Crisis point for Syrian Kurds


19 February 2012

(This article was first published at Middle East Online)

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Repressed for decades, the Syrian Kurds have been divided, marginalized and doubtful with respect to Syria crisis. Trusting neither Syria’s regime nor its opposition, the Kurds have declined to take an active role in anti-Assad protests. From its part, the regime has tried its best to woo them with promises of reforms. Dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists, the Syrian opposition, influenced by Turkey, has been unsympathetic towards the Kurds.

This file photo shows members of Syrian opposition living in Turkey waving their national and Turkish flags as they stage a protest against the Syrian regime in Ankara / AFP photos
This file photo shows members of Syrian opposition living in Turkey waving their national and Turkish flags as they stage a protest against the Syrian regime in Ankara / AFP photos

Despite being the largest minority group in the country Kurds have for decades been subject to government oppression as a paranoid Syria sought to maintain firm control by denying them basic rights; at times uprooting its Kurdish population in order to establish an “Arab belt” to distance them from Kurds in neighboring countries, denying citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Kurds, classifying as “foreigners” who could not vote, own property or work in the public sector, prohibiting Kurds from registering their children with Kurdish names, and banning their cultural activities. Moreover, Syrian Kurds have been repeatedly discouraged from addressing the Kurdish question insideSyria. Syrian governments, particularly those of Hafez Assad, pursued a double-tracked policy in this regard, engaging Syrian Kurds in the politics of Iraq and Turkey on the one hand, while on the other, involving with Iraqi Kurds and assistingTurkey’s Kurds in the struggle against their own states.

Syrian state policy has been a success insofar as its own Kurdish issue is concerned. Successive governments have successfully hindered the emergence of an effective Kurdish movement, and thus, a viable opposition. The involvement with the Kurds in Iraq and assistance given to the Kurds in Turkey have been aimed at both gaining their support in relation to its own Kurdish issue, and to establish a trump card against the Turkish and Iraqi governments. Regrettably, the current disorganization and division amongSyria’s Kurds are largely due to both this policy and the state’s overall repression.

In recent years, regional geopolitical changes such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the ascendancy of Iraqi Kurdistan and the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri with its ramifications, have both further increased Bashar Assad’s wariness with regard to internal affairs and served to give fresh impetus to Syria’s Kurds and the Syrian opposition.

Bearing in mind the Kurds’ decades-long grievances and the chilly atmosphere sparked by riots in Qamishli in 2004 and later inAleppo,Syria’s government has watched developments in Kurdish areas closely, and acted cautiously with the Kurds since the Arab Spring reached Syria. Kurdish participation in protests strengthens the anti-government chorus of opposition, lessens the government’s legitimacy, and requires it to dispatch additional security forces to the area, thereby increasing the pressure on itself.

From this perspective,Syria’s government has perceived the neutralization of its Kurdish voices as extremely important and to that end it has made several tactical approaches, including expressions of good intent to resolve the Kurdish question. In a rare move, it took a psychological step, agreeing not only to allow Nawruz, (the Kurdish New Year) with its fluttering Kurdish flags, to be celebrated, but also sent an official delegation to the festivities. Moreover, the Kurds were offered several opportunities to participate in discussions be arranged to supposedly look into their grievances, including the issue of those deprived of identification documents.

While the Kurds have not rejected all such opportunities, there have been no concrete outcomes. Aware of the government’s opaque position and unsure of its intentions, its calls to hold dialogues with parties were seen by many as a sort of “ploy” aimed at manipulating the Kurds, dividing the Syrian community and deepening divisions within the anti-government opposition. The Kurds have encouraged for a dialogue in which all Syrians participate, not merely specific groups, in order to forestall any suspicion that they were attempting-

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 – to strike a deal with the government purely for the benefit of Kurds alone.

Hoping meanwhile, that non-Syrian Kurds might be persuaded to exert pressure on Syrian Kurds, the Syrian President invited Masoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan to talks. Aware   that rumor had it that he and Jalal Talabani were already encouraging Syrian Kurds to cooperate with their government, and aware that Iraqi Kurdish participation would strengthen this claim, President Barzani declined the invitation.

Holding talks with Syrian regime projects legitimacy onto the increasingly pressured and isolated regime. It would consolidate the unfounded allegations that Syria’s Kurds tend to seize the crisis for separation and put the Kurds in jeopardy.

With respect to the Syrian opposition as represented by the Syrian National Council (SNC) the Kurds have, at least until recently, been unwelcome partners in an organization dominated by Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Often complaining of intentional marginalization, their rights ignored by the Turkish influenced opposition which hopes that the Kurds would have very limited influence, if any, on the road map to a post-Assad Syria.

Syrian National Council to gather in Tunis today /
Syrian National Council to gather in Tunis today /

Since not inviting the Kurds to opposition summits and conferences would undoubtedly have intensified the outrage of the Kurdish population, the SNC took this into consideration and did call the Kurds to a conference held in Antalya, but only as independent delegates, not as political representatives. On another occasion the Kurds pulled out ofIstanbulconference, due to the Arab opposition’s insistence on the “Arab” character of the state when it confirmed that Syria’s official title would stay as the Syrian Arab Republic, implying that recognition of the Kurds as an ethnic group – a principle Kurdish demand – was rejected.

Turkey’s complex problems with regard to its own Kurdish question – which it has spectacularly failed to resolve – have, for decades, led it to keep a close eye on developments relating to the Kurds of neighboring states.Turkeyhas now become the venue for the offices and activities of Syrian opposition figures and has been tightening its grip on the Syrian National Council in order to gain leverage over its agenda and events pertaining to the Syrian crisis in an effort to contain Kurdish ascendancy there.

Should the Syrian Kurds ever achieve their aims Turkeywill have a new headache. Iraqi Kurdistan, which already enjoys de facto independence, is considered by the Kurdish nation to be a source of inspiration and political savvy, an important advocate of their aims and a reliable safe haven.

The Syrian Kurdish opposition held a conference in Iraqi Kurdistan recently at which its president clearly expressed support for the Kurdish stance inSyria. Even allowing for the fact that the situation of Iraqi Kurds is unlikely to be duplicated, should Syria’s Kurds to be granted rights this would undoubtedly cement the power of the Kurdish nation and consolidate Kurdish influence. This scenario would then be both a powerful driving force for Turkey’s restive Kurds to pursue their struggle for greater rights from the state, while ratcheting up Turkey’s security concerns with regard to the PKK.

The Syrian Kurds do not seek separation. They will, however, try hard not to lose the current opportunity to gain ethnic recognition, political and cultural rights and, very importantly, achieve federalism – an unusual political arrangement in the region. Meanwhile, Kurdish internal affairs, and the strategies of the SNC, Turkey and the regional powerhouse countries towards their demands, will involve huge challenges for the Kurds. To counteract the intentions of others, Kurds need to organize their affairs better and try to weaken the opposition to their demands. Forming alliances would be strategic in this regard.



Idrees Mohammed is is an observer of Turkey’s foreign policy; primarily towards Iraqi Kurdistan. He is also interested in Kurdish experience. 

You can follow him on Twitter  at @IdreesMohammd.

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Repressed for decades, the Syrian Kurds have been divided, marginalized and doubtful with respect to Syria crisis. Trusting neither Syria’s regime nor its opposition, the Kurds have declined to take an active role in anti-Assad protests." />