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Can the Kurds tip the scales in Syria?

Syria's Kurdish minority considers throwing its weight behind protest movement.

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Some of the 3000 Syrian Kurds, supporters of outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Syrian town of Qamishli. (Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT, Lebanon and HASSAKE, Syria — For 24-year-old Azad, a poet and political activist from Amouda, in northeast Syria, it was a single word, cried from streets on the other side of the country, that cut through the tangle of ethnic and political division that has defined Kurdish identity in Syria for generations.

“When people from Daraa shouted for freedom, not for pan-Arab unity, not for liberating Palestine or for unity with Egypt and Lebanon as in the past, it pushed young Kurds in Syria to feel the same as them,” he said.

“What happened in Daraa has increased my national pride. Now, I feel more Syrian than ever.”

Stateless and suppressed under four decades of Baath Party rule and unconvinced by recent concessions to them by President Bashar al-Assad, a debate is raging among Syria’s Kurds, the largest ethnic minority. The argument is over whether to throw their full weight behind the campaign to topple the regime, a weight opposition organizers hope could prove a tipping point.

On Thursday, Al Arabiya TV reported that Kurdish political parties rejected Assad's invitation to meet, due to pressure from the “Kurdish street.” Last Saturday, 12 of Syria’s outlawed Kurdish parties had accepted the unprecedented invitation to meet with the president to discuss ways out of Syria’s escalating crisis.

“We are all Syrians in the end”
~Azad, a Kurdish Syrian poet

The rejection followed the killing of at least 25 protestors in the northwest Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur on Saturday.  After the killings, a military assault on the town on Monday resulted in the deaths of 120 security personnel, according to Syria’s state-controlled media, a sharp escalation in the deaths of security forces.

Several residents of the town near the border with Turkey said the deaths of security personnel had occurred after some soldiers refused to open fire on civilians and were then attacked by loyalist troops. Activists, though, have conceded there may be individual cases of residents taking up arms to defend themselves.

Thousands of terrified families fled their homes after the state media warned the military response against Jisr al-Shughur, a town of 50,000, would be “decisive.” Tanks and troops massing around the town were also reported. By Thursday, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, reported at least 1,000 Syrians had crossed the border into Turkey in the last 24 hours.

“Kurdish parties are still looking for more favorable circumstances for such a meeting [with Assad],” said a statement from the Kurdish Yakiti party, on behalf of the 12 parties who rejected Assad’s offer.

Foreigners at home

Numbering around 1.7 million, or about 8 percent of the population, Kurds in Syria have long suffered marginalization under the Baath Party. Founded on autocratic rule and an ideology that recognises only Arabs as citizens the Baath regime is fearful of Kurdish demands for greater autonomy, given the successful self-rule of Kurds in neighboring Iraq.

In 1962, a year before the Baath Party seized power in a military coup, 120,000 Kurds in Syria’s north-eastern Hassake, bordering Turkey and Iraq, had their citizenship taken away from them on the grounds that they had not been born in Syria.

“I did two years national service in the army and then my elder brother told me that I had no Syrian nationality,” said Firharad, a grandfather of 20 from a remote village near Malkiah, 60 km north-east of Hassake.

The old man broke into tears when recalling the hardships of a life spent without official papers and limited access to state-run health and education, desperate that his grandchildren would not have to repeat the experience.

“I spent my life without education, without a proper job,” he recalled. “Sometimes I got temporary work in the state sector, but I would always have to move to another job. I tried to go to Europe and the Gulf to work, but I couldn’t get a passport,” said Firharad.

Two years ago, his wife died after she was refused heart surgery in the state-run Assad University Hospital in Damascus.  The rejection came on the grounds she was not a Syrian citizen.

After attempting to create an ‘Arab belt’ in northern Syria by expropriating Kurdish land and gifting it to Arabs in the 1970s, the regime initiated a policy of repressing Kurdish identity. 

Kurdish language and books were banned from schools, celebrations such as Nowruz, the traditional Kurdish