The Kurdish Role in the Syrian Revolution

Ethnic minority increasingly entering into protest movement

The Syrian popular revolution, right from its beginning, encompassed all segments of Syrian society. The country’s Kurdish community, the second largest and a key national component, was part of the protests that started in Dara’a on March 15, 2011 and spread to other Syrian cities, reaching Kurdish-dominated northeastern towns, such as Al-Qamishli, Amouda, Ras al-Ain, al-Hasaka, and Dayrik. Amouda was perhaps the first of these towns to witness protests, which continuing every week without interruption, putting the town of top of the protesting cities.

Four decades of suffering

Kurdish participation was not a mere coincidence; the community has suffered from political, economic, social, and cultural oppression in the past four decades. On the political front, Kurdish national parties and groups were denied any platform and paralyzed by an unfair referendum in the 1960s denying them Syrian citizenship.

The Kurds also suffered from the confiscation of their lands in the al-Hasaka district in favor of Arab residents of the al-Raqqa district who were moved to Kurdish areas to compensate for their land loss as a result of building the Furat dam. Kurds were also denied the right to practice their social and traditional beliefs, such as celebrating the Newroz (Kurdish and Persian new year), and speaking and teaching their native language.

The last such discrimination against the Kurds took place when decree 49 was issued in 2008, preventing them from buying, selling, and legally owning agricultural property and real estate. The issuance of such decrees consequently led to a state of economic paralysis in Kurdish areas.

Kurds were increasingly criticised recently by some other Syrians for their low participation in protests. Such criticism was valid only when the events in the country first began, as many Kurds preferred to act with caution, taking their past experiences into consideration. They still remember their suffering during the March 2004 uprising against the regime when protests spread from Aleppo to other towns, even reaching some areas of Damascus.

Afraid of being labelled as separatists

Back then, the regime accused them of treason, linking their uprising to foreign agendas, a charge being made again today towards the Syrian revolution. All these past accusations against the Kurds created a cautious approach among their ranks, which explains why their first steps were marked with caution. Many were afraid that the revolution would fail to gain momentum and they would end up facing accusations of being separatists.

The regime knew that protests would rapidly spread across the country if they reached the Kurdish areas, still preoccupied by the memories of the March 2004 uprising. The regime tried to appease the Kurds by issuing a decree in April 2011, restoring Syrian citizenship to more than 500,000 who were denied such rights as a result of the 1962 referendum. The regime was under the impression that this move was all that the Kurds yearned for, forgetting that Kurdish demands went far beyond their basic right of citizenship, and included economic, political, and cultural rights that needed to be recognised by the constitution. Consequently, the Kurdish response to the regime’s move was a decision to take part in the protests in solidarity with the rest of the Syrian people.

The Kurdish movement was initiated in Amouda and Qamishli by Kurdish youth with cultural and political motivations independent from Kurdish parties, and some active partisans who did not wait for their parties to decide on whether to participate. Young people also played an important role by forming local youth committees and by coordinating their work and protest activities. Among these committees were the Kurdish Sawa Youth Coalition, the General Commission of Kurdish Youth Mobility in Syria, and the Kurdish Youth Gathering.

Efforts are currently aimed at unifying the three commissions under the Union of Kurdish Youth Commissions in Syria, and hence joining the Syrian Revolution General Commission. Kurdish protesters are marching under the banners of freedom, democracy, participation and multiculturalism, and calling for a constitutional guarantee to their rights as the country’s second biggest ethnic group, as they demand to be granted all the cultural, economic, political and intellectual rights currently denied them by the regime.

Speaking of the Kurdish role in general and the youth role in particular, it is essential to mention the role of the Kurdish National Movement’s parties in the Syrian Revolution. This movement – since its establishment in 1957 – has been part of the opposition which aims at obtaining Kurdish rights in a unified and democratic Syria. However, consecutive governments have banned the formation of parties, which led to the absence of any political life and an adequate climate for political practices.

A rift between the youth and the establishment

There are presently 11 parties with different political orientations, some of them leftist, other moderate or nationalist; the most popular are the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, the Kurdish Progressive Party of Syria, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the Kurdish Unity Party in Syria.

The Kurdish movement did not confront the youth who took part in the protests, although it has not taken any open political stand so far, just like the old generation of the Syrian opposition. However, Kurdish youth believe that this stand was appropriate only at the first stage of the uprising, not six months later. Statements issued by Kurdish parties did not satisfy the revolutionary youth and did not meet their demands, thus creating a rift between the youth and the political parties. In a bid to avoid such divisions, leading figures of some parties – which had earlier participated in coalitions such as the Damascus Declaration – decided to end their silence and figure out how to state a clear stance vis-à-vis the revolution.

This change resulted in the participation of leading party figures in the protests in Kurdish areas and the emergence of some public stances from Kurdish party leaders, such as that of Abdel Hakim Bashar, the secretary general of the DPKS, who in August called for holding a conference with the aim of uniting the Kurdish stance toward the revolution and consequently supporting it.

Similarly, Abdel Hamid Hajj Darwish, the secretary general of the Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party, had a very clear stance on the revolution when he told the pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat in late August that “Syria after the uprising will be a country for all its citizens with no ethnic discrimination”.

He also defended, in his capacity as vice president of the Damascus Declaration, “the Kurdish role in the uprising and their support of the rest of the Syrian people,” adding “it is not fair to accuse the Kurds of having a different position on the revolution when they have suffered a great deal at the hands of the dogmatic and chauvinist regime.

“Everybody should know that the Kurds are facing exceptional circumstances in their hometowns and are sometimes reluctant to take any action out of fear of being accused of having separatist goals,” he continued. “Kurds have always strived to achieve a democratic and just solution to the Kurdish cause in Syria, and such a solution will be decided through consensus between Kurds and Arabs.

“The Syrian regime is so far making a big mistake by handling the situation in the country from a security perspective,” he added. “This mistake is driving the country in a dangerous direction; however, the regime’s security approach does not justify taking up arms against the government.”

The above stances by influential Kurdish leaders indicate that Kurds will play an active role in the revolution and in shaping a new political scene in Syria while insisting on claiming their political, cultural, social, and ethnic rights.