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.
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“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).
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
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
In April, Assad announced his government would grant citizenship
to Kurds living in and around Qamishli, an area with a majority Kurdish
A 1962 census deprived one-fifth of the area’s Kurds of
citizenship on the dubious pretext that they had infiltrated from Turkey decades
“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.”