x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Assad: friend or foe of the Kurds?

Syria’s suppressed Kurdish minority seems to be hedging its bets during the uprising, siding with neither the regime of Bashar Al Assad nor the groups keen to overthrow him until they can determine which side will offer the most benefits.

Protesters in the Kurdish city of Qamishli in northern Syria carry a huge national flag during a pro-democracy demonstration in May last year. The word written on the flag is Kurdish for “freedom”.
Protesters in the Kurdish city of Qamishli in northern Syria carry a huge national flag during a pro-democracy demonstration in May last year. The word written on the flag is Kurdish for “freedom”.

DAMASCUS // As Syrian protesters battle to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad, the country's large Kurdish minority is struggling to decide if its interests lie in the fall of the regime or in its survival.

Politically divided and uncertain about their future, Syria's two million Kurds, 10 per cent of the population, have played a limited role in the uprising, analysts, activists and Kurdish groups say.

"Until now we are putting about 10,000 people in the street for the largest demonstrations [in the Kurdish areas of north-east Syria]," said one Kurdish activist.

"When we really rise up there will be hundreds of thousands, and there will be big Kurdish protests in Damascus and Aleppo, but we are not at that stage yet."

Mr Al Assad has offered concessions to win Kurdish support - or at least entice them to stay out of the revolt - granting citizenship to stateless Kurds in April.

The military crackdown has also been less harsh in Kurdish areas, in an effort to avoid inflaming the tense situation there, but those measures alone do not explain the cautious involvement in the uprising.

Among those in Syria with an axe to grind against the regime, the country's Kurdish minority would seem to rank near the top - a long history of state-imposed ethnic discrimination and economic neglect put it in permanent semi-rebellion against Damascus.

The north-east city of Qamlishli in Hasika province, the Kurds' stronghold, has long been one of its most impoverished areas.

Over the years many Kurds have moved to Aleppo and Damascus in search of work and education, often settling in illegally built neighbourhoods as a poverty-stricken urban underclass that derived little direct benefit from the state.

Baathist rule and its doctrinal Arabism resulted in discrimination against the Kurds, with some 300,000 left stateless. Until Mr Al Assad issued his decree recognising them, they were officially considered foreigners, excluded from the basic services and subsidies granted to Syrians.

That often uneasy coexistence with Arab neighbours has been compounded by a broader Kurdish dispossession.

The world's 30 million Kurds are the largest ethnic community without a homeland.

Divided between neighbouring Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, they have long aspired to the statehood promised them by the victors in the First World War, who oversaw the dismantling of what was left of the Ottoman Empire.

But Britain and France reneged when they redrew the Middle East.

That territorial division created a source of political and ethnic tension that continues to exert a major influence on the region.

The four countries view with suspicion their Kurdish populations and the separatist movements that exist among them.

The Kurds feel themselves targets of harassment and discrimination, and many do want to win Kurdish autonomy.

With a strong sense of communal identity, the Kurds have been the most politically active and well-organised opposition bloc in Syria, and played a leading role in the short-lived Damascus Spring of 2005, making unprecedented calls for democracy and greater freedoms.

Still, mainstream Kurdish political parties have trod carefully since March when the uprising began, trying to solve the equation of whether their interests would be better served by a revolt that could yet succeed or fail, or by trying to reform the status quo.

"It's true that for seven months or so some of the Kurdish political parties were not engaged in the uprising. Really, it was just the Future movement and Yeketi. The rest hadn't taken the decision to go to the street," said Foad Aleko, a senior Syrian Kurdish political figure and Yeketi party official.

Of the dozen or so Kurdish parties in Syria, the Future movement is an anomaly.

Founded by Meshaal Tammo it quickly and unequivocally joined the revolt, co-operating closely with Arab protesters nationwide.

It was the only Kurdish group to join the opposition Syrian National Council.

Unlike other Kurdish leaders, Mr Tammo shunned identity politics. He flatly refused to have Kurdish flags flown at protest rallies, insisting instead the Syrian national flag be raised.

Mr Tammo was murdered by gunmen on October 7, the first national level opposition figure to be killed in the uprising.

While his funeral attracted about 50,000 mourners - five were shot during the procession by security forces - and led to speculation it would inflame the Kurdish street, it did not.

Instead, allegations about who killed him only underlined divisions among them.

Some blamed the government. Some accused Turkey, fighting its own Kurdish insurgency against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Others pointed to different Kurdish factions, citing mafia-like entrenched interests.

These schisms, and in particular the hostility between Turkey and the PKK's political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), one of the largest and most influential Kurdish parties in Syria, have helped the Syrian authorities to prevent the Kurds from fully supporting the uprising.

In an effort to solve their lingering divisions, Syrian Kurdish political blocs, including 10 major parties and representatives of non-affiliated groups - doctors, engineers and other professionals - met in October to thrash out a unified position. The PYD did not attend.

In June it had helped found the National Coordination Committees (NCC), an opposition alliance that the other Kurdish groups refused to join because it insisted Syria be defined as part of the Arab world.

The October 26 meeting declared the Kurds were fully committed to the Syrian revolution and would not negotiate with the regime independently of other opposition blocs. It demanded a new constitution recognising the Kurds and their right to self-determination within a united Syria.

"That meeting was a decisive point and a decision was made by all to take to the streets and the protests have been getting bigger and bigger since," said Mr Aleko.

"The protests are big now, the regime blocks the streets, there is tear gas and shooting so the accusation that we're not committed to the revolution isn't true."

But one analyst said the Kurds are still hedging their bets.

"We've seen hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets in Homs, Hama, Deraa and Idleb despite all the dangers they face, but in Kurdish areas the numbers have been nothing like as big," he said, on the condition of anonymity.

The Kurds have long been better organised than Arab groups, so this means a political decision has been made to pull their punches, the analyst said.

"The Kurds have a foot in both camps still, they are not sure if the regime will survive or fall, and they want to be able to benefit whatever the outcome," he said. "They are waiting until they know the answer to that big question, then they will commit themselves."

Kurdish political leaders deny they have cut a deal with the regime. They say they want to prevent the uprising being seen as Kurdish, not Arab.

Despite such assurances, deep divisions remain among the Kurds.

"To be honest, the Kurds have not decided who the real enemy is yet, the [Syrian] regime or the Turks," said another Kurdish activist. "Both are threats to our future but we have to decide which is the biggest and we have to know what will happen to us if Assad does fall."

psands@thenational.ae