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
Given the totalitarian nature of Ba’athist 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
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 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 nonviolent struggle to remove the regime and elect a government
committed to the universal values of freedom, human rights and
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.
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.
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.
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 percent of Syria’s total population (or almost two
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. Short-changing the Kurds will undoubtedly raise serious concerns
among other minorities within the country such as the Armenians, the Druse and
other groups, that will fear similar marginalization within the new
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.
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
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
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 12th century,
and this time, too, Arabs and the Kurds can join forces to defeat injustice that
has plagued them from within.The writer is a professor of international
relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on
international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.