The Kurds of Syria & the Opposition Coalition: The Cart before the Horse?

Jehad Saleh   – 25.4.2013 – FIKRA FORUM – Dig deep into the history of the Kurds in Syria and you will find that the Kurds have been an essential part of Syrian political life even before the Baath military requisition of the country. Their battle against the French in Amuda, Beyandur, Kurdagh (Afrin), and Maysalun reflects an outlook of social cohesion far different from the culture of sectarianism and racism that came with the Baath party and the philosophy of Michel Aflaq and Hafiz al-Assad.

This political philosophy resulted in a great rift and a chauvinistic sectarian approach that has long been promoted by the regime. Kurds in Syria have paid exorbitant prices for this sectarian approach and continue to pay this price today. As President Erdogan seeks a peace agreement with the PKK in Turkey, the majority of the region’s Kurds, particularly those in Syria, will suffer with the empowerment of this militant faction.

The Kurds are commonly considered the first group in Syria that took a stand against tyranny, even as far back as the 1970s when Hafiz al-Assad assumed power. But the most notable demonstration against the regime was in 2002 under Bashar al-Assad when the Kurdish Yekiti Party organized the first protest (led by Hassan Salah and Marwan Othman) on International Human Rights Day. During this demonstration, Kurds called for democracy in Syria, the protection of human rights, the release of political prisoners, and a just solution to the Kurdish national issue in Syria.

Since the start of the 2011 revolution, Kurds have demonstrated, taking a stand against repression, detention, and racial discrimination. After the events in Daraa, the men of Amuda tore down a statue of Assad, leading to an uprising in every Kurdish city and village to demand the overthrow of the regime. Despite this, members of the Syrian opposition still approach Kurds with suspicion and doubt.

The formation of the Kurdish National Council in October 2011 was of great importance to the Kurds. It was an attempt to appeal to fragmented Kurdish political groups to support the revolution as one united Kurdish political entity working to lay the foundation of a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state. However, internal political fragmentation kept the council’s activities at a stand-still.

In July 2012, President Barzani attempted to intervene via the Hawler (Erbil) Agreement to unite Kurds politically and announce the establishment of the Kurdish Higher Authority that would include all Kurdish parties, including the PKK-backed Democratic Union Party (PYD). However, internal conflict persisted. This isolated the PYD and reinforced their military power over the Kurdish region (though their “Committee for Popular Protection”) after the regime withdrew from all state institutions there. In a way, such an internally-conflicted Kurdish state was the intention of both the current and former regimes, which also aided Turkish meddling to turn Arab tribes and Islamist and Jihadi brigades against the Kurds. Attempts by Barzani, Talibani, and Ocalan to co-opt the Kurds of Syria in this political-partisan conflict have negatively affected the greater Kurdish community.

From Turkey, the PKK has used regional posturing to leverage power in Syria through the PYD. It has proven to be a major player between Kurds, the opposition, and the state. The PKK has taken great pride in this position of power, flaunting it in the face of the Kurds, Turkey, the Syrian opposition, and the international community. Recent developments in the peace process between the PKK and President Erdogan could transform the political layout of the region and determine the status of the Kurds going forward. It is likely that, through this peace agreement, Turkey will submit the Kurdish fate to the PKK and the PYD, inevitably creating an internal Kurdish struggle. This would of course be in Turkey’s best interest as the PKK will undoubtedly put its own regional aspirations before the good of the Kurdish community.

Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has made several attempts to marginalize Kurdish representation by excluding the Kurdish political movement and major Kurdish figures. Despite this, the Kurdish population remains the backbone of a Syrian civil democracy. It is critical that Kurds remain an effective and involved Syrian constituent so that the national political arena is not left to fundamentalist political Islam (among other trends).

The Kurds have the ability to impact the political tension and stagnation within the Syrian Opposition Coalition through open dialogue with its leaders. This could help place Kurds on the Syrian political map, ensuring an inclusive transitional government, military, and civil society. However, this will require flexibility among the opposition and the eradication of the culture of superiority and exclusion that has long since worked against the Kurds. The organization of a transitional government without the Kurds will inevitably be incomplete. Without the inclusion of all minority groups, Kurds, Christians, and other minorities will be pushed to form an alternative government, which will negatively impact the revolution’s goals while prolonging the life of the regime.

Everyone is betting on the Kurdish role in the revolution and Syria’s future. Kurdish involvement will depend on the readiness of the Syrian Opposition Coalition to establish a clear political stance on Kurdish grievances in addition to a democratic plan to establish a federal system for the Syria of tomorrow. This plan would include the constitutional recognition of nationalism in Syria and a resolution of the Kurdish issue according to international norms and regulations. Though political dynamics have caused some to ‘put the cart before the horse,’ both the SOC and the Kurdish parties must stay pragmatic in order to achieve national unity and bring down the regime.

Jehad Saleh is an independent Kurdish writer and researcher based in Washington, DC.