A post-Assad Syria: What it means for the Kurds

By Juvan Bonni:

Massive demonstrations in Syrian cities that began in 2011 have quickly evolved into a full-blown civil war that encompasses the entire country today. Like all civil wars, Syria’s does not simply possess two opposing sides, but instead is multidimensional.

In early 2011, the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad began cracking down on protests that were voicing their discontent over high unemployment, corruption and political repression.[i] If ethnic cleansing and other racist polices were added to this list, such were the conditions of the Kurds of Syria for many difficult decades.

The Kurdish nation occupied by northern Syria has up until recently been hidden from the public eye, and until now Kurds have been denied citizenship by countless oppressive Arab regimes.[ii]

The Kurds are a nation of 40 million that have been denied a country of their own, having been divided by the imperialist hands of European state officials. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Laussane in 1923 was implemented, establishing Turkey, the British mandate of Iraq and the French Mandate of Syria. [iii]

With the eventual independence of Syria from the French in 1946, the rise of Arab nationalism soon followed, leading to a restriction on Kurdish rights and cultural expression.[iv]

The national and cultural identity of the Kurds soon became submerged under this overwhelming sense of Arab nationalism that was illustrated in the formation of the United Arab Republic in 1958 in which Syria and Egypt joined together to form one state entity. [v] After Syria broke away from Egypt, it became officially named the Syrian Arab Republic in 1961, a sign that it was quite adamant on keeping its Arab identity universal throughout the country. [vi]

Today, the major reason why Kurdish opposition groups are reluctant to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is because the FSA does not wish to change the official name of Syria to “Syrian Republic”, which would be more inclusive to Syrian minorities.

Muhammed Talab Hilal was the former chief of political police in the Al-Hasakah region of northwestern Syria under the Assad regime, and is a prime example of the racism, hatred and intolerance of the Arab public towards Kurds, referring to them “a violent mountain people”. [vii]

Hilal wrote 12 guidelines on assimilating Kurds, including dispersing them throughout Syria, denying them education, citizenship and employment, as well as spreading anti-Kurdish propaganda to make them feel insecure. [viii]

Although this particular policy was never ratified, many official discriminatory acts were carried out by Syrian regimes against the Kurds over the years. For example, up until today, Kurdish traditional holidays and festivals were deemed illegal.[ix]

Ethnic cleansing can be seen in all parts of Kurdistan, but this is especially true for the Kurds of Syria. The city of Afrîn has a large number of Arab residents who have been forced to move there in the last 40 years. [x]

Arabization has also plagued cities throughout Syrian-occupied Kurdistan. For example, the Kurdish towns of Kobanê and Serêkanî, are officially given the Arab names of Ayn al-Arab and Ras al-Ayn, respectively. [xi]

Because of the ongoing cruelty from Arab regimes experienced by Kurds, previous uprisings have taken place possessing similar motives to the current revolution.

In March of 2004, thousands of Kurds took to the streets of major cities such as Qamishili, staging mass protests in response to forty oppressive years under the Ba’ath party governments.

As with the Syrian opposition today, the Kurdish protesters were met with brutal military force from the government.

The Kurdish nation has long suffered discriminatory acts from many oppressive regimes of Syria, including that of Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Assad is seen as a hypocrite in the eyes of Kurds, as he talked of how the Kurdish nation in Syria contributed to the country’s history, while simultaneously making mass arrests of Kurds in May of 2004, and banning all Kurdish political parties a month later.

Fast-forwarding to June 2013, the Kurdish nation occupied by Syria finds itself virtually liberated. Kurdish flags now fly high over major Kurdish cities, including Qamishili, Kobanê and Serêkanî, which are now run by Kurdish liberation armies, including the Popular Protection Units (YPG) organized through the Kurdish political party known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The PYD and YPG, though mostly staying out of the civil war between government forces and the Free Syrian Army, have clashed against both of these parties in the process of maintaining their de-facto autonomy.

Unfortunately for the Kurds, there are many different Kurdish parties, all once illegal inside Syria, which today is causing a divide among Syrian Kurds.

Most of the smaller Kurdish parties have joined together, with the assistance and backing of President Massoud Barzani of Iraqi-occupied Kurdistan, to form the Kurdish National Council (KNC). This coalition of Kurdish parties has allied itself with the Syrian opposition movement, which includes the FSA and thus creates a divide between the KNC and PYD, since the PYD and the FSA have at times fought against each other.

The PYD is a splinter group from a Kurdish freedom fighter organization known as the PKK, which fights for the autonomy of Kurds in Turkey. Turkey therefore has backed the FSA in its fight, not only against the Syrian regime, but also against the PYD for fears that a post-Assad Syria might lead to a federal Syria, with a Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Syria.

Turkey’s fears of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria can be seen from its brutal and inhumane policies against its own Kurdish population in southeast Turkey.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds of Iraqi-occupied Kurdistan were granted a sense de-facto autonomy, much to Turkey’s distain. If Syrian-occupied Kurdistan were to achieve a similar outcome, this would encourage the Kurds of the Turkish southeast to further promote their own autonomy and pursue the formation of a greater Kurdistan.

What Kurds Should Aim to Accomplish: 

If the occupied Kurdish nation is ever to receive full autonomy in the future, unity is perhaps the most fundamental and important aspect for all Kurds.

Any sort of confrontation between the Kurdish parties of Syria should be avoided at all costs. Turkey would enjoy seeing a divide among Kurds of Syrian-occupied Kurdistan because this would prevent them from achieving autonomy.

A strong and binding alliance must be formed between the PYD and the KNC. A possibility is for the KNC to withdraw its support from the Syrian opposition movement, and focus on forming well-run institutions throughout Syrian-occupied Kurdistan, leaving the PYD to form a Kurdish defense army.

If Turkey’s military intervenes against these potential actions by the Kurds, it should be seen by the United Nations as a violation of Syrian sovereignty, and their intervention should by no means be allowed to occur.

President Massoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraqi-occupied Kurdistan should continue their support for the Kurds in Syria in their pursuit of autonomy from the regime.

A Kurdish self-government must be formed in Syrian-occupied Kurdistan to ensure the creation of public institutions and infrastructure, such as a democratic parliament, schools, hospitals, a police force, and roads.

Ordinary Kurdish citizens of the Kurdish nation occupied by Syria should embrace their language, culture and traditions and no longer be afraid to do so.

Then and only then can the deserved autonomy of the Kurdish nation be achieved, and the cries of “Freedom, brotherhood and unity” be truly satisfied.


[i] Kyle Almond, “Syria explained: What you need to know,” CNN, August 24, 2012, accessed March 13, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/24/world/meast/syria-101/index.html?hpt=wo_bn2.

[ii] – [xi] Harriet Montgomery, The Kurds of Syria: An existence denied (Berlin: Europäisches Zentrum für Kurdische Studien, 2005), 11-71








Juvan Bonni is 19 years old and grew up in the greater Boston area. He graduated Brookline High School in June 2012. Currently  a student at Boston University majoring in International Relations, he hopes to pursue Kurdish politics in the future. His father is from Akre, Kurdistan, and his mother is Canadian.

Copyright © 2013 Kurdistantribune.com

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