News / Middle East

Syrian Kurds Could Tip Scales of Syrian Conflict

Ciwan, who would only give his first name because he has family still in Syria, escaped with his son from his hometown Idlib, Yayladagi, Turkey, March 22 , 2012.
Ciwan, who would only give his first name because he has family still in Syria, escaped with his son from his hometown Idlib, Yayladagi, Turkey, March 22 , 2012.
JulieAnn McKellogg

A tent city among the ruins of a former tobacco factory along the Turkish-Syrian border is home to Syrian refugee Ciwan and his four-year-old son. The Yayladagi camp is swarming with Syrians fleeing the bloodshed of their homeland.  But for Ciwan, a Syrian Kurd, it's unfamiliar living among the predominantly Arab population.

"Over there I lived mostly with my people, but here I am with them, it’s not very easy but slowly I am getting used to it,” he said.


His unease defines the struggle of Syria’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds. The violent year-long political and social upheaval in Syria has left the country's estimated two million Kurds reeling.  

Lodged between decades of oppression and the uncertainty of a future Syria ruled by the Arab-Sunni majority, Kurds have approached the uprising with caution.

They say they want to see President Bashar al-Assad's brutal reign end, but they also see this as an opportunity to reverse their suffering under the hand of an Arab nationalist regime. The Kurds fear a post-Assad, Sunni majority government might enact conservative Muslim policies curtailing a secular state.

As Syria’s largest ethnic minority, Kurdish leaders and some experts believe the Kurds have the power to tip the scales of the conflict and help an emerging opposition bring down Mr. Assad.

A haunting past

The Kurds are a non-Arab population native to the central Middle East. Oppression of culture, language and their national identity has defined life for the Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq to varying degrees over the last half century and longer.

In 1962, the Syrian government stripped the citizenship of more than 100,000 Kurds, after holding a census in the Kurdish region. With this data, the government claimed these Kurds had illegally crossed the border into Syria. Today that number has grown to nearly 300,000, with the descendents of these Kurds unable to claim Syrian citizenship.

Even in peaceful times, Ciwan, who asked that his last name be withheld, had to protect his son from the Syrian state’s oppression of the Kurdish population.

"They did horrible things to us, they changed our villages' names into Arabic," he said. "They brought Arab people from other parts of Syria to our land, and they now live in our land. They don’t let us give Kurdish names to our children. My child’s name is Sexubun, but I have to give him an Arabic name too."

At the start of the government crackdown in April 2011, in an attempt to appease the ethnic minority, the Assad government granted citizenship to about 200,000 of the stateless Syrian Kurds.

Still, Kurds were not safe as anti-government protests spread nationwide.

Ciwan says he escaped the violence in his hometown of Idlib, after seeing Kurds killed in the unrest.

Haunted by their past, the Kurdish consensus seems to be it is time for Mr. Assad to step down.

"We as Kurds envision [see] our rights in this revolution and in toppling this Assad regime with all its symbols," said Radwan Hussein, a Syrian Kurd, as he protested outside an Arab League meeting in Cairo.

But for the Kurds, the challenges would not end with the downfall of President Assad.

"The regime is illegitimate," said Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, secretary-general of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria. "We’re done with that already. But we need to think of a post-Assad era now."

Kurds seek parity

As the former head of the Kurdish National Council, a unified bloc of Kurdish parties, Bashar outlined the Kurdish demands to join the Syrian National Council, Syria’s opposition umbrella group.

They are seeking constitutional recognition, human rights initiatives, compensation for suffering, and participation in a nationwide democratic process. They promote the idea of a decentralized government, a decision to be made by Syrians through a referendum vote. And they want to drop the word "Arab" from the country's official name.

"Arab nationalists need to understand that Syria doesn’t only belong to them," Bashar said. "They shouldn’t hijack the revolution for their own agendas."

This stance has left them at odds with opposition groups.

The Kurdish delegation walked out of a meeting of Syrian opposition figures in Istanbul this week. In protest, the Kurds refused to sign on to a declaration naming the opposition Syrian National Council as the "formal interlocutor and formal representative of the Syrian people."

The SNC is emerging as the main political group backed by the West and Arab nations as the replacement for the Assad government.

Tipping the scales

Michael Weiss of the London-based Henry Jackson Society said the Kurds are the "decisive minority group" in Syria playing a "savvy game" with the opposition to ensure their rights.

"It’s hard to imagine the revolution succeeding without their full participation in it," he said.

Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser for the Middle East at the Stimson Center, says Kurdish support for the opposition would force a tougher hand on Kurds by the Assad government.

The Assad government has minimized its assault on Kurdish areas in what analysts see as an attempt to keep the Kurds from rising up.

"The eastern part of Syria has been relatively quiet," Yacoubian said. "If the Kurds decide they want to throw their lot in with the opposition, I think that could change things significantly."

But Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, says he believes the opposition can succeed without the Kurds.

"I think some of them are watching and waiting to see which way it might swing," he said. "And if it was swinging in favor of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, I think the Kurds would very quickly become a part of it. But I don’t think their involvement is absolutely essential."

Back at the refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border, Ciwan wants to bring his son home to a Syria free of the Assad government where he could live freely as a Kurd.

"All we want is to have our rights," he said.

Henry Ridgwell in Turkey, Elizabeth Arrott in Cairo and Sirwan Kajjo in Washington contributed to this report.

Join the conversation on our social journalism site - Middle East Voices. Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Will Cuba Follow the Southeast Asia Model?

Decision to restore ties between US and Cuba has some debating whether it will lead to enhancement or regression of democracy for Communist island nation More

Kenyan Designer Finds Her Niche in Fashion Industry

‘Made in China’ fabrics underlie her success More

Report: CIA, Israel's Mossad Killed Senior Hezbollah Commander

The Washington Post story says Imad Mughniyah was killed instantly by a bomb "triggered remotely" from Tel Aviv by Mossad agents More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: amed
April 18, 2012 2:49 PM
Kurds choose neither Assad or SNC as they all against Kurds and they all see Kurds as enemy why we need to side with any of them, SNC even didnt accept Kurdish rights in Syria as Kurds dont have to live with murderers and they always have right for self determination for independent Kurdistan we do not recognize artificial borders those drawn by westerns


by: sam
April 07, 2012 10:29 AM
All syrian must united agianst this bloody dictator and his family.. go to hill Assad


by: carlitosway
April 03, 2012 5:56 AM
All this false fight for freedom, is really a foreign intervention to weaken the Region, so people are left to fight each other like Irak, Lybia, while Israel ,USA can bomb Iran, next on the line of internal conflict between people who lived togheter for many years is Syria, Iran, China, Russia, what color revolution is next?


by: S
March 31, 2012 9:38 PM
I can't believe how many people readily assume "human being" status. Human rights for human beings not merely for homo sapiens. Message to Assad: "smash them all".


by: Hassan
March 30, 2012 9:31 AM
The Kurds can stick with the Assad dictatorship and have no Syrian citizenship and no rights as human beings or they can stand against the Assad dictatorship for a real life of freedom, justice and equal rights in a democratic Syria without the murderous Ba’ath Party.


by: Hejar
March 29, 2012 3:09 PM
The opposition has many elements of religious fanatics and Arab nationalists. Kurds, Christians, and Alewites should be very worried about post Assad.


by: Carlos
March 29, 2012 11:30 AM
President Obama is acting like a coward .. he has watched for 380 days .. and talked, and talked and talked and talked .. America is that home of the brave.. and the good .. not the politically cautious .. America needs a new president ..

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Lateri
X
Deborah Block
January 31, 2015 12:12 AM
Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Later

Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid