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

Nearly Every Job in America Mapped in Detail

A nifty map pinpoints practically every job in the United States, revealing the economic character of America’s metropolitan areas, which also helps to inform the local culture

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs