Syria: The Kurdish Wild Card
The apartment reminds me of a ’60s-era crash pad. Syrian Kurds in their 20s sprawl on every available bed, couch and sleeping mat. Posters line the walls extolling Kurdish martyrs who fought Bashar al-Assad.
Fighters, smugglers, medics and demonstration organizers who have fled Syria stay here in Antakya, near the Syrian border. They reflect different political viewpoints but are united in opposition to the Syrian regime.
Bassam Al Ahmed, an activist who had just arrived from the mostly Kurdish city of Qamishli, tells me the Syrian government still controls the big Kurdish towns. Nevertheless, “thousands of people still demonstrate in the cities,” he says. In July, for the first time, armed Kurds took control of four villages. He says he believes the tide is turning against Assad.
But Kurdish participation in the uprising is anything but simple. Turkish residents of this city generally sympathize with the Syrian opposition. But when neighbors found out that the crash-pad Syrians were Kurdish, they called the cops.
The Turkish government has long battled Kurdish fighters within its borders, and tends to link Kurdish activism with terrorism. When the police investigated, however, the Syrians assured them they were fighting Assad, not Turkey.
That incident symbolizes the complexities facing Kurds, an ethnic minority making up an estimated 10 to 15 percent of Syria’s population of 22 million. Kurds face discrimination and repression under Assad. But when they took up arms against the Syrian regime, both Turkey and the United States became wary.
The Turks argue that an extremist faction of Kurds, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, (PYD), seized the Syrian villages with the intention of launching cross-border attacks on Turkey. The PYD is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist group.
Referring to the villages under Kurdish control, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a press conference, “We will not let the terrorist group set up camps and pose a threat to us. No one should attempt to provoke us.”
Every Kurd interviewed for this article, including strong opponents of the PYD, said Erdogan is manufacturing a threat to intimidate the Kurdish movement. Activist Al Ahmed notes that the villages are controlled jointly by the PYD and the umbrella Kurdish National Council (KNC). He asks why Kurds would attack Turkey when many are coming here as refugees.
Kurdish activists say the real issue is who controls the opposition movement in the Kurdish region. Kurds won’t allow the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army into their areas. Kurds are divided into many political groups, but they are united in demanding that a post-Assad government respect Kurdish rights.
When I interviewed President Bashar al-Assad at the presidential palace in 2006, I asked why Kurds shouldn’t be educated in their own language. Why not grant Syrian citizenship to some 250,000 Kurds who were stateless as a result of a 1962 Syrian government decision?
He promised to resolve those issues, and then proceeded to do nothing for six years. When the uprising began in March 2011, Assad finally granted the Kurds citizenship, but ignored other demands.
In the early months of the uprising, the vast majority of Kurdish political parties declined to join the opposition led by Syrian Arabs. Many Kurds feared that conditions would be worse if conservative Islamists came to dominate a new Syria. But in recent months, Kurds have seen the Assad regime severely weakened.
Miral Biroredda, a Kurdish activist and leader of a Local Coordinating Committee in central Syria, told me “Kurds are now engaged in armed struggle. If Assad falls, Kurds can assert their own rights.”
Almost all the Syrian Kurdish parties have joined the KNC. That coalition has close ties to Massoud Barzani, the powerful leader of Iraqi Kurdistan. Barzani acknowledges that KNC guerrillas are receiving military training in Iraqi Kurdistan, but claims they are not yet fighting in Syria.
While the KNC has international backing, the militant PYD has iron discipline and ideologically committed cadres. The PYD, and its parent group the PKK, lack majority support, but not for the reasons usually proffered by the U.S. and Turkey.
The PKK has waged a 28-year armed campaign against Turkey. It targets the Turkish military, but has killed many civilians in the process. The PKK rejects the “terrorist” label and calls itself a national liberation group.
The PKK has been all over the map, politically. In the 1980s, it called for an independent, socialist Kurdistan. By the 1990s, it renounced socialism and separatism. It now demands local autonomy in the Kurdish region, although details remain vague. The PYD makes similar demands in Syria.
The PKK and PYD have angered many Kurds for creating a cult around their imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan. The PYD engages in extreme sectarianism, activists say, including attacks on other opposition militants.
When Syrian troops withdrew from the four Kurdish villages, for example, the KNC and PYD jointly took charge. “The PYD took down the Kurdish flag and hoisted their own,” said one disgusted Kurd, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation.
Despite these differences, Syrian Kurds have some common demands. The country should no longer be called the Syrian Arab Republic, for instance, but return to the name Syrian Republic. (Kurds don’t consider themselves Arab.) They uniformly reject separatism, but demand some kind of local control in areas of Kurdish concentration.
But even such relatively simple demands run into roadblocks. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, one of the major opposition groups, worries that the Kurds really want a separate state.
“Many of the Kurdish leadership don’t express their desire to separate from Syria,” Omar Mushaweh, a top Muslim Brotherhood spokesman told me. “But they sometimes list demands that would lead eventually to separation.”
As an example, he cited the demand for a Kurdish parliament. “We’re willing to accept some kind of local control in Kurdish regions, but not a parliament,” he said.
Mushaweh strongly criticized “extreme Kurdish nationalists.” He interpreted the PYD raising its own flag, for example, as “creating instability and fights with Turkey.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is holding talks with KNC leaders to resolve the sharp differences between Kurdish and other opposition groups.
The residents of the crash pad, meanwhile, continue their work opposing the Syrian regime and asserting Kurdish rights. Some stay in Turkey to organize; others are going back to Syria to fight. Events are moving rapidly. The Kurds say they are determined to chart their own future in a post-Assad government.