By Eric Bruneau:
Will the Syrian uprising ignite the Kurdish powder-keg? Syria has a sizeable Kurdish population, marginalised by successive military regimes that have ruled Syria since independence, including the present day al Ba’ath regime. It is so surprising to see that, while the rest of Syria is torn by violence, the Kurdish populated provinces are remaining relatively quiet.
“It’s a tactical choice”, says a representative for the PYD (Democratic Union Party), a Syrian Kurd opposition party whose radical agenda and close links to the revolutionary PKK have made it a prominent enemy of the regime. “There is a de facto truce between the Kurds and the government. The security forces are overstretched facing demonstrators across Syria’s Arab provinces, and they cannot afford the opening of a second front in Syrian Kurdistan. On our side, we need the army to stay away. Our party is busy establishing organisations, committees, able to take over from the al-Ba’ath administration from the moment the regime collapses”.
Reports have claimed that, to enforce this truce, PYD cells in Afrin and Kobane stopped some Kurdish activists from organising demonstrations. The PYD claim that all their efforts are about maintaining calm to avoid a bloodbath and PYD chairman Saleh Muslim recently answered these allegations. They have been, a representative says, “advising youth to remain peaceful”.
“An open confrontation with the dictatorship would be disastrous”, he added. “Our people would become a military target, not only for the army but also for some militias of Arab settlers present in our provinces. The demonstrations would be turned into an ethnic conflict which the government would use to its advantage. As well, amongst the Arab opposition, some groups do not accept us Kurds as equal citizens. They want to keep Syria an Arab homeland, where minorities are kept in a state of submission. We need to build our strength to be able to deal with them on an equal basis at the fall of the regime”.
Hence the truce. But the assassination of Mishal Tammo, leader of the Kurdish Future Movement party, could compromise everyone’s calculations. At his funeral in his hometown of Qamishli (where there was a massacre of demonstrators in March 2004), 50000 mourners took to the streets, accusing the state secret police of having killed its opponent. Mourners were fired on by police – estimates are that between two and five people were killed, and countless others were wounded. Reports from inside the town say police were deployed around hospitals to prevent people giving blood for the victims.
The murder – and its potentially disastrous consequences – has infuriated the Turkish authorities. Their decades-long war against the PKK has recently resumed with a new intensity. For the past couple of years they have sought to encircle the insurgents in the mountains in Qandil in Northern Iraq, acting alongside Iran – itself engaged in an offensive against the PKK-aligned PJAK. They gained the support of Western democracies, which consider the PKK as a terrorist organisation and in March 2010 launched a series of coordinated police raids in Belgium, Italy and France to break the PKK support network in Europe. They enlisted Syria in this all-out offensive, organising common “military exercises” in April 2010, and enticing the Syrian government to step up its repression of PKK sympathisers on its territory. But relations between the two governments have soured since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. With Mishal Tammo’s assassination, the Turks fear to see turmoil reaching Syrian Kurdistan and the PKK seizing the opportunity to implant itself there with the help of the PYD.
Until 1999, the Syrian government allowed the PKK to run training camps on its territory. It was an opportunity to wage a proxy war against Turkey, with which it then had tense relations, while sending the more combative among the Kurds to get themselves killed on a foreign battlefield. It was normal for a young Kurd to join the organisation, very popular at the time. It is estimated there are today around 1,500 Syrians in the PKK’s army and it is not unusual, when entering a Kurdish household in Qamishli, to find a portrait of a family member who left to fight as a guerrilla. One so understands Turkey’s nervousness, thinking about the 800 km of border that it shares with its southern neighbour, dotted with Kurdish villages which it sees as so many potential PKK outposts.
But, for the PYD, turning Syrian Kurdistan into a second Qandil is not an option. “It is not in our agenda, and it would be very difficult from a practical point of view”, says Zuhat Kobani, a PYD representative. “But, more, a PKK presence in Syria would mean a Turkish military strike, which nobody wants. We do not avoid a confrontation with the Syrian army to get one with the Turks.” These denials do not prevent Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from waving threats at Ankara. “We have religious and ethnic difference, so has Turkey. If we have domestic disturbances, then so will Turkey”, he said ominously (quoted by S. Dermitas, co-chairman of the BDP – a party regularly accused of links with the PKK – in an interview with the Hurriyet newspaper the 13/10/2011), clearly hinting that his regime could back the insurgency inside Turkey, should Ankara continue to meddle with Syria’s internal politics.
The PYD says the Kurds must not become anyone’s pawn in the struggle for regional supremacy. “We will not help the dictatorship in any way”, continues Zuhat Kobani. “We want its fall. We do not have anything to expect from Bashar al-Assad and his generals. We Kurds come under criticism because we don’t join the mass demonstrations. I already explained it was a tactical choice. But look at from where these critics are coming: from groups or coalitions which are backed by the Turks, and which are very careful to avoid addressing any Kurdish demands”. The PYD accuses the Damascus Conference, held in Turkey, of actually serving Ankara’s agenda. “We want change. But it must come from the Syrians, and be for the Syrians. It must not come from any external power willing to reduce Syria to a satellite state. The PYD opposes any foreign intervention in Syria.”
What will happen if the present regime falls? This is a concern for all the Syrian factions, from the al-Ba’ath to the most determined reformists, passing through the entire religious, ethnic and political spectrum. Syrians are aware that another dictatorship could emerge from this agonising one. Zuhat Kobani and the other PYD delegates do not want to stop their actions with the collapse of the junta. “The demise of the police state is just the half-way point of the process. Other Kurdish parties want the establishment of a federal state. It is not enough. The PYD wants a system of self-governance, in which our communities are able to rule themselves, emancipated from a central government which, all through our history, always oppressed Kurds. It means a radical reform of Kurdish society. For this we need to educate our population, and that’s what the committees we’re creating are busy at now. Our cadres schools, until recently located in a neighbouring country, are now in Syria. We have opened schools in the Kurdish language, something unbelievable just eight months ago.” He concludes: “For the PYD, it is the moment to put our theories into application”.
But maybe – more than the opening of the ‘second front’ feared by the Syrian government – there is a danger of the Kurdish provinces bordering Turkey becoming the extension of another war.