When the “Syrian revolution” erupted March 2011, all eyes turned to the Kurds – about 2.5 million or around 10% of the Syrian population: would they join the protest movement initiated in the besieged city of Dar`a, or maintain the fragile political balance established after 2005?
As a matter of fact, the Kurdish areas remained comparatively calm until October, since most of the Kurdish parties were reluctant to become actively involved in the “Syrian revolution”.
“The Kurdish parties were buying time to see whether they could obtain more concessions from the regime”, explains Jordi Tejel Gorgas, author of the book Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics and Society.
“Some are linked to the present political context, while others are more firmly anchored”, Gorgas, Geneva-based Middle East Professor, said in an interview.
For decades the Syrian authorities have discriminated against the Kurds for fear that they might seek self determination. Many were denied citizenship under a controversial law in the early 1960s.
Given the dangerous context for the Syrian regime, Damascus issued a decree on April 7, 2011, granting Syrian citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds who, according to the special census of 1962, had been deprived of citizenship for nearly 50 years. At the same time, Decree 49, which questions the right of Syrian citizens to hold property in the border areas of the country, was repealed on March 26, 2011.
However, Gorgas says, “these concessions seemed to have been granted in order to prevent, or at least minimize, Kurdish participation in the Syrian revolution”.
The existence of 17 Kurdish parties — half of them not really meaningful in terms of numbers and political impact — and the lack of a common and clear agenda have so far paralyzed Kurdish activism.
This was the main reason why ten Kurdish political parties formed a coalition in October 2011: the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which allegedly supported the removal of the regime and federalism for Syrian Kurds.
Not all parties joined the council though. Among the latter, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party PYD (PKK), arguably one of the few Kurdish mass parties in Syria, demanded that the council oppose any foreign intervention in the country, a condition that clearly targeted Turkey.
In the view of the PYD, foreign intervention in Syria would open the door to Turkey’s interference, which would take advantage of the situation to eradicate the PKK militants in Syria and establish a puppet Syrian government led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Kurdish leaders also remain divided over whether to join the Turkey-backed main opposition forces known as the Syrian National Council (SNC), established on October 2, 2011.
Last week, Kurdish opposition bloc has walked away from the SNC meeting in Istanbul, exposing deep and problematic rifts within the umbrella opposition group just days after the international leaders granted the body extra recognition after attempts to unify.
The move disappointed the Ankara officials.
“It’s really hard to see the some Syrians have still not decided over their future”, Orhan Karasayar, a deputy with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from the province of Hatay on the border with Syria, said during the phone interview, adding “no matter their nationality, those who see themselves in the side of Syrian nation are welcomed in Turkey”.
For Maria Fantappie, Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Turkey has an interest in maintaining oversight on the developments of the Kurdish issue in Syria to prevent jeopardizing its plans for solving its own Kurdish issue: “undermine the PKK armed movement and maintain control over the Kurdish demands for autonomy”, she said.
Unlike in most Middle Eastern countries (Palestine is probably the other exception), the Kurdish national question has not yet been solved. Therefore, the “national issue,” central to the Kurdish political parties and large sectors of Kurdish society, has persisted. Within the context of a yet incomplete “national” normalization, identity politics have remained prevalent in the Kurdish political field, whereas socioeconomic issues have largely been neglected by the Kurdish parties.
Since January 2012, the KNC has been meeting on regular basis in Iraqi Kurdistan (Erbil) and has put forward some political demands: national recognition within the future new constitution, economic equality and self-rule.
The youth groups in their part have also been meeting in Iraqi Kurdistan, although critics would argue that they have been increasingly co-opted by the existing political parties and thus they have lost to a certain extent the degree of autonomy they had in the very beginning of the uprising.
According to information from the Kurdish Patriotic Conference, seventeen youth groups have joined this umbrella organization. In many cases, however, the groups involved are very small or are youth groups associated with the individual parties.
Meanwhile, Godgas adds, “youth groups don’t side with the Syrian Free Army or the SNC. Some do with the Kurdish National Council and others prefer to maintain their relation with the youth revolutionary comities across the country; the latter been considered by those Kurdish youth groups as the only meaningful revolutionary movement”.
Like many Syrian groups, he adds, Kurds in Syria are reluctant to accept any foreign intervention from a neighboring country.
“Kurdish parties would accept an American intervention because the US is considered as an ally of Iraqi Kurdistan, but Youth groups, I think, are much more distrustful”, he adds.
“The Kurds are playing smart in Syria”, adds David W. Lesch, Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio.
“I suspect they are biding their time to see what happens, and they are in a position to play a role whether or not Asad falls. They could also be looking to their brethren in Iraq for guidance and how they carved out a prosperous and independent existence within a chaotic Iraq following the 2003 invasion”, he said.