a Turkish invasion in 1998 forced him to
send Ocalan abroad where Turkish agents eventually
captured him and brought him back to Turkey.
Bashar al-Assad later cooperated with Turkey by
cracking down on the PKK as relations between the
two countries improved after he inherited power in
Renewed Syrian backing for the PKK would be a
further red line for Turkey which repeatedly has
warned Assad over the violent crackdown on protests
and escalating conflict.
The PKK's Syrian proxy, the PYD, is accused by the
Syrian opposition of acting as enforcers for Assad,
putting down demonstrations in Kurdish areas and
assassinating anti-Assad activists, most notably
Mashaal Tammo, a charismatic Kurdish leader who was
killed last year as he was seeking to form a
broad-based anti-Assad political coalition.
Assad made concessions to Kurds early in the
uprising, such as a decree to grant stateless Kurds
nationality they were deprived of as a result of a
census in the 1960s, and easing laws making it
difficult for Kurds to own property.
But only an estimated 6,000 out of 150,000 stateless
Kurds have been given nationality and most
discriminatory regulations, including banning the
teaching of Kurdish, are still on the books, Kurdish
Tension also have risen between Assad's opponents
and the Kurds after the opposition declaration on
Wednesday pledged "equality to all citizens
regardless of their religion or ethnicity" but did
not mention the Kurds by name.
"Saideline Ismail, a senior Kurdish politician and a
member of the Kurdish National Congress said he was
dismayed that the SNC, led by Burhan Ghaloiun, a
Paris-based secular professor, opposed mentioning
the Kurdish cause.
"I don't understand why they did not make an effort
to gain the Kurdish street," he said.
"The Kurds are the first who want to see the
downfall of the Assad regime and are demanding a
right of self determination within a united Syria."
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis- Reuters
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