As members of the Syrian National Coalition stumble to reach agreement in Istanbul, one important group is still missing from the Geneva negotiations. Representing an estimated 15% of the country's population, but largely ignored by Western governments – Syria's Kurdish community could play a vital role in bringing stability to the region.
Silenced and oppressed by successive Baathist regimes since 1963, the Kurds preside over several strategically important oil fields in their ancient homeland of Western Kurdistan, and view the current conflict as an opportunity for democratic change within Syria.
Saleh Muslim, Co-president of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, or Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat), a key figure in the Syrian Kurdish opposition, on a recent visit to London fuelled hopes of Kurdish participation in the proposed talks as he outlined his vision of localised government in Kurdish areas that could be a model for a free and democratic Syria.
Sitting in a café in London’s Green Lanes district with a small crowd of supporters and advisors, Muslim raises the prospect of Kurdish involvement in the peace talks through their representation on the Kurdish Supreme Council, a coalition of Kurdish political parties founded in Erbil in 2012. He says: “We want to be part of the main Syrian opposition in the Geneva talks, whether that’s through the Syrian National Coalition or a wider body. It’s important we have a voice. Democracy will not be achievable without recognising the Kurds and other minority groups in Syria.”
The party has long campaigned for constitutional recognition of the existence of its people within a secular, pluralistic and democratic system, and supported the six-point Kofi Annan plan, a last ditch attempt at avoiding civil war.
Syria’s Kurds – a distinct ethnic group with their own language, but avowedly ‘patriotic Syrian’ – have kept a relatively low profile so far, having escaped the worst of Assad’s wrath, based as they are in close proximity to the Turkish and Iraqi borders. The fact that the PYD has previously been in talks with Russia, China and Iran, all allies of Assad, has led to speculation over the party’s relationship with the country’s leadership.
Muslim refutes allegations that the Kurds have ever supported the Assad government, stating that they had been fighting the regime long before the Arab Spring. He says: “The Qamishli uprising in 2004 might be considered the start of the revolution. By the time of the Arab Spring, 1,500 Syrian Kurds were under arrest.” He makes light of the fact that he had to go underground for a number of years and that his wife and family were imprisoned.
All Kurdish areas, including most of Qamishli, are now under Kurdish control forming a region that has become a haven for refugees. Despite this, internal divisions and sporadic fighting among non-Kurdish counterparts threaten to destabilise the area.
“There have been attacks in the last few weeks at Rumeylan, Tel Tamer and Efrin but matters are peaceful in the majority of the areas controlled by the Kurds”, says Muslim. “There is still the potential for trouble with a large group of Salafists, who could only have reached the Kurdish area with the assistance of the Turkish authorities.”
In another incident, eleven Salafists were killed and seven captured, three from Kirkuk, Iraq, two were Europeans, one Saudi and one Chechen. About half a million of the displaced are Kurds. Arabs have also moved into Kurdish controlled areas. But there are no refugee camps and they are mostly living in empty buildings, many being abandoned government buildings. For example, a group of about twenty Palestinian families from Damascus turned up in Kobane and were taken in and given food and blankets by the local population.
No international aid has been yet been offered to the Kurds to help support these refugees, reinforcing their sense of isolation as a people and as a political force.
“It’s important we have a voice. Democracy will not be achievable without recognising the Kurds and other minority groups in Syria.
Saleh Muslim, Co-President, Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)
The use of chemical weapons has become a touchstone for increased international involvement. British barrister and Kurdish human rights monitor, Hugo Charlton, poses a question about the chemical attack in the Sheikh Maqsoud area of Aleppo, in which three people, a mother and her two children, died. Who does Saleh Muslim think was responsible? He is studiously non-committal, adding:
“We are investigating the matter. The victims were a normal Arab family, it was probably cyanide. Several of our own people who went to help them are also now in hospital. Local people managed to retrieve the casings for the weapons used in the attack, but no authority, national or international, have asked to see them. Nor have the injured survivors been examined.”
In its May 2013 briefing, the PYD states that it is committed to working with other ‘like-minded’ groups to overthrow the Assad dictatorship. This doesn’t extend to certain fundamentalist rebel groups like the Salafists and Al-Nasruh, however, who wouldn’t recognise Kurdish rights.
Control of the Kurdish areas is currently under the auspices of the Supreme Kurdish Council, comprising sub-committees responsible for administration, internal security, political policy and military defence. Do they have plans for some sort of independent region in Syria for the Kurds similar to that in Iraq?
“Not at all,” replies Muslim. “Syrian Kurds have no intention of establishing an autonomous area similar to that in Iraq. All we want is recognition of Kurdish rights within a proper democratic constitutional Syria. This is a position we have argued for a number of years.” It’s a vision based on Kurdish representation in civil institutions across cities and villages – for Syrian Kurds do not inhabit one contiguous region, unlike the Iraqi and Turkish Kurds.
Syrian Kurds have no intention of establishing an autonomous area similar to that in Iraq. All we want is recognition of Kurdish rights within a proper democratic constitutional Syria.
The protection of ethnic minority groups and women’s rights dominate Kurdish political discourse. It is precisely because they want to be part of a new democratic Syria that they are proposing their Supreme Kurdish Council becomes part of the internationally recognised National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, who are likely to be the principal representatives of the Syrian opposition in the upcoming peace talks.
The only issue that could conceivably stand in their way of involvement in the talks is their old links to the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. But even this could be ruled out as the PKK progresses its talks with Turkey. Much depends on the Turkish and PKK peace initiative which, if successful, will mean that the Syrian Kurds will be seen as less of a threat to their neighbour. The stage is now set for the country’s largest ethnic minority group to make the leap from relative obscurity to a deserved place at the negotiating table and a role in the formation of a new, democratised Syria.