For long-suffering Kurds in Syria, the boot is on the other foot

With protests, government crackdowns and the current crisis for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad deepening by the day, a confident mood is in the air that the once unthinkable may soon be a reality – the end of the Syrian Baathist dictatorship. Nowhere in Syria will this dawn be heralded more than in Syrian Kurdistan.

The ever-changing Middle Eastern political landscape and the current wave of revolutionary doctrine prompting a bold new democratic era may be predominantly Arab-based, but poses a unique opportunity for Kurds in Syria. If the protests and the reformist euphoria were called Arab Spring, then it can certainly have a Kurdish Summer ending.

If the Arabs in Syria had reasons for common frustration, grievances and anger at decades of iron-fisted Baathist control, corruption and lack of freedom, just imagine how the Kurds feel.

The Kurds in Syria, although they make up more than 10 percent of the population, have been left on the scrap heap of Syrian society and have a second-class status, without cultural freedom, political representation, investment, access to basic services and, for more than 300,000, not even an official existence on the lands of their ancestors.

While the protests and rallies in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were dramatic and highly publicized, the Syrian revolt has only slowly gotten the coverage it deserves in Western media. Protests were initially sporadic and localized, but a heavy-handed response by Assad’s regime, coupled with increasing public bitterness and a growing feeling that the Assad’s grip on power is cracking, has added considerable fuel to the Syrian movement.

The Kurds were slow to immerse themselves in the brewing unrest, fearing separatist accusations and a backlash from Arab nationalists, but they are without a doubt the key to the unlocking the regime. Assad’s government quickly acknowledged this reality with a number of diplomatic and political overtures to the Kurds, including the granting of citizenship to stateless Kurds and promising greater reforms.

When the masses lose fear and have nothing to lose, there is no point of return. As Karl Marx famously proclaimed to the workers: “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” This statement could not be truer for the Kurds.

Having endured decades of repression, systematic discrimination, imprisonment and, for a large portion of Kurds, not even the basic right of citizenship, the time for half-measures or compromise is long gone. The boot is now on the other foot and this is clearly recognized by the Assad government.

With reports of Assad inviting representatives from 12 Kurdish parties for talks, there is no greater indication of the historic leverage the Kurds now posses.

If the Arabs can bring the Syrian government to its knees, then the Kurds can certainly serve the knock-out blow. Assad knows that if he can win over the Kurds, and a large portion of discontent, he may be better able to alienate the Arab voices.

Kurds in Syria must not be fooled by symbolic gestures or temporary overtures. The granting of citizenship to stateless Kurds, the end of emergency rule, the release of political prisoners and more cultural rights is not a concession by the Syrian government, it is only giving to the Kurds their basic human rights.

Decades of emotional scars, destruction, repression and systematic denial cannot be eroded in mere days. The question for the Kurds is whether Assad would be promising the same reform and reaching the same hand to the Kurds if he were not on the brink.

Assad is politically wounded and if the Kurds are to apply the dressing and salve to heal his pain, then this must come at a heavy price.

As the Kurds are approached and courted by contrasting sides of the government and opposition groups, the fundamental goal does not change.

Kurds recently took part in a summit in Turkey, along with other key oppositional leaders, intellectuals and journalists, which was hailed as a success and an iconic stepping stone to uniting opposition forces.

While Arab opposition and discord with successive governments is not new, they have failed to unite under a common voice and vision and, more importantly, have continuously failed to effectively entice Kurds to join the fold. The failure to invite some of the top Kurdish parties to the Antalya conference underpins this mindset.

The Kurds must be clear in their demands and the future they envision for their region. Just as one Arab nationalist may depart, the Kurds would be unwise to assume that only fraternity and union will commence. The price for Kurdish support of either the opposition or the ailing government must come with heavy concessions and the rewriting of the constitution.

The basic demands should include the granting of autonomy, recognition as the second nation in Syria, cultural freedoms and unmolested political representation.

While the U.S. and Western voices of concern and warnings have progressively grown, Washington and European countries have been slow to formulate a policy against Assad and introduce firm measures against the regime to show their intent. This is highlighted by the time taken to issue a UN resolution, which is likely to be vetoed by Russia, a key Syrian ally.

In reality, Syria is a sensitive addition to the agenda of the new reformist wave for a number of reasons. At the heart of almost every Middle Eastern political storm or juncture, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, anti-Israeli sentiments, Hamas in Palestine, insurgency in Iraq and the growing power of Tehran, lays Damascus. A new passage in Syria will turn the pages of history more than has been felt anywhere else in this revolutionary dawn.

As a stable pan-Arab nationalist state, many of the neighbouring Sunni elite, particularly Saudi Arabia and Jordan, will be watching with great concern. As with Iraq, Syria has a wide array of sectarian and ethnic mixes and a regime collapse will leave Western and regional powers weary.
Furthermore, Western powers do not have the power of the Arab League and so intervention will not match that of Libya.

Unlike in Egypt, Syrian security forces, mostly made up of the Alawite minority, are loyalists and Assad continue to have a strong support base across segments of society, but particularly the middle classes and the minorities that continue to flourish under his power.

However, as the protests continue to gain momentum, and if the Kurds can join in en masse, even if Assad remains in power, his rule will never be the same.

There are increasing signs that Turkey, once a foe of Syria, is losing patience with the government. However, from a Kurdish perspective, the greatest advocates of their rights should be from the KRG, a strategic power, a stone’s throw across the border.

The Kurds have been continuously carved and divided, yet the Kurds often choose to divide themselves into further pieces. A Syrian, Iranian, Turkish or Iraqi Kurd is absolutely no different to any other. Just as their ancestral lands were selfishly carved by imperialist powers, this does not mean you divide hearts, history, culture or heritage.

The KRG must place the Syrian government under pressure to reconcile with the Kurds and ensure the Kurds achieve their elusive rights. The KRG should represent a figure of hope and a role model for the Syrian Kurds not a distant, passive brother. What good is a flourishing Kurdistan Region in Iraq, if Kurds elsewhere continuously suffer?

Reports that KRG President Massoud Barzani refused to meet the Syrian foreign minister in Iraq, on an apparent mission to seek KRG help in reigning in the Syrian Kurds, is a welcome step.
It remains to be seen whether Assad’s plans to meet with the Kurds, in addition to establishing a national dialogue committee to appease opposition forces, will make any significant inroads in curtailing the Syrian revolutionary machine, however, the Kurds are in an unprecedented driving seat and anything less than second best and their full entitlement of rights may see them miss out on a great historic opportunity.

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel

Editorial: The Kurdish Globe

June 11, 2011


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