Syrian Kurds could tip scales of Syrian
By JulieAnn McKellogg - VOA
March 30, 2012
Ciwan, a Syrian Kurd, who would only give his first
name because he has family still in Syria, escaped
with his son from his hometown Idlib, Yayladagi,
Turkey, March 22 , 2012. Photo: Photo: VOA/M.
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A tent city among the ruins of a former tobacco
factory along the Turkish-Syrian border is home to
Syrian refugee Ciwan and his four-year-old son. The
Yayladagi camp is swarming with Syrians fleeing the
bloodshed of their homeland. But for Ciwan, a Syrian
Kurd, it's unfamiliar living among the predominantly
"Over there I lived mostly with my people, but here
I am with them, it’s not very easy but slowly I am
getting used to it,” he said.
His unease defines the struggle of Syria’s largest
ethnic minority, the Kurds. The violent year-long
political and social upheaval in Syria has left the
country's estimated two million Kurds reeling.
Lodged between decades of oppression and the
uncertainty of a future Syria ruled by the
Arab-Sunni majority, Kurds have approached the
uprising with caution.
They say they want to see President Bashar al-Assad's
brutal reign end, but they also see this as an
opportunity to reverse their suffering under the
hand of an Arab nationalist regime. The Kurds fear a
post-Assad, Sunni majority government might enact
conservative Muslim policies curtailing a secular
As Syria’s largest ethnic minority, Kurdish leaders
and some experts believe the Kurds have the power to
tip the scales of the conflict and help an emerging
opposition bring down Mr. Assad.
A haunting past
The Kurds are a non-Arab population native to the
central Middle East. Oppression of culture, language
and their national identity has defined life for the
Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq to varying
degrees over the last half century and longer.
In 1962, the Syrian government stripped the
citizenship of more than 100,000 Kurds, after
holding a census in the Kurdish region. With this
data, the government claimed these Kurds had
illegally crossed the border into Syria. Today that
number has grown to nearly 300,000,www.ekurd.net
with the descendents of these Kurds unable to claim
Even in peaceful times, Ciwan, who asked that his
last name be withheld, had to protect his son from
the Syrian state’s oppression of the Kurdish
"They did horrible things to us, they changed our
villages' names into Arabic," he said. "They brought
Arab people from other parts of Syria to our land,
and they now live in our land. They don’t let us
give Kurdish names to our children. My child’s name
is Sexubun, but I have to give him an Arabic name
At the start of the government crackdown in April
2011, in an attempt to appease the ethnic minority,
the Assad government granted citizenship to about
200,000 of the stateless Syrian Kurds.
Still, Kurds were not safe as anti-government
protests spread nationwide.
Ciwan says he escaped the violence in his hometown
of Idlib, after seeing Kurds killed in the unrest.
Haunted by their past, the Kurdish consensus seems
to be it is time for Mr. Assad to step down.
"We as Kurds envision [see] our rights in this
revolution and in toppling this Assad regime with
all its symbols," said Radwan Hussein, a Syrian
Kurd, as he protested outside an Arab League meeting
But for the Kurds, the challenges would not end with
the downfall of President Assad.
"The regime is illegitimate," said Dr. Abdulhakim
Bashar, secretary-general of the Kurdish Democratic
Party of Syria. "We’re done with that already. But
we need to think of a post-Assad era now."
Kurds seek parity
As the former head of the Kurdish National Council,
a unified bloc of Kurdish parties, Bashar outlined
the Kurdish demands to join the Syrian National
Council, Syria’s opposition umbrella group.
They are seeking constitutional recognition, human
rights initiatives, compensation for suffering, and
participation in a nationwide democratic process.
They promote the idea of a decentralized government,
a decision to be made by Syrians through a
referendum vote. And they want to drop the word
"Arab" from the country's official name.
"Arab nationalists need to understand that Syria
doesn’t only belong to them," Bashar said. "They
shouldn’t hijack the revolution for their own
This stance has left them at odds with opposition
The Kurdish delegation walked out of a meeting of
Syrian opposition figures in Istanbul this week. In
protest, the Kurds refused to sign on to a
declaration naming the opposition Syrian National
Council as the "formal interlocutor and formal
representative of the Syrian people."
The SNC is emerging as the main political group
backed by the West and Arab nations as the
replacement for the Assad government.
Tipping the scales
Michael Weiss of the London-based Henry Jackson
Society said the Kurds are the "decisive minority
group" in Syria playing a "savvy game" with the
opposition to ensure their rights.
"It’s hard to imagine the revolution succeeding
without their full participation in it," he said.
Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser for the Middle East
at the Stimson Center, says Kurdish support for the
opposition would force a tougher hand on Kurds by
the Assad government.
The Assad government has minimized its assault on
Kurdish areas in what analysts see as an attempt to
keep the Kurds from rising up.
"The eastern part of Syria has been relatively
quiet," Yacoubian said. "If the Kurds decide they
want to throw their lot in with the opposition, I
think that could change things significantly."
But Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East Center
at the London School of Economics, says he believes
the opposition can succeed without the Kurds.
"I think some of them are watching and waiting to
see which way it might swing," he said. "And if it
was swinging in favor of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s
regime, I think the Kurds would very quickly become
a part of it. But I don’t think their involvement is
Back at the refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian
border, Ciwan wants to bring his son home to a Syria
free of the Assad government where he could live
freely as a Kurd.
"All we want is to have our rights," he said.
Henry Ridgwell in Turkey, Elizabeth Arrott in
Cairo and Sirwan Kajjo in Washington contributed to
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