Assaulted by Turkish and Iranian forces, Kurdish rebels are starting to unite, but Syrian Kurds remain reluctant to move for the autonomy that their Iraqi brothers have obtained.
Over the weekend, Syrian Kurds met in Stockholm to hammer out a roadmap of action against the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Virtually all of the 50-odd participants were Diaspora Syrian Kurds and their goal was to prod the Kurds back at home to be show more defiance against Al-Assad's regime.
"We want to provide a clear vision and practical projects to activate the Kurdish role inside Syria and abroad in toppling the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and realize the peaceful transition of power to the people," conference organizer Massoud Akko, a Kurdish human rights activist living in Norway, told The Media Line.
Until now, the estimated 1.7 million-strong ethnic Kurdish minority in Syria has not openly challenged the Syrian regime, which has been struggling to quell anti-government protests for the past six months. While they are more organized than other opposition groups, they have been reluctant to take action, not just out of fear of Damascus's heavy hand, but out of uncertainty that a new regime would be any better.
"If Syrian Kurds would rise up against Al-Assad's regime Damascus would be much more harsh and brutal and that has been on the minds of every Kurd," Jawad Qadir, executive editor of the Kurdish Globe, told The Media Line.
Based in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, which was set up in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, Qadir explained that Syrian Kurds are waiting to see whether the risk of defying Al-Assad would be worth the gains.
Al-Assad's regime has suppressed Kurdish culture and language, expropriated their land and deprived many of them of full citizenship. But in early April the regime moved to placate the Kurds, who make up some 10 percent of Syria's population, by offering hundreds of thousands citizenship, a move yet to be implemented.
"Kurds have been tricked and fooled in the past by many leaders in all the areas where they have been living -- Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria," Qadir said. "Even if Assad is removed, the fear is that someone will come to power who is as undemocratic as he was, just like it was in Iraq."
Numbering some 38 million dispersed among four main countries, the Kurds speak their own language and most practice Sunni Islam. When the allies carved up the Middle East into states after the First World War, the Kurds didn't get a state and attempts to form one unilaterally were put down by Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
So far, the Syrian regime has been cautious about antagonizing the Kurdish minority.
"The regime wants to maintain quiet and has a vested interest in the modus vivendi," Peter Harling, project director for the Middle East Program of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told The Media Line.
"The Kurds have been reluctant to be at the forefront of the confrontation against the [Al-Assad] regime. They would like to see this regime fold, but it they take a too proactive stance, it will turn into a confrontation and they will pay a high price," Harling said. "The secret ambition of all Kurds, I think, is to have a Kurdish state of their own. But I'm not sure that is feasible."
While Syrian Kurds remain hesitant about joining the fight against the regime, the onslaught has brought the Kurds in northern Iraq together. Over the weekend, the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party fighting Turkey, announced it would join forces with the PJAK, the Iranian Party for Free Life in Kurdistan.
Both groups have been hammered recently by Turkish and Iranian forces. Iran has said it has killed over 30 Kurdish rebels along the Iraqi border and Turkey had killed twice that many in air strikes against the rebels. In August, Turkey said it killed over 150 PKK rebels.
"From now on we will fight on the side of the fighters of PJAK against the Iranian attacks that are trying to enter the Kurdistan region of [northern] Iraq, especially in the Kandil [Mountains] area," said PKK spokesman Dozdar Hammo.
"There have been clashes that are continuing until now, and we see the goal of Iran is eliminating the Kurdish people, and not the PJAK party, and these are the reasons that led us to make this decision," Hammo was quoted as saying by the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"Theoretically, you can carve up Syria into different tribal nations like the Kurds in the northeast who have a lot in common with other Kurds in Turkey and Iran and obviously in Iraq," said Aluf Benn, editor of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.
"Even if Syria is not carved up, if Al-Assad falls we will see more and more demands for ethnic or tribal autonomies. And why not? I don't see the counter force," he told The Media Line.
While Syrian Kurds may be looking at their Iraqi brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan as a model, the leadership and media in the quasi-state of Kurdistan have been careful not to voice support for the revolt against Al-Assad due to the sensitive ties with Damascus.
"The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan doesn't incite people to participate actively doesn't mean that they are satisfied with Damascus politics," Qadir said.
He added that the Syrian Kurds have yet to push for their own enclave, but should they eventually chose that path, they would be a formidable foe for the Syrian military. They had close links with the PKK and could become heavily armed, which would have regional ramifications.
"Turkey fears that Syrian Kurdish participation would immediately affect the Kurds in Turkey and there would be Kurdish uprisings in two countries," Qadir said. "If the Syrian Kurds ever declared independence, Al-Assad wouldn't be the first to invade, but the Turks because that would spark a revolt by the 17 million Turkish Kurds."
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