Syria’s Kurds – the screw in the regime’s coffin?
The election of the Syrian Kurd Abdelbasset Sieda as president of the Syrian National Council (SNC) brought the question of the position of the estimated 2 million Kurds in the ongoing war in Syria back on the agenda.[i]
[..]In 1962, 120,000-150,000 Syrian Kurds were stripped of citizenship (only partially reinstalled in 2011) and between 1963 and 1976, major resettlement policies took place in order to Arabize Syria’s Northeast. The subsequently increased territorial dispersion further enhanced the Kurds’ historical fragmentation and weakened their economic and societal position. Hafez al-Assad limited the political cooptation of Kurds, in contrast to other minorities, to a handful of secular leftwing politicians like the Communist Party leader Khalid Bagdash. By securing the predominance of secular ethno-nationalist groups in the Kurdish political arenalike the Union Democratic Party (PYD) and given the prominent role of political Islam among Arab opposition forces, the regime was so far able to prevent an alignment along confessional lines between Kurdish and Arab Sunnis (making out some 75% of the total population).
The strong role of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC and the council’s close ties to Turkey and the Gulf States raise concerns among secular nationalist Kurdish groups that they might again end up on the loosing side of political turmoil in the region. These fears were further fomented by State media, which repeatedly stressed the involvement of radical Islamist forces in the uprising, historical anti-Turkish sentiments especially in the Jazeera region, where thousands of Kurds fled to from Turkey in the 1920s, and the SNC’s reluctance to not only seek recognition of the Kurdish identity – highly disputed among non-Kurdish opposition groups – but also a guarantee that the future Syria will have a multi-ethnic instead of an Arab character. On the other hand, giving in to Kurdish demands for political decentralization would put serious danger to the already instable cohesion of the SNC and estrange it from the council’s main supporter – Turkey.[iii] Failing to include the Kurds in the vision of a post-Assad scenario, however, is not an option, given the threat of territorial disintegration and its implications for stability in Turkey’s Southeast.
Many have criticized the election of Sieda as a primarily cosmetic change by the SNC in order to reach out to the Syrian minorities without actually changing the Council’s majority-oriented agenda and as a move unlikely to unite the Kurds against the central government. Nevertheless, the election should be seen as only one of several steps of both the SNC and Turkey in their maybe game-changing tug-of-war with the PYD over the Syrian Kurds.
Firstly, given the damage done among others by Sieda’s predecessor Ghalioun who angered many by stating “there is no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan”, there is not much to loose given the SNC’s image among the Kurds[iv]. After Sieda’s election, the Kurdish National Council, consisting of many groups that had previously left the SNC, expressed hope for renewed cooperation.
Secondly, Turkish FM Ahmet Davuto?lu called Sieda and his fellow Kurdish Opposition figures“our Kurdish brothers” and aimed at decreasing at the same time fears that Syria might turn into a Turkish Satellite state and pan-Kurdish sentiments by stating “the most important thing is that Syrians were deciding their fate”[v].
Thirdly, by closing ranks with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government against Damascus, Ankara gained another important tool to sideline forces hostile to it among both Syrian and Turkish Kurds[vi].
When unknown perpetrators murdered Kurdish opposition figure Mashaal Tammo – a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) – in October 2011, more than 50,000 took the streets in al-Qamishli and dozens of Kurds living in Western Europe attacked Syrian embassies abroad. However, despite Tammo’s son Fares threatened that the “assassination is the screw in the regime’s coffin”[vii], Syria’s political Kurdish landscape remained scattered and indecisive towards their stance in the ongoing conflict as well as their expectations for a Post-Assad scenario. Whether the Ankara-Erbil-alignment and the increased appeals of the SNC to the Kurds are sufficient steps to fulfill Fares Tammo’s prophecy remains to be seen.