Syrian Kurds Remain on the Sideline of the
By J. Michael Kennedy - The NY Times
April 18, 2012
Kurds protested April 6, 2012 in Qamishli, Syrian
Kurdistan, against the Syrian government. Most of
the Kurds, however, have not joined the fighting.
Photo: AFP/GETTY. See Related Links
Turkey, — The Kurds of Syria, long oppressed by the
government of President Bashar al-Assad, are largely
staying out of the fighting that has gone on for
more than a year in their country, hedging their
bets as they watch to see who will gain the upper
Mr. Assad has made major efforts to keep them out of
the fray, aware that their support for the
opposition could prove decisive. He has promised
that hundreds of thousands of Kurds will be given
citizenship, something the ruling Assad family has
denied them for nearly half a century.
The Kurds have other reasons for holding back: the
opposition movement in Syria is made up in large
part by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab
nationalists, two groups that have little sympathy
for Kurdish rights, and the Kurds cling to their
long-sought goal of a Kurdish state.
“Syrian Kurds are, by and large, sitting out this
dance,” said Jonathan C. Randal, the author of a
widely respected book on the Kurds — the largest
ethnic group in the world without a state. Yet a
recent report by the Henry Jackson Society, a
foreign policy research institute in London,
describes the Kurds as a “decisive minority” in the
Syrian revolution and says their support would help
in a “rapid overthrow in the Assad regime.”
The Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the
country’s population, find themselves in something
of a dilemma. If the revolution against Mr. Assad
succeeds, their passive role will give them less of
a say in how the country is ruled. But they also
fear that any future government will be much more
Islamist than the secular Assad government.
As Michael Weiss, a spokesman for the society, said,
“The Kurds don’t want to join something that will
That is not surprising, given the oppressive history
of the Kurdish people, not only in Syria but also in
Turkey, Iraq and Iran, the four countries that
intersect the traditional Kurdish region, much of it
rugged mountain terrain.
In the past, they have been denied language, culture
and any sort of national identity in those
countries, though major changes have been made in
oil-rich northern Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam
The history of their poor treatment in Syria is
lengthy. But the most notable event took place in
1962, when 120,000 Kurds had their citizenship
denied on the grounds they were not born in Syria.
Today, that number has roughly doubled because of
descendants who cannot lay claim to citizenship.
In 1973, Syria began creating an “Arab belt” in
northern Syria, confiscating Kurdish land along a
180-mile strip and giving it to Arabs.
In 2004, Syrian security forces used live ammunition
after clashes broke out between Kurds and Arabs at a
soccer match in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli,
killing at least 30 and wounding more than 160.
After rioters burned down the local Baath Party
headquarters and toppled a statue of former
President Hafez al-Assad, hundreds of Kurds were
Besides the banning of the Kurdish language and
books from schools, celebrations like Nowruz — the
traditional Kurdish New Year — were long prohibited.
As part of his effort to appease the Kurds, Mr.
Assad pledged last April that he would grant
citizenship to about 200,000 stateless Kurds as
protests were spreading — a promise he has yet to
make good on.
Mr. Weiss said that it was Kurdish protests against
the government in early 2011 that first alarmed the
Assad government, who little realized that an
uprising was to follow in other parts of Syria. “At
first, Assad just thought he had a Kurdish problem
on his hands,” he said.
Gokhan Bacik, the director of the Middle East
Strategic Research Center at Zirve University in the
southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, said the
Syrian Kurds were fragmented among many political
parties, making it all the more difficult for them
to unite for any single cause.
But even though the Kurds as a whole do not want to
jeopardize the long-term goal of a nation-state, he
said, they are keeping their own counsel. “There is
a nascent idea of a Kurdish nation,” he said. “They
don’t want to risk this process. For them the major
point is long-term survival in better conditions.”
The Kurdish National Council, a bloc of Kurdish
parties, walked out of a meeting in Istanbul last
month of the Syrian National Council, an
organization that has come to represent the
rebellion in exile. They did so because the
Islamist-dominated Syrian group refused to include
wording about the rights of Kurds.
The Kurds have said in the past that they are
seeking constitutional recognition, compensation for
their suffering and a federal government, as well as
the removal of the word “Arab” from Syria’s official
name — the Syrian Arab Republic.
The Kurds of Syria are hardly operating in a vacuum,
what with neighboring Turkey and Iraq also involved.
In Iraq, Masoud Barzani, the president of the
semiautonomous Kurdish north, has been an active
supporter of the Kurdish National Council.
Turkey, meanwhile, has tried to act as the
interlocutor for the Syrian National Council and the
role the Kurds play. But that has its own set of
pitfalls because the Kurds remain suspicious of
which has treated its own Kurdish population poorly.
A wild card in all this is the Kurdistan Workers
Party, known as the PKK, a well-armed and
well-trained militia that has been designated a
terrorist organization by the United States. In
Syria the group has allied itself with the Assad
government, which could use it to stir up tensions
along the Turkish border, should Mr. Assad see the
In the past, Syria armed and protected the PKK in
its long campaign against Turkey, though that
assistance cooled when relations between the
countries began improving little more than a decade
ago. The group has already threatened to turn all
Kurdish areas in the region into a “war zone” if
Turkey crosses the border to intervene in the Syrian
A Turkish journalist, Serdar Alyamac, who has
specialized in Kurdish issues, said the group would
also serve as an enforcer for Mr. Assad in the
Kurdish regions of Syria.
“Assad naturally wants to use the PKK to control the
area,” he said. “Plus the PKK is familiar with the
area. It’s a win-win situation for Assad and the PKK,
if it works.”
In the cluttered bazaar of this ancient city on the
Syrian border, the merchant who sells lipstick and
face powder in his tiny stall tells the story of the
Syrian town of Afrin.
Before the troubles began, he said, there was no
“It’s completely under the control of the Kurds,”
said the man, who refused to give even his first
name for fear of reprisal. “The government opened
four schools for them, so it’s quiet there. I know
because four of my children live in Afrin and I call
them all the time.”
At another stall, a cloth merchant named Nouri
reached into his pocket and took out his cellphone,
which he used to pull up pictures of the refugee
camp housing more than 9,000 Syrians just outside
the city. A Kurd, he has been working part time as
an interpreter from Arabic to Turkish for the
The shots show white, boxy prefab units, one of the
two mosques in the camp and the beginning of a
“In the camps, there are some Kurds,” he said. “But
if you ask them if they are Kurds, they always say
no. And they always speak Arabic, not Kurdish. They
are frightened because they think Turkish people
will believe they are from the PKK”
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