Syria’s Kurds play the long game
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 figures.
“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 them “self-determination”.
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 ever since.
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 independent state.
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 areas.
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 the KNC.
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 revolution.
“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, 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 Aleppo.
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 anti-regime uprising.
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 the KNC.
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.