The Battle for Syria
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|Jonathan Spyer||May 21st 2012|
Sherkoh Abbas, a veteran Syrian Kurdish dissident, called on Israel this week to support the break-up of Syria into a series of federal structures based on the country’s various ethnicities. Speaking from Washington, Abbas was also critical of US attempts to induce Syrian Kurds to join and work with the main opposition body, the Syrian National Council. Abbas, who heads the Washington- based Kurdistan National Assembly, said that dismantling Syria into ethnic enclaves with a federal administration would serve to “break the link” between Syria and the Iran-led “Shi’a crescent.
Syrian Kurdish, Druse, Alawite and Sunni Arab federal areas, he suggested, would have no interest in aligning with Iran. At the same time, a federalized Syria would avoid the possibility of a resurgent, Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Sunni Islamist Syria emerging as a new challenge to Israel and the West. “We need to break Syria into pieces,” Abbas said. The Syrian Kurdish dissident argued that a federal Syria, separated into four or five regions on an ethnic basis, would also serve as a natural “buffer” for Israel against both Sunni and Shi’ite Islamist forces.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority population in Syria. They number more than 10 percent of the population, centered in the northeastern provinces of Hasakeh and Qamishli. There is also a large, partly Arabized Kurdish population in the cities of Aleppo, Hama and Damascus. Despite the Assad regime’s determined counter-attack in recent months, Abbas dismissed any possibility that the beleaguered dictator could survive in the long term.
“Whether it is one year, or even two, the regime is finished,” he said.
The KNA leader pointed to the recent bloody terror attacks in Damascus as an indication of President Bashar Assad’s desperation, arguing that these were the work of Sunni jihadis in the pay of of Assad. “The regime is now unleashing its suicide groups,” he asserted. His remarks came in response to a meeting at the US State Department last week between American officials and representatives of the Kurdish National Council, a Syrian Kurdish body. Robert Ford, who left his post as US ambassador to Syria earlier this year, and Fred Hof, the administration’s special coordinator on Syria, took part in the meeting. State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner described its purpose as part of “ongoing efforts… to help the Syrian opposition build a more cohesive opposition to Assad.”
Abbas, however, was more blunt in his description of the meeting’s purpose. It was held, he said, so that the US officials could tell the Kurdish representatives, “You should be part of the Syrian National Council.”
So far, only one Syrian Kurdish organization – the Future Movement of Fares Tammo – has elected to join the SNC. Many Kurds distrust the SNC because of the strong presence of Muslim Brotherhood members in its leadership, and because of its close links to the government of Turkey.
SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun has rejected the existence of any region called “Kurdistan” within Syria. He has called on Syrian Kurds to abandon what he called the “useless illusion” of federalism. Early Kurdish recruits to the council withdrew from it after failing to secure a commitment to change the name of a post-Assad Syria from the current Syrian Arab Republic to the plain “Syrian Republic.” The SNC has also made no commitment to Kurdish autonomy in a post-Assad Syria.
Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent Washington- based member of the SNC, said that the issue of the Syrian Kurds could only be settled after the fall of the Syrian regime, in the context of democracy. Perhaps because of these positions, the Syrian Kurdish attitude toward the uprising has remained cautious. The Kurds have many deep grievances against the Assad regime: It deprived many of them of citizenship, it transferred Arab settlers into northern Syria to break Kurdish contiguity of population, and it suppressed Kurdish language and culture.
But the Syrian opposition as currently constituted seems to many Kurds to be insufficiently interested in remedying this situation. The Kurds are also divided among themselves. The KNC is dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria, which has close links to the Kurdish Regional Government of Massoud Barzani in northern Iraq. The PKK-linked PYD, meanwhile, is, according to Abbas and others, now working in cooperation with the Assad regime. PYD-linked sources argue that the current Syrian uprising is simply a battle between the regime and an alliance of the Turkish government and the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, they suggest, Syrian Kurds’ main interest is in protecting their own areas.
The bottom line, as Qubad Talabani, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the US, put it in a recent speech, is that the “Syrian opposition is not talking about Kurdish issues, is not talking about the need to protect Kurdish rights or to have the Kurdish identity as part of any new Syria.” For as long as this remains the case, calls for federalism, for separation, and for breaking Syria “into pieces” are likely to grow stronger.
Jonathan Spyer writes for the Gloria Center, from which this article is adapted.