Doubly Disenfranchised: Kurds in Syria’s “Arab Spring”

by Tasbeeh Herwees / Kurdish Rights Org

In August 2011, Samir Nashar, the President of the Secretariat General of the Damascus Declaration Alliance, told KurdWatch, “We accuse the Kurdish parties of not effectively participating in the Syrian revolution… It seems that these parties continue to bet on a dialogue with the regime.” He then added, “This stance will certainly have consequences after the fall of the regime.”

The Syrian National Council was not yet in existence — it would officially go public less than two weeks later — but Nashar’s statement embodied an attitude and sentiment toward Syrian Kurds that was — and is — pervasive among Syria’s coalition of anti-Assad groups. Parroting a revisionist history that effectively erases several decades of Kurdish struggle, Nashar’s accusation operated simultaneously as a veiled threat and harbinger of things to come.

If Kurds had any illusions of a post-Assad Syria in which they enjoyed the fruits of democracy and basic human rights, Nashar’s statement aimed to dispel them. Nothing exemplified this more than the coalition’s refusal to drop Syria’s Ba’athist designation as the “Syrian Arab Republic” or its resistance to outlining provisions for Kurdish rights at a opposition conference in Turkey last year. The Kurdish National Council was forced to walk out. When the opposition organized a summit in Istanbul that very same month to announce the formation of the coalition, the proceedings only served to justify any suspicions that the opposition did not have Kurdish rights on its immediate agenda. Turkey is, in fact, one of the worst offenders of human rights abuses against Kurds in the Middle East.

Now, in the midst of a bloody civil war between a multitude of factions, Kurds have carved out their own domain of autonomy in Northeast Syria, also known as Western Kurdistan. They struggle for a place both politically and territorially in Syria’s new political and geographical realities, but they face being sidelined by more powerful groups. While Western Kurdistan’s population is largely anti-Assad, Syria’s Kurds also fear that a new group jostling for the Assad regime’s place will perpetuate a history of persecution against them. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) refuse to side definitely with either group, at times fighting with the opposition and at other times aiding government militias. In places like Amuda, the PYD has often clashed with anti-Assad Kurds protesting or actively supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

There’s seemingly no end in sight to the Syrian conflict — day by day, the Syrian regime lobs its rockets and reinforces its army with resources. THe FSA takes and loses and retakes territory. They struggle with dwindling arms and decreasing numbers. Disunity, it appears, is their biggest enemy. The Kurds, who make up 15-20% of the Syrian population, could possibly swing the conflict in favor of the opposition. They have a strong incentive to topple the regime — perhaps stronger than most — and they could garner the support, both politically and on-the-ground, to push the opposition towards victory. Despite this, the opposition, disparate and disunited as it is, remains tepid in it commitment to Kurdish rights in post-Assad Syria and their claims to the contrary are contradicted by their actions, which time after time suggest a disregard for Kurdish agency.

The Revisionist History of Syria’s Opposition 

Nashar’s contention that Kurds have not sufficiently participated in the revolution or contributed to the cause reflects a deep neglect of Kurdish history in Syria. Under the Assad regime, Kurds were forcefully “Arabized” — the regime banned their language and history from schools and refused to acknowledge their rights to land and agency in Syria. They were treated as foreigners and second-class citizens. Their holidays were prohibited. Their lands were often confiscated and handed over to Arab bedouins.

These transgressions of basic human rights inspired resistance among Kurds, not complacency, as Nashar would suggest. Kurdish areas in Syria were hotbeds of anti-regime activity and Kurds were the first to rise up against the regime as the first stirrings of revolution reached Syria. As Michael Weiss, research director of the Henry Jackson Society, noted in The New Republic:

“The Syrian uprising technically began as a Kurdish one: The Kurds organized the first demonstrations on January 25 in the eastern city of Hasaka, where between 150,000 to 300,000 Kurds reside. As the uprising got underway in mid-March, Kurds residing in mixed cities participated in large numbers. In early April, the Assad regime tried to co-opt the Kurds of Hasaka by cynically offering them full citizenship in exchange for the presumption that they would remain neutral in the larger conflict. They rejected this milksop in the interest of pluralism; regional Kurdish leader Habib Ibrahim told Reuters, “Our cause is democracy for the whole of Syria.”

Both the regime and the opposition perpetuate the myth that Kurds hope to sucede from Syria and create an independent state. Both parties have used this claim to alienate Kurds from the political process and paint them as isolationists. It’s a notion that has roots in a historical state-sanctioned xenophobia that exploits common perceptions of Syrian Kurds as foreign or non-Syrian. But what most Kurds and Kurdish parties campaign for is not a separate state but a right to autonomy through de-centralization of state power. As Thomas Mcgee, a scholar in Kurdish Studies, writes in an op-ed for Syria Deeply:

“None of the more than fifteen Kurdish parties in Syria are officially seeking the formation of an independent or a trans-state political entity. Such notions are only propagated by a few long-term exiled politicians who do not represent the parties within Syria. In fact, the internal political actors present solutions to the Kurdish problem in Syria within a framework of established state boundaries. Party positions involve varying decrees of (political) de-centralization and self-administration. Meanwhile, the trademark slogan of the Kurdish street has become ‘Democracy for Syria; Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan’.”

The Specter of Arab Nationalism

Another worrying element of the opposition is the presence of strong Arab nationalist rhetoric, as demonstrated in the staunch refusal to change the “Syrian Arab Republic” moniker associated with Syria’s Ba’athist regime. The history of Arab nationalism in Syria has never been kind to Kurds; often it was a weapon used to forcibly Arabize their identity or galvanize popular perceptions against them. The jingoistic rhetoric that characterized repression of Kurdish Syrians attempted to homogenize Syrian identity and scrub Kurdish history from its fabric, often through violence:

During the heyday of Arab nationalism from 1958 to 1976, Kurds came under increasing repression, partly because of their close identity with the Syrian Communist Party. Many Kurds were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. In 1961 a census in Jazira discounted 120,000 Kurds as foreigners. In the following year the government announced a major population transfer, intended to settle Arabs all along the Turkish border. Although never fully implemented, 60,000 Kurds left the area for Damascus. Repression lessened, but continued under Hafez al-Assad. In March 1986 police fired on thousands of Kurds in traditional dress gathered in Damascus to celebrate a spring festival, killing one.

The new form of Arab nationalism that now permeates opposition politics and discourse is likely to produce the same oppressive system that victimized Kurds before. Kurdish politicians cannot afford to invest in a “new” Syria if it means the same game with different players. In its current state, the opposition places Kurds in a backseat to Arab politics.

Al Nusra Front

Without indulging in the same shrill fear-mongering of Western analysts, it’s important to acknowledge the existence of extremist Islamist forces within the opposition. Of particular note is Al Nusra Front, an anti-Assad militant group. Al-Nusra Front propagates a radical interpretation of Salafi Islam with which they hope to govern Syria after Assad’s Alawi regime is toppled. There is speculation that the group is a proxy agent of Turkey, though the claim has not been verified. The fundamentalist ideology that underpins Al-Nusra Front’s struggle in Syria views Kurds as “infidels” and has pitted the Islamists against the Kurds in several confrontations, like in the battle of Ras Al Ayn, where the FSA and Kurdish militias have gone head-to-head for control of the land.

Alliance with Turkey

The Syrian opposition — specifically the coalition — has a strong relationship with Turkey. Erdogan’s government is not only providing a base from which the opposition can organize but since October of 2011, it has provided steady military and financial support to the FSA. Turkish involvement in the conflict is worrying to Kurds for a multitude of reasons — as noted before, Turkey is one of the most frequent offenders of Kurdish rights, frequently attacking Kurdish protesters and banning Kurdish political parties. They institute a policy of “assimilation”, with aims to excise the Kurdish identity from the fabric of Kurdish society.

Erdogan’s government has great incentive to repress any strong Kurdish movements in Syria, with which it shares a border. Any advancement of Kurdish rights in Syria would bolster a Kurdish movement in Turkey. Syrian Kurds would also have the resources to aid Kurds across the border in their fight for an equal place in Turkish political and social life. Unfortunately, the Syrian opposition’s cozy association with Turkey indicates a deliberate neglect of Kurdish relations. Though the relationship is geographically and financially strategical, the opposition will have a hard time toppling Assad without the full support of Syrian Kurds. It is only to the credit of Assad’s regime that his opposition is so divided — and when they are fighting each other, it only makes his job of dismantling the revolution easier.