x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syria's war exposes fault lines of sectarian divisions

Syrian Kurds say claims Syria was once a vibrant multicultural society with various sects coexisting peacefully are an illusion.

Nassir Al Dean Ehme (far right) founded Qamishli House eight months ago in Antakya, to provide a place where Syrians from different regions and origins can mingle.
Nassir Al Dean Ehme (far right) founded Qamishli House eight months ago in Antakya, to provide a place where Syrians from different regions and origins can mingle.

ANTAKYA, TURKEY // For some Syrian Kurds, clashes between Arab rebels and a Kurdish militia in Syria are not just related to the country's revolution, but the outcome of deeper societal fissures.

"The sectarian divisions are growing stronger," said Nassir Al Dean Ehme, a hulking Kurdish refugee who founded Qamishli House, a leaky four-room house in southern Turkey providing temporary accommodation to Syrian refugees and activists.

"We had these sectarian and ethnic divisions in Syria before and now it has deepened. Maybe we were one country on the map but, if we think about the feelings of people, we see many divisions," said Mr Al Dean Ehme, who named the house after his hometown of Qamishli, the main Kurdish city in Syria.

The house, which opened eight months ago in Antakya, is a place where Syrians from different religions and a national origins can mingle and host discussion and lectures.

"The main idea with this house is that people from different parts of Syria will come here," said Mr Al Dean Ehme. "They meet and discuss. We will prepare the idea of civil society."

Both the supporters of the Syrian regime and liberal opposition activists have long promoted the idea that, before the current conflict, Syria was a vibrant multicultural society with the various sects coexisting peacefully.

But Kurds, who comprise about 10 per cent of Syria's population, said that the illusion was maintained by the regime's strict control over society. In reality, the population was more divided than some would admit, with Kurds, in particular, even denied citizenship until last year when some argue it was offered in hopes of keeping them from joining the uprising.

Some claim that it was these simmering resentments that contributed to the recent deadly conflict in Ras Al Ayn, a mixed Kurdish and Arab town that has a border crossing with Turkey. In early November, two Arab Islamist battalions seeking to overthrow the Syrian regime in Damascus succeeded in driving the last of the government troops from the town.

In the past, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) had maintained ties with Damascus and the relationship allowed the spread of Kurdish fighters across large areas of the border area, including Ras Al Ayn. While PYD forces initially withdrew to Kurdish neighbourhoods, clashes broke out within days as both sides refused the other's demand to leave the town. Dozens of people were killed.

"Less Islamist factions of the Free Syrian Army [FSA] have appeared willing to allow Kurdish militias to control Kurdish towns and cities no longer under Damascus's control," said Charles Lister, an analyst with Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC). "However, the more Islamist-orientated groups have been notably less compromising."

To counter what they consider a threat to their territorial gains — and wider ambitions for autonomy in north-east Syria — the PYD and its main rival, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), joined together during the weekend to announce plans to form a joint military block to defend Kurdish areas in Syria against the Arab rebels.

At Qamishli House, a 42-year-old Kurdish woman named Sabiha agrees that sectarian divisions existed in Syria long before the war began.

"The base for dialogue is not paved yet," she said, recalling times when she was warned, while teaching grammar school in the Syrian city of Aleppo, not to speak Kurdish.

At other times, she said, her students would ask if she was a Christian because she was not wearing a headscarf.

"There was a kind of coexisting, but only a silent coexisting," she said. "Many times we were exposed to discrimination, but were forced to keep silent."

Sabiha, who recently gave a talk on the role of women in the revolution at Qamishli House, said she would not return to Syria until the fighting ends.

Mr Al Dean Ehme said there was not always harmony at Qamishli House, but the discussion was an important starting point. He said the meaning of Syrian identify was the topic that Kurds and Arabs first begin to talk about.

"At the end of the day, dialogue is what civilian people do, it's just important not to use guns. Shouting and yelling, this is how dialogue begins."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae