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Syria's Kurds Divided On Syrian Opposition

Kurdish antigovernment demonstrators march through the streets in the Syrian town of Qamishli in October.
ISTANBUL -- Syria's Kurdish minority has suffered more than most under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, and his father before him. Numerous massacres and political assassinations have been carried out against the restive minority, long-suspected by the ruling regime of secessionist aspirations.

Most recently, Syrian security forces have been blamed for October's assassination of a leading Kurdish figure, Mishaal al-Tammo, after he allied himself with the Syrian opposition.

But despite the history of hostility, the Syrian regime is now actively courting the Kurdish minority as an ally. Basma Kodmani, spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), says the government's policy is meeting with some success.

"The regime has tried different options to convince the Kurds to stay behind the regime," Kodmani says. "First, 'We will give you back Syrian nationality,' which they have lost. Then promises of some form of autonomy within Syria -- perhaps other promises that we don't quite know of. We suspect that the regime is willing even to endanger the unity of the national territory. But it has neither convinced all the Kurds, nor has it moved all of them into the opposition. We still have a split within the Kurds, definitely."

Restrained Response

Protests against the Assad regime are taking place in Kurdish towns, but reports indicate the security forces have been in many cases restrained in their response against them.

Mughbir al-Sharif is a member of the Syrian Revolution Istanbul Committee, a Syrian opposition group based in Istanbul. He says while many Kurds do oppose Assad, suspicions remain -- especially among Kurdish leaders -- about the opposition.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad greets the crowd during a visit to Raqqa on November 6.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad greets the crowd during a visit to Raqqa on November 6.
"They might be afraid if Assad goes," Sharif says. "For example, now it is the Syrian Arab Republic of Syria. So they demand the removal of the word 'Arabic.' They want the 'Republic of Syria'. The reaction when the Syrian National Council got this demand -- I didn't think they would accept it and they did not."

Another complicating factor is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is fighting for autonomy in neighboring Turkey. Syrian Kurds are believed to make up as much as one-third of the PKK's membership and the group is a powerful political force among Kurds in Syria. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was hosted by Damascus, until Ankara threatened to invade in 1999. Ocalan was promptly expelled, heralding a period of Turkish-Syrian rapprochement. But with Ankara now taking steps to ally itself with the opposition SNC, Damascus is free again to court the PKK.

'This Is The Danger'

Murat Bilhan, an international relations expert with Istanbul's Kultur University, says the move will not only strengthen the regime's position at home, but would also punish Ankara.
It's not only the Kurds -- I believe all the Syrians are worried what the regime will be after this regime falls.
Abdul Aziz al-Khair

"I would understand Assad if he wants to damage Turkey. He would do so, because he has been damaged by Turkey," Bilhan says. "So he would, of course, do anything to harm Turkey. And he does, and this is the danger."

A Turkish newspaper recently published pictures of what it claimed was a PKK base in neighboring Syria.

At the same time, Ankara's strong support for the Istanbul-based SNC is only adding to suspicions among some Syrian Kurds, according to observers.

Another opposition group, the Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), recently held negotiations in Cairo with representatives of Kurdish groups, including those that are sympathetic to the PKK.

Regional Approach

Abdul Aziz al-Khair, spokesman of the NCC, admits there are concerns among Kurds over the nature of a post-Assad regime.

"It's not only the Kurds -- I believe all the Syrians are worried what the regime will be after this regime falls," Khair says. "And there is something to be done to ease the worry in this field. That's what we are trying to do [through] our talks now."

With Kurds living across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, Kodmani of the SNC says a regional approach has to be taken. She says they are now reaching out to Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government for help.

"This is a regional issue. The Kurds in Iraq have gone in a different direction," she says. "We feel the need for dialogue with the Kurds in Iraq to ensure that the Kurds in Syria do not see their future similar to that of the Iraqi Kurds."

The KRG acknowledge they have begun negotiations with the SNC. But Kurdistan Regional Government spokesman Falah Mustafa Bakir says that rather than taking sides in the ongoing conflict in Syria, the priority is to look out for the interests of the Syrian Kurds.

"The important thing for us is the Kurds in Syria to get united to have a clear vision for their future in Syria," Bakir says. "For them to ask for their rights, peacefully, and to ensure they will be treated respectfully and equally, by both the current government or the current opposition."

For the Syrian opposition, securing the full support of the country's Kurdish minority would not only be a major boost to their goal of ending Assad's rule but could be crucial for the future unity of a new Syria.