Syria appears on the verge of gradual disintegration. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looks like he is locked in a life and death struggle with the opposition forces. It would then seem only inevitable that the infamous “Kurdish blunder” is rising to the surface once again, further complicating the situation in this already war-torn country. The uncertainty over where Syria is headed after its civil war is over becomes a real enigma, when the political status of the Kurdish minority is examined as part of the violent free-for-all that now dominates the region.
Professor Eyal Zisser, dean of the faculty of the humanities at Tel Aviv University, studies the modern history of Syria and Lebanon, with an emphasis on the Syrian Baath Party and the Assad dynasty. His book Faces of Syria: Regime, Society, and State covers the history of the country over the past 100 years. This penetrating analysis of socioeconomic, political and military issues attempts to resolve the Syrian riddle by delving into its roots and examining how it developed since its founding.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Zisser surveyed the state of the Kurdish minority in Syria, situating it not only within the context of all the forces fighting there, but also of their Kurdish compatriots in neighboring Turkey and Iraq. There are about 2.5 million Kurds in Syria, where they make up roughly 10% of the population. According to Zisser, they are currently at a loss as to how to respond to the multiplicity of forces fighting for control, and in particular to the most recent forces who have joined the campaign.
Where is the Kurdish population of Syria concentrated?
“There are large concentrations in eastern Syria, along the border with Iraq, and another concentration north of Aleppo, along the border with Turkey, abutting that country’s Kurdish areas. The Kurds are divided into two main factions: the faction close to the Iraqi Kurds and the faction supporting the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party, which is fighting to establish an independent Kurdish state in the territory of "historic Kurdistan" and especially in southeast Turkey], which is close to the Turkish Kurds. At the same time, however, there are also hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Aleppo, Damascus and other cities throughout the country who have undergone a process of assimilation into the dominant Muslim Arab country. Some of these speak Arabic as a first language, and are not even fluent in Kurdish."
Is there a sense of Kurdish national identity?
“I wouldn’t say that they have a ‘national identity,’ but they do have an ethnic and cultural identity. It is the result of a process that only emerged in the last few years under the influence of what happened, and continues to happen, in Turkey and Iraq. A distinct communal identity has emerged among the Kurds of Syria. They share a common language, Kurdish, with the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey. They share a common history, culture and tradition. Some of them live in distinctly Kurdish regions. Nevertheless, none of this has developed fully into a distinctive national identity, at least not yet.”
I told him that as I made my way to Iraq 10 years ago, I spent a few nights in the Kurdish town of Zakho, on the Iraqi border with Turkey. My impression at the time was that most of the people I spoke with did not express any interest in establishing an independent Kurdish state. Even after Saddam Hussein was toppled, the desire that they expressed was to see a fostering of Kurdish cultural identity. Their vision for the future was not national. It focused on ethnic and cultural identity.
“That is exactly the same thing that guides them in the great battle over Syria today,” says Zisser. He is quite emphatic about this and explains: “Kurdish culture was repressed for years. There was an attempt to Arabize the region in which they lived. They were forbidden to adopt Kurdish names or to study their language. The persecution of the Kurds was even more severe before the Assad family and the Alawites took power in Syria. The Sunni governments that preceded them persecuted the Kurds. They denied citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Kurds, claiming that they migrated there from Turkey during the French Mandate. Since they are not originally Syrian, they are not entitled to Syrian citizenship.”
What side do the Kurds currently support in the conflict?
“They do not support the rebels,” says Zisser. “The Kurds are very concerned that the rebels would continue the same discriminatory measures practiced by the current regime, and perhaps adopt even more oppressive measures against them. If that is the case, then why should they support them?
“When the riots first erupted, Assad attempted to maintain calm along the 'Kurdish front' by granting citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Kurds, who had previously been denied it. He did this to buy quiet and to appease them, and he succeeded, too. The proof is that the Kurdish regions are actually quite tranquil.”
Why don’t they try to exploit the chaos to their advantage and get more out of it than just citizenship?
“In the summer of 2012, the regime based in Damascus and Aleppo suffered a partial loss of control. The Kurds took advantage of this to establish a kind of autonomy in their regions. As a result of this, there has been absolute no government presence in the Kurdish regions: The army is too busy fighting the rebels. On the other hand, the Kurds did not constitute an 'opposition' to the regime, and they did not collaborate in any way with the rebels. Actually, the situation was the reverse. Whenever rebel forces tried to infiltrate the Kurdish regions, they were thrown out.”
How do you explain the Kurds’ passive approach to the conflict?
“They understand the limits of their strength. At the same time, it is also important to recognize that the Kurds of Syria are also divided into factions. There is no love lost between those who are linked to the PKK and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, so why would they support an uprising backed by Turkey? Meanwhile, those Kurds with ties to the Iraqi Kurds do not want to do anything that might jeopardize the autonomy that their compatriots across the border achieved after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The ultimate result of all of these components is that the Kurds of Syria are maintaining a low profile.”
Despite these divisions and debates among them, wouldn’t they like to see some kind of territorial integrity among the regions in which they live, on the convergence of borders between Iraq, Turkey and Syria? Wouldn’t they like to see geographical unity, if not full-fledged independence?
“They’re not even talking about that. There is still plenty of in-fighting among them. It should also be remembered that the Kurds aren’t really a unified national group. Even the Kurdish language diverges from one region to the next. The Kurdish language spoken in Turkey is different from the Kurdish language spoken in Iraq.
“Meanwhile, the Kurds of Syria state clearly that, ‘We are part of Syria. We will struggle for our place here and for our rights as a minority, with the goal of ensuring that Syria does not become an Arab state, but a state of all its minorities.’ That is their agenda. That is what they are working to achieve. They are quietly building autonomy for themselves. They are opening schools in which the Kurdish language is taught, they are putting up signs in Kurdish and they are developing a uniquely Kurdish experience. What it all boils down to is that the Kurds are just a marginal player in the fascinating endgame taking place in Syria.”
The Kurds of Syria and its neighbors: some figures
- The Kurdish population of Syria: approximately 2.5 million
- Total population of Syria: 22 million
- The Kurdish population of Turkey: 15 million
- The Kurdish population of Iraq: 6 million
- The Kurdish population of Iran: 5-6 million
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.