Syrian Kurds fear increasing attacks from Assad forces / Salih Muslim Mohammed in Berlin

19 April 2013 /REUTERS, BERLIN – Bombings of Kurdish areas in Syria suggest that Syrian Kurds, long detached from the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, are increasingly being targeted by his forces after they struck deals with opposition forces fighting to topple him, a Kurdish leader said.

Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said a recent wave of Syrian army attacks may have been prompted by non-aggression pacts reached between Kurds and some moderate factions in the opposition forces.

Another possible reason, he told Reuters in an interview, was that Assad feared Turkey — which has harbored Syrian opposition and called on him to quit — could also aid Syrian Kurds after entering peace talks with its own Kurdish minority. “Maybe the (Syrian) government was bothered about these agreements. We also had such agreements with some small groups in Aleppo, and so because of that they bombed our areas,” Muslim told Reuters in an interview in Berlin. “Maybe will think we are getting some help from Turkey, but this is not true.”

Eleven civilians were killed when a Syrian warplane bombed a Kurdish village in the oil-producing province of Hasaka in northeastern Syria on Sunday, Kurdish activists said. It was the biggest loss of Kurdish life from government attacks since the start of the two-year-old uprising against Assad.

A Kurdish district of the northern city of Aleppo, Sheikh Maqsoud, has also been battered by air strikes that have killed 47 civilians over the last 15 days, Muslim said. “From the beginning we decided not to be a part of this blind fighting going ahead between Damascus and others … Our policy has been self-defense, the right to protect ourselves, protect our Kurdish areas.”

Kurdish-Arab tensions

Mistrust between Syria’s Sunni Muslim Arab majority and its Kurds, who comprise an estimated 9-10 percent of the population and are also largely Sunni, deepened as the Sunni-led uprising gathered steam. In the process, Kurds asserted control in parts of the northeast where their community predominates. Arab figures in the opposition are suspicious that the Kurds may set up an autonomous province spanning those areas.

For their part, Syrian Kurdish politicians accuse the Arab anti-Assad opposition of ignoring Kurdish rights and seeking to dominate the oil-producing northeast, which accounts for a large proportion of Syria’s crude production. “The Kurdish provinces are rich provinces; everyone is trying to get these areas under their control. Maybe not just Assad’s forces, maybe also others in future,” Muslim said. In February a cease-fire was signed between opposition fighters and a Kurdish militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG), who had been clashing for months in a town near the Turkish border. Muslim said YPG forces were training in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Derik, Kobani and Afrin. They had more than 10,000 fighters, he said, and could call on most of the Kurdish population for support. Kurds had started fighting back against government forces after being attacked, he added.  

Asked if the Kurds could yet join forces with the Sunni Arab-led Free Syrian Army, Muslim said this could happen only if the FSA committed to a democratic, secular Syria. But, he said, the FSA includes radical Islamic Salafists and jihadists and only a fraction of it is native Syrian. Asked about PYD aims, Muslim said Syrian Kurds hoped to achieve democratic self determination. “It is not like classical autonomy, we don’t want to draw any borders, also because we have half a million Kurds living in (the capital) Damascus.” An end to the violence could be achieved with a political resolution, he said, but he feared the Arab League had chosen the route of prolonged armed conflict in Syria.