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Peace with post-Assad Syria possible, dissident says
By OREN KESSLER
08/30/2011
Syrian Kurdish opposition leader to 'Post': "Many members of the Syrian Democracy Council have no problem recognizing Israel, making peace."
 
A functioning, democratic Syria at peace with its neighbors is possible in the post- Bashar Assad era, a Washington- based Syrian Kurdish opposition leader told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

“We have a new vision for Syria – a federal Syria, a just Syria – not an Arab republic – that is inclusive, whether you’re Kurd or Arab, Christian or Muslim,” said Sherkoh Abbas, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KNAS).

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He said a country as heterogeneous as Syria is best suited to a federal model, in which areas with high minority populations enjoy certain powers not wielded by the national government.

The new Syria that Abbas envisions would be at peace with all of its neighbors, including Israel.

“Many Syrian religious and tribal leaders who are now part of the Syrian Democracy Council have no problem recognizing Israel and making peace,” he said. “They want to focus on Syria, and they have problems replacing one dictator with another – whether that’s Islamists or another group.”

Abbas dismissed the notion that because Assad has kept the Syrian-Israeli border largely quiet during his reign, the Syrian president is somehow a force for regional stability.

“Look at Hamas and Hezbollah.

Is Israel more stable today, or its borders more secure?” he said. Syria is a major sponsor and arms supplier for both radical groups, and a close ally of Iran.

“The only people who benefit from this regime staying in power are Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other organizations that promote terrorism. Everyone else will win by removing this regime,” he said.

Of all Syrians, he said, Kurds are among the most favorably inclined to Israel. “Kurds in general have absolutely no problem with Israel. Israelis don’t kill us; they don’t take our land or oppress us. Why would we have a problem?” he said. “As for Kurdish religious leaders, they often say that the Koran says Israel belongs to the Jews, who are God’s chosen people, so why we should fight them? Even atheists say why should we fight the fight of Arab nationalism, which uses Islam to serve its own needs? We don’t want to fight – Jews are God’s people as well.”

Since it was taken over by the Ba’ath Party in 1961, Syria – or officially, the Syrian Arab Republic – has systematically discriminated against Kurds living in its northeast and along the Turkish border. The Kurdish flag and language are banned, land confiscation and resettlement are common and an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Syrian Kurds are without Syrian citizenship.

“There are close to 4 million Kurds in Syria, but in the Syrian Constitution we don’t exist,” Abbas said. “The Kurds in Syria have been ignored for more than five decades.”

Abbas founded the KNAS, an umbrella group of Syrian Kurdish parties, in 2006 to give a voice to a community whose leadership had been all but silenced over decades of Ba’ath rule. “Most leaders of Kurdish political parties in Syria are in jail, so we had to come up with an alternative for bringing out the voice of the Syrian Kurds to the international community,” he said.

Abbas is also a member of the Syrian Democracy Council, a coalition of Syrian ethnic and religious groups – Arab, Kurdish, Druze, Assyrian Christian, Alawite and others – that he says strives to create a democratic Syria as an alternative to either the current regime’s radical Arab nationalism or the Islamism of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The KNAS had sent unofficial representatives to a June conference of the Syrian opposition in Turkey, but Abbas said the group quickly withdrew its representatives after discovering that Turkey was actively supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties at the other factions’ expense. Ankara’s support of those groups, he said, was aimed at ensuring that Kurds in Syria – and by extension, in Turkey – remain in a disadvantaged position.

Abbas said the West needs to take firmer diplomatic action to help push Assad aside. “Now is the time for the international community, the US, Europeans and Israel to push for democracy in Syria,” he said.

“We can learn from the experience in Iran in 1979, where the Americans and Europeans didn’t support the minorities and democratic groups, and that’s why opportunity was given to the Islamists there.”

Still, he said, fears of an Islamist takeover in Syria are overblown, as the Muslim Brotherhood is far less popular in the country than in Egypt, where some experts expect the group to receive a plurality of votes in national elections later this year. “Most people rising up in Syria are not Islamists,” he said. “But the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey and some Salafis from the Gulf countries are trying to divert this revolution in a different direction.”

Abbas said distorted census numbers help the Assad regime claim Islamist power is greater in Syria than it actually is.

“Now they say Kurds make up 10 percent of the population, whereas two years ago they said it was zero percent. We say we’re about 20%. There are about a million Kurds in Damascus, 800,000 in Aleppo and 2.5 million in the Kurdish region in Hasaka and along the Turkish border – that’s closely to 4 million Kurds,” he said.

“So you have Kurds, Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and Christians – that makes up about 50% who are not Sunni and Arab. And if you look at the Sunni Arabs, most aren’t even pro-Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

Abbas hails from Qamishli, the main Kurdish hub in Syria’s northeast, which has seen significant protests during the five-month Syrian uprising. He has lived in exile in Washington for close to three decades.

In April, Assad announced his government would grant citizenship to Kurds living in and around Qamishli, an area with a majority Kurdish population.

A 1962 census deprived one-fifth of the area’s Kurds of citizenship on the dubious pretext that they had infiltrated from Turkey decades earlier.

“They created the problem and now they’re making it seem as if they’re trying to resolve it,” Abbas said, adding that of the hundreds of thousands of stateless Kurds, only about 3,500 have been granted citizenship since the announcement.

Syria’s future – and that of its Kurds – hangs in the balance, but there is one thing Abbas is certain of. “Dynasties have a beginning and end,” he said.

“The Assad dynasty’s end is near.”

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