Turbulent times for Kurds in Syria

The Kurds have an old saying, based on long and bitter experience, that they have no friends but the mountains. This refers to many instances when taking to the mountains was the only refuge from murder and mayhem.

The Kurds in Iraq have successfully built a strong, stable and dynamic autonomous region within Iraq and there is some progress towards fairness for Kurds in Turkey although there is a long way to go to achieve equality, while the plight of Kurds in Iran remains terrible. The other major struggle for the Kurds is in Syria.

Democrats will rejoice when Assad’s murderous regime is overthrown in Syria, where over 5,000 people have been gunned down in the streets and the regime desperately clings on to power.

Like any other country that has suffered at the hands of a totalitarian regime it will take time to effect a transition to democracy and great effort to avoid new conflicts based on suppressed ethnic divisions.

The Syrian revolution could carry the seeds of such destructiveness unless its leading elements do more to enshrine pluralism now and fair treatment for all minorities.

The current regime is based on the minority Shia Alawites who are about 10 per cent of the population but are dominant in state and military institutions. Apart from those with blood on their hands they need guarantees that the new Syria won’t be based on simple majority rule by the Sunnis who are approximately 55 per cent of the population. Without it, many Alawites may conclude that they have no safe future and little interest in backing the overthrow of Assad.

The Kurds of Syria form another large national grouping of about 15 per cent of the population. Figures are rough since there has been no census for two generations.

The Syrian Kurds have suffered badly from Arab supremacist ideology and have sometimes been described as foreigners although they have been part of Syria since its formation.

The Kurds see themselves as ‘part and parcel of the Syrian revolution’, according to Dr Abdulhakim Bashar who I met just after he met the UK’s Middle East minister, Alistair Burt.

Dr Bashar, who is a paediatrician, is a veteran of Syrian Kurdish politics. He joined its Kurdistan Democratic party in 1976 and is now its general secretary as well as the elected head of the Kurdistan National Council which brings together 11 Kurdish parties and many independents, including women.

The KNC argues for political decentralisation in the new Syria and for the country to become a multicultural, multinational and multilingual nation.

He says that the Syrian Kurds seek to exercise their right to self-determination in a referendum in what he calls their ‘historical homelands’ but stresses that this will be within the current territory of Syria rather than seeking to change the borders.

That could take the form of either some form of federalism or autonomous regions. He is attracted by a Swiss-style system of cantons and the Kurds are campaigning for cultural rights including being able to speak Kurdish and their own schools and satellite broadcasting.

Dr Bashar also favours a secular constitution which separates religion from the constitution and could see the election of a Christian as president as well as enshrining women’s rights. He is deeply concerned by the lack of clarity in the Sunni-dominated Syrian National Council’s plans which talks unconvincingly about what it calls a civil society option.

Dr Bashar has asked the UK government to use its influence with Turkey which plays a pivotal role in supporting the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian Kurds have a difficult position to promote. They clearly want a united opposition to Assad but their history makes it essential for them to seek assurances that the new Syria will not revert to the historical pattern of oppression against the Kurds and other minorities.

The fall of the Assad regime will rightly be acclaimed but in what may yet to be a long and bloody revolution more and more people with influence should help lay the ground for a pluralist Syria. Lack of clarity on such essential questions could seriously impair the new Syria and make change more difficult. The Kurds of Syria need more friends rather than being forced to rely on the mountains in times of crisis.

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Gary Kent is director of Labour Friends of Iraq

Photo: Senol Demir

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