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

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network 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.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs