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September 12, 2013

Kurds Caught in Throes of Syria's War

by Heather Murdock

Syrian Kurds are caught in the middle of Syria's civil war, fighting among themselves and also battling Islamist extremists for control of pockets of the country.

When Soaad Zenno left Syria with her three children a year ago, she left a country that banned Kurdish holidays and wouldn’t allow Kurdish history or language to be taught in schools.

But for families like Zenno's, crowded into two rooms near the Syrian border as refugees in Lebanon, there is nothing good about the war for Kurds.

Talking about the hardship of living displaced from her war-torn homeland, Zenno said her children did’t even go to school.

Syrians Kurds have fled by the tens of thousands as fighting rages in Syria not only among Kurdish factions, but also between Kurdish groups and Islamist insurgents.

Some Kurdish groups support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while others are with the Free Syrian Army rebels. Islamist groups, like al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra (a Free Syrian Army ally) are considered Kurdish arch-enemies.

Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst for the consulting firm Country Risk Solutions.

“Some of these Islamist groups have beheaded Kurds and threatened many Kurdish communities with violence if they don’t comply with the al-Qaida groups,” said Cafiero.

Increased violence between Islamists and Kurds is widening the Kurdish humanitarian crisis that is spilling into Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.

To complicate matters further, the land occupied by a largely Kurdish population in Syria was extremely valuable, said Daniel Wagner, who works with Cafiero.

“Syria’s real only oil reserves are in the northeast -- so from a natural resource perspective, that’s the big prize -- which is largely populated by Kurds. And the Islamists, naturally, want a piece of that, just like the government wants to hang on to it,” he said.

Spread throughout Syria and the neighboring countries of Iraq, Turkey and Iran, Kurds are looking long term to national autonomy in a greater Kurdistan. In Syria, Kurds make up about nine percent of the population.

Analyst Wagner said a Kurdish nation -- or something like it -- may be a "pipe dream" now but was an important ideal in future Middle East peace efforts.

“My sense is that until the greater Kurdistan issue is resolved there can be no real peace in the Middle East, just as there can be no real and lasting peace until ... the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved,” he said.

Displaced Syrian Kurdish families can only think about the misery of the present.

In their border-town apartment, Evy, Soaad’s 13-year-old daughter, said she wanted to study French, not work in a clothing store, but that she had no choice.

Evy recalled her school in Syria, where she studied science, math, English and history. But the school, she said, like much of Syria, was bombed and now she didn’t even have papers to prove her class ranking. She cannot be admitted into a school in Lebanon.

Still, some analysts said the long-term fallout from Syria's conflict may be positive for Kurds.

Analyst Cafiero said that although there was no end to the war in sight, Kurds may ultimately gain more rights in Syria.

“They see the rest of Syria bogged down in a very bloody and complicated conflict and it is within this context that they are trying to push for a level of autonomy that they have never enjoyed since the Syrian state was created,” he said.

But Evy's mother said she didn't know whether the end of the war would leave her family better or worse off. For now, she said, the war has left her without hope.