Syria's Kurds play the long game
By Phil Sands - The National UAE
Demonstrators and wave a Kurdish flag and pre-Baath
Party Syrian flags during a protest against Syria's
President Bashar Al Assad in Qudsaya, near Damascus
Photo: Reuters .
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DAMASCUS, — Internal divisions and
political differences with other opposition groups
are still preventing Syria's Kurds from throwing
their full weight behind the uprising against Bashar
Al Assad's regime.
The dispute between Kurdish blocs and other
opposition factions was underlined at a conference
in Cairo this month, when scuffles broke out between
delegates and a Kurdish group walked out, angrily
accusing Arab revolutionaries of being worse than
the regime they are seeking to topple.
Although a concluding document was patched together,
the fundamental problems that have blocked a truly
joint Kurd-Arab opposition front from emerging were
not addressed, according to Kurdish political
"We are sorry for what happened in Cairo but we are
not responsible for the meeting's failure," said a
leading Kurdish dissident in Damascus.
"Unity among the opposition is important but we must
have firm guarantees over the rights and aspirations
of the Kurdish people," he said.
The Kurdish National Council (KNC), which represents
the majority of Syria's dozen or so Kurdish
political parties, insists it does not want
Kurd-controlled areas to secede from Syria.
But the KNC has demanded written assurances from
opposition groups about Kurdish recognition should
Mr Al Assad's regime fall. It wants Kurdish identity
to be recognised as distinct from Syria's Arab
majority and guarantees that Syria's two million
Kurds will have a "decentralised" state that permits
These issues have been a sticking point since the
revolt began last March. In April last year, Kurds
and Arab opposition groups met in Damascus in an
effort to forge a unified anti-regime bloc. They
failed to reach an agreement then, and have failed
Some Arab nationalist opposition parties have
baulked at what they see as a watering down of
Syria's Arab identity and have voiced suspicions
that the Kurds' real goal is to create an
Other Syrian opposition figures have said with
hundreds being killed each month, all efforts must
now be put into winning the struggle, not arguing
over constitutional matters that will be settled
during a political transition.
Kurdish activists and political analysts say the
Syrian authorities have cleverly used a softer
approach with the Kurds, avoiding the kind of
bloodshed that might spark a full-fledged revolt or
push them to take up arms alongside rebelling Arab
Opposition blocs, including the Syrian National
Council - which is led by Abdulbaset Saida, a Kurd -
have also sought to allay Kurdish concerns by
stressing that a post-Assad Syria will be a
democratic state in which all citizens are equal
before the law.
That would bring to an end the institutionalised
discrimination rights groups say Kurds have suffered
for the past 40 years in Syria.
However the Kurdish opposition, represented by two
major blocs, the KNC and a rival Kurdish alliance,
the People's Council for Western Kurdistan (PCWK),
have said that is not enough.
"In European or American democracy all citizens are
equal but we must be realistic and say Syria will
not turn overnight into Sweden so for that reason we
must insist on these extra guarantees," said a
Kurdish political activist, whose party belongs to
He said experience had taught Kurds that supporting
revolutions did not always end well, as with the
overthrow of the Shah in Iran with repression
continuing under the Islamic republic.
"We have our fears and they are legitimate, we don't
just want to replace one Arab chauvinist regime with
another," he said.
Demographics and the belief their negotiating
position is now at its strongest are also pushing
the Kurds to cut a deal with the opposition over
their future status before further commitment to the
"At the moment the opposition is trying to unify on
a basis of consensual democracy, to bring everyone
together but after the revolution it might just
revert to a simple democracy of majority rule," said
another Kurdish dissident who supported the Damascus
Declaration of 2005,www.ekurd.net
a failed attempt to secure political reforms.
With Arabs making up 75 per cent of the country, and
Kurds 10 per cent, Kurds could not automatically
expect to be able to secure a parliamentary majority
to back their political programme.
The strategy may backfire on the Kurds, an
independent Syrian political analyst said.
"If the regime falls, Arabs might decide they didn't
die to overthrow Assad while the Kurds sat and
watched, only for the Kurds to then make demands,"
the Damascus-based analyst said.
Internal tensions between Syria's Kurds rose
dramatically this month with a string of kidnappings
and killings in the Kurdish area of Afreen, near
Activists said the violence involved the Kurdish
Democratic Party (KDP) and gunmen from the
Democratic Union Party (PYD), a political group
affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The KDP is a key member of the Kurdish National
Council bloc, while the PYD is principle member of
the People's Council for Western Kurdistan (PCWK),
the other major bloc in Syrian Kurdish politics.
The PKK, considered a terrorist organisation in
Europe and the United States, has fought a long
guerrilla war against Turkey, and KNC members accuse
it and the PYD of working as a proxy for the Syrian
authorities - now also bitter rivals to the Ankara
government - helping arrest dissidents and even
assassinating anti-regime Kurds, including the
influential Kurdish dissident, Meshaal Tammo. The
PYD denies the claims, and insists it is part of the
In Arfeen, KNC members called in the Free Syrian
Army - the rebels fighting against Mr Al Assad - to
help them protect themselves against the PYD/PKK
gunmen after party members were killed and others
kidnapped, Kurdish activists said.
Fearing Syria's Kurds were near an internecine war,
Massoud Barzani, the influential president of the
autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in
Iraq, brokered a reconciliation agreement between
the KNC and PCWK in Erbil last week.
The two groups agreed to work on unifying their
political stance, and to shut down armed factions in
favour of unarmed "protection committees" in Kurdish
areas of Syria. Mediation councils are also to be
established to solve disputes before they can spin
out of control. With the ink on the deal hardly dry,
it remains to be seen if the two blocs will come
closer together or if the underlying tensions inside
the Kurdish community remain unaddressed.
"The Kurds are fighting multiple struggles at the
same time," said a Kurdish political activist with
They were battling the Syrian regime, against other
anti-Assad groups who see Syria as a purely Arab
nation, and against other Kurd factions in the
murky, mafia-like world of Kurdish politics.
"It's a very complex situation," the activist said.
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