Kurdish Activists Seek Assurances to Fully Join Revolt

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Demonstrators hold Syrian (L) and Kurdish flags as they march through the streets during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Amude. (Photo: REUTERS)

By: Ernest Khoury

Published Friday, October 21, 2011

The recent assassination of prominent Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo has many Kurdish opposition activists in Paris weighing the price and benefit of Kurds seeking total regime change.

Paris - Kurdish Syrians have come out in large numbers for the funeral of Mashaal Tammo, the assassinated leader of the Kurdish Future Movement. Tammo’s assassination in Qamishli sparked furious debate between Arab and Kurdish members of the Syrian opposition in Paris. Participants questioned Kurdish Syrians reluctance to join in the uprising.

Some asked whether Kurds clung to the regime because its policies are at least known. The nearly two million Syrian Kurds (according to Kurdish statistics) know the Baathist regime well, and may be unsure of what will replace it. Alternately, some wonder whether the regime won over Kurdish support when it offered close to 35,000 Kurds Syrian citizenship earlier this year. Kurds in Syria flocked to the streets to commemorate the death of their fallen leader, but what must the Syrian uprising’s leaders do to bring the Kurds out against the regime?

Kurdish activists in Paris who did not want to be identified think that the participation of as many as 150,000 demonstrators in Tammo’s funeral procession a few days ago was itself a message to the opposition groups, particularly the Syrian National Council (SNC). This action, they say, demonstrated that Kurds were capable of coming out in numbers to face death with courage and dignity. However, in order to stay in the streets, the Kurds want written guarantees from the SNC that the situation for Syria’s Kurdish minority will not deteriorate following the end of the current regime.

These activist said that Damascus’ decision to grant Syrian Kurds citizenship was a mockery. Around 30,000 reportedly refused the offer outright, while only 5,000 accepted. One activist called Kurds rejection of citizenship a refusal of the regime’s attempts to buy them off. He said that Kurds and all other Syrians have been harmed by the regime. The activists blamed the “traditional Syrian opposition” for standing against Kurds “on a number of occasions...most recently after the Qamishli riots in March of 2004.”

As for relations between the Kurdish community and the SNC, they are not as good as they could be. For example, when activist Suhair Atassi announced that she was joining the SNC, she saluted many Syrian cities by name, while not mentioning any cities with a Kurdish majority. Therein lies the importance of Tammo, who represented Kurdish youth in the SNC. He was able to effectively reach out to Syrian Arabs, while also mobilizing the Kurdish youth to protest. Indeed, members of his Future Movement were put off by the SNC’s failure to properly honor Tammo following his assassination.

Hearing discussions of Arabs and Kurds living in Paris, it is clear that both are trying to overcome divisions between them, many of which are rooted in the regime’s policies and provocations. Most of the speakers at last Friday’s memorial service held for Tammo in Paris said that he was killed by the regime to prevent dialogue and solidarity between Arabs and Kurds.

And yet, Syria’s Kurds have not carried their weight in anti-government demonstrations — despite the turnout at Tammo’s funeral procession — because they have a series of demands that must first be met. For example, they do not want a new constitution that characterizes Syria as Arab, i.e. they want to remove the word “Arab” from the country’s official name, the “Syrian Arab Republic.” Having given up their dreams of independence, the Kurds also expect a written promise from the SNC that in the next phase, Kurdish areas will have the right to self-governance, as in decentralization or federalism, as opposed to complete secession or independence.

A number of Kurdish activists also think that many Kurds are generally dissatisfied with the plan laid out by the SNC. Tammo understood the depth of this problem and tried to convince his Kurdish compatriots that “if we do not participate in the revolution, we will have no right afterwards to demand our rights, based on the principle that ‘the land belongs to those who liberate it.’”

But Tammo’s Future Movement also faces political competition from other Kurdish groups in Syria. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is considered the largest Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has its own take on Tammo’s murder. They claim that Turkey is behind the assassination of the Kurdish leader and they call the murder a message from Ankara to Damascus saying that Turkey is more than capable of spreading chaos in Syria. This allegation presumes that Turkey calculated Kurdish outcry against the Syrian regime.

But Arab members of the Syrian opposition suggested that the PKK may have killed Tammo, perhaps on behalf of the regime. This claim is fuelled by rumors that the PKK is under the direction of the Syrian military intelligence, given the regime’s ability to play the “Kurdish card” in its cold war with Ankara.

According to one Kurdish member of the opposition, the focus must remain on the regime — Tammo’s real killer — without going on about which branch or group loyal to Damascus carried out the assassination. He justified this stance, saying he’s afraid that discussing a scenario in which the PYD or PKK was responsible for the assassination will cause infighting among the Kurdish community, which plays right into the regime’s strategy of divide and conquer.

But tensions among Syrian Kurds have surfaced since the beginning of the uprising. The PYD and the Future Movement mainly differ on their position toward the Syrian opposition. The PYD generally prefers to follow its own agenda, without committing itself to alliances with Arab parties or even other Kurdish groups. Whereas the Future Movement have preferred to ally themselves with Arabs of the opposition, even joining the SNC when it formed.

Prior to his involvement in the SNC, Tammo was active alongside other Arab opponents of the regime. He worked alongside Faiz Sara, for example, in the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, a Syrian reform group. He also played a prominent role in attempts by a group of Syrian figures, most notably Haitham al-Maleh, Walid al-Bunni, and Nawaf al-Bashir, to hold a ‘national salvation’ conference in Damascus last summer.

Sources familiar with Kurdish affairs in Syria said that the large turnout at Tammo’s funeral will not fundamentally change Kurdish participation in the revolution. However, a Parisian activist — a Christian who lived in the Kurdish city of Qamishli — explained the lack of Kurdish participation in the demonstrations as an indication of the Kurdish parties’ waning influence over their constituencies. He pointed out that the majority of Kurdish parties operating openly in Syria today are controlled by the regime. Thus, not many people attach great importance to the nominal participation of Kurdish parties in the SNC.

Kurds may also be discouraged from participating in the uprising, due to Turkey’s significant role in supporting the opposition, with many opposition meetings taking place within Turkey. According to one opposition activist in Paris, the Turkish government has been preventing Kurdish delegates from entering the country to participate in the meetings, as Ankara is wary of Syria’s Kurds.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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