The Kurdish people of Syria have not joined the current wave of unrest with any significant demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Baath party. But that could change.
The Kurds, representing around 10% of the country’s population, are “ready, watching and waiting to take to the streets, as their cause is the strongest,” according to Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Largely concentrated along the borders with Turkey and Iraq in the northeast of the country, the Kurds have long been described as a repressed minority in Syria. Since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, they have fought for an independent Kurdistan with fellow Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Their situation in Syria has been particularly difficult in the past five decades.
“They didn’t have problems before this regime,” said Obeida Nahas, director of the Levant Institute, a London-based Syrian think tank. “Now they are denied the right to speak or even write in their own language and are told to use Arab names.”
The government has been regularly accused of sanctioning a heavy-handed and in some cases violent approach to controlling the annual Nowruz, or Kurdish new year celebrations, which have become increasingly politicized since the Baath party took office in 1963. That is, until this year.
On Sunday, Nowruz festivities across Syria passed without any major incidents and members of the Kurdish community noted that police allowed them an unusual level of freedom.
Nahas said this was a government attempt to “bribe” the Kurdish people into not following the example of the largely Sunni Muslim tribes demonstrating in the south of the country. Presidential advisor Buthaina Shaaban offered her greeting of “Nowruz Mubarak” or “happy new year,” to the Kurdish people Thursday, when she told a news conference about the “wonderful coexistence” among Syrian people.
The political move won’t work, though, according to Ribal al-Assad, the first cousin of President al-Assad now living in exile in London. “They can’t suddenly give the Kurds freedom to celebrate Nowruz without expecting them to ask for their other rights, like owning an ID card or using their own language,” al-Assad said. “The Syrian secret service and police are very good at dividing people, but most Kurds want to be part of Syria.”
The Kurdish community is not expected to keep quiet.
“There has been a lack of trust from the Kurds since 2004,” said Khalaf Dahowd, co-chair of the International Support Kurds in Syria Association. Violence involving Kurds, Arabs and police broke out after a soccer match in Al-Qamishli in March 2004. Several people were killed and over a hundred were injured.
Dahowd, a Syrian Kurdish refugee now living in England, believes that the resentment felt by many Kurds toward Arabs after that event has also divided Kurdish people. He speculates that many will find it very difficult to join their Arab neighbors in protest against President al-Assad and his government.
As an activist for Kurdish rights and a united Syria, Dahowd argues that Kurds should put aside any bad feeling they have for other opposition factions. “Everybody in Syria needs to rise up. This regime needs to go,” he said.
With several leading Kurds already imprisoned for speaking out and the Kurdish political movement divided between as many as 15 parties, the impetus to demonstrate will need to come from ordinary Kurds, many of them classed as “stateless” without Syrian citizenship.
“These people are desperately poor and weak, but ripe for protesting,” Lowe said.
After a week of anti-regime protests in Syria, it has become clear that the opposition there is divided along lines of ethnicity, religion, tribes and families. Presidential advisor Shaaban may have stated the government’s intention to avoid referring to Syrians based on their ‘religious, ethnic or sectarian identity” but, according to Lowe, “there is a weak sense of Syrian identity because the country is such an artificial creation.”
However, the big challenge for Kurds and other minority groups according to, Ribal al-Assad, the president’s cousin, is to show the overwhelming scale of feeling against the government. “Everybody is in opposition in Syria,” he said.
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