Mar 27th 2012

Syrian Kurds: Time to Assert their Rights

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Regardless of what may come out of Kofi Annan’s peace plan to end the internal conflict in Syria, and whatever may emerge from the Arab League meeting this week in Baghdad, the prospect of Assad’s fall offers the Kurdish minority in Syria a historic opportunity to gain equal political and civil rights. Given the totalitarian nature of Baathist rule under Assad, the regime’s fall in Syria will take the entire system of government down with it, much like Saddam’s Iraq in 2003. But unlike Iraq’s Kurds who have enjoyed virtual autonomy since 1991 when the United States enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, Syria’s Kurds are less organized and more divided. Syrian Kurds need to close ranks, fully join the Syrian people in pursuit of freedom, and not allow this historic window of opportunity to slip away. 

Unless it wishes to preside over a divided Syria where the Kurds could contribute to prolonged instability, any elected government emerging in the post-Assad Syria must commit itself to the equality of all Syrian citizens, regardless of their ethnic background. The Kurdish nation constitutes a population of more than 40 million people, the majority of whom live on a contiguous landmass that includes Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurds are the world’s largest minority group that remains stateless. The nearly century-old denial of equal political and civil rights for Kurds in these four countries has been a contentious issue with all Kurdish minorities ever since the Kurdish territory was divided after World War I between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, with the sole exception of the short-lived Kingdom of Kurdistan from September 1922 to July 1924 when the Kurds enjoyed political independence. Although in all host countries the Kurds are discriminated against in varying degrees, their living conditions in Syria are even worse as many are denied citizenship, land ownership, and even the freedom of movement within the country.  

To fully gain from the popular revolt and achieve equal rights with the rest of the Syrian people, Syria’s Kurds need to take five central steps and remain consistent and unwavering, regardless of how treacherous the road to freedom may be. 

First, they must organize themselves and develop a coherent agenda, which they can use to advance from the early stages of the revolution, until President Assad is deposed and the country moves toward a clear reform. The Syrian Kurds need to assert themselves as an integral part of the Syrian population and identify with the Syrian people’s just and non-violent struggle to remove the regime and elect a government committed to the universal values of freedom, human rights, and democracy. The Syrian Kurds should not, at this juncture, seek either the establishment of a federal system or strive for an autonomous region. Instead, they should commit themselves to Syria’s unity and its constitutional laws, which will be collectively-enacted by a new parliament. 

Second, rival Kurdish groups must end their deep divisions and present a unified approach if they want to be recognized and dealt with seriously. The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) supports the removal of the Assad regime while the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has close ties to Turkey’s PKK, is concerned that Assad’s removal will lead to the dominance of the Turkish-supported Muslim Brotherhood which would maintain the same anti-Kurd policy. The Assad regime is currently exploiting the Kurdish division by allowing the PYD leadership to return from exile while permitting it to open Kurdish language schools, cultural centers, and party offices in Syrian cities. The success of the Syrian Kurds in achieving true equality will ultimately depend on their ability to unite, and remain united, throughout the revolutionary process. PYD leadership must be reminded that its pro-Assad approach is a losing strategy in either case: if the regime survives, albeit unlikely, it will not hesitate to revoke all of the concessions it has made in time of crisis, and if the regime falls, which is more likely, the new government will probably settle the account (for supporting Assad) with the PYD and the Kurds. 

Third, the leadership of the Kurds must demand and insist on proportional representation within the Syrian National Council (SNC). Currently there is only one delegate, which is hardly representative of the size of the Kurdish community in Syria, a community that constitutes 10-12% of Syria’s total population (or almost two million people). While KDPS, the SNC’s main Kurdish component, should work harder to convince other reluctant parties, particularly the PYD to join forces, the SNC should be aware that it could also significantly benefit from a broader Kurdish representation if it wants to be seriously representative of the Syrian people and its political, ethnic, and religious mosaic. Shortchanging the Kurds will undoubtedly raise serious concerns among other minorities within the country such as the Armenians, the Druze, and other groups, that will fear similar marginalization within the new Syria. 

Fourth, the Kurdish leadership should approach their relationship with Turkey with caution. Since the SNC is headquartered in Istanbul, it is certainly influenced by the Erdogan government, which does not want, for obvious reasons, to encourage federal or autonomous solutions for the Kurds. Syria’s Kurds have every reason to question Turkey’s intentions because Ankara clearly wants to see the Muslim Brotherhood, with which it has a close affinity, in power in Damascus. Moreover, the Kurds do not rule out a possible Turkish military intervention in Syria to ensure stability. Such an intervention will still be used to solidify the dominance of the MB. Nevertheless, the Syrian Kurdish leadership should cooperate and enhance its relations with Turkey not only because it is premature for Syria’s divided Kurds to challenge Turkey’s plan but also because the Kurds’ sole other option is anathema: an Assad regime that is closer than ever to Iran. 

Finally, the Syrian Kurds should learn from, and ask for the support of, their brethren, the Iraqi Kurds, who benefited greatly from the fall of Saddam Hussein and are currently running the Kurdistan region as a prosperous island of stability within a conflict-torn Iraq. Since affinity between the Kurds (regardless of their country of residence) is stronger than the affinity to their separate host states, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region is a natural ally and is freer to help the Kurds’ cause in Syria in contrast to the Iraqi government, which tacitly supports Assad. Syria’s Kurds can benefit from their Iraqi brethren in experience, ranging from the reconciliation between the rivaling Talabani-faction Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party and Barzani-faction Kurdistan Democratic Party, to the gradual, peaceful approach to achieving autonomy within a nation state should the effort to attain full integration fail. 

In conclusion, it is time for Syria’s Kurds to close ranks and join the Syrian people’s march for freedom and demand their own basic rights from a future Syrian government, which they themselves must help shape. The Arab revolutions are as historically exceptional and unparalleled as the victory of the Kurd-turned-Arab Saladin over the European Crusaders in the twelfth century, and this time, too, Arabs and the Kurds can join forces to defeat injustice that has plagued them from within.

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