Syrian Kurd Leader: Revolution Won't Succeed Without Minorities

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What Syria's largest minority means for the uprising, for the opposition leaders, and the country's future

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Protesters wave Syrian and Kurdish flags in the Kurd-majority town of Amouda / AP

It's hard to know just how many Kurds are in Syria. The last census was taken 50 years ago, though demographers today tend to predict that Kurds number between 3.5 million and 4.6 million, or about 15 to 20 percent of Syria's total population. Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the struggles and strategies of this nationless people will know that they have been a decisive force in the federalist system of postwar Iraq and an ever-present human rights challenge for Turkey's hopes for European Union accession. If the revolution in Syria is to have any chance at success, the Syrian Kurds will mostly likely play a major role.

Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar is the Secretary-General of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria -- the sister party to Massoud Barzani's Iraqi counterpart -- as well as the Chairman of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a newly formed umbrella organisation representing ten Syrian-Kurdish parties. Bashar was arrested in 2008 before a Kurdish protest slated to take place outside the Syrian parliament in Damascus. He lives in Syria but gave me an hour or so of his time on a weeklong visit to London, where I met him in my office. We talked about minority rights in Syria, Turkey's role in the Syrian opposition, and the prospect of Western intervention to hasten the end of the Assad regime.

What's your relationship like with the Syrian National Council [the aspiring government-in-exile]?

I've been in contact with [SNC Chairman Burhan] Ghalioun several times, there has been engagement. However, their proposal is still very vague, and doesn't meet our full demands for participation. For example, the SNC says it endorses lifting the "pressure" on the Kurdish people. What does that mean? We said in the KNC that we advocate lifting all the discriminatory policies that have been applied to the Kurdish people such as the Arabization policies in Syria, the Arabized name changes of existing towns and villages and demographic changes. These were all deliberate policies applied by the Ba'ath Party.

The SNC also offers a "democratic" solution without any clear meaning. What does "democratic" mean?  It might imply private schooling to learn the Kurdish language or opening satellite stations for the Kurds.

Such as Turkey has implemented.

Yes. However, we demand our cultural freedoms categorically.

"The revolution is not sectarian but it is being threatened by sectarian interests"

Do you want to see Syria adopt the Iraq model, a federalist system based on power sharing, with broad autonomy granted to the predominantly Kurdish region? Kurds are more widely distributed throughout Syria than they are in Iraq, so that might be difficult to achieve.

We demand the right to self-determination in a form that would be decided in a national Kurdish referendum, but also within the integrity and unity of the Syrian land. When Syria was formed, it was formed by the Sykes-Picot agreement, it wasn't our choice. But we want to keep the current borders. With a new social contract between ourselves and all the Syrian components.

Second, if we talk about federalism in the Kurdish areas, from the northeastern part of Syria, up to the border with Iraq until Afrin, near where Aleppo is -- the Kurds form about 75 percent of the population of that region. That land is the Kurdish land.

I've heard Yekiti and Azadi [Syrian Kurdish parties] have pulled out now or are threatening to do.

All Syrian Kurdish groups decided in Irbil in October to freeze any participation of Kurdish groups in the SNC. This applies to all Kurdish parties, from the Damascus Declaration on, and will continue until and unless the SNC listen to our demands. My party, the Kurdish Democratic Party, had an SNC member: we actually froze his membership before the conference in Syria that formed the KNC.

Of course, we cannot stop individual Kurds from participating in the SNC, although I suspect that as time goes on and nothing changes, they too will freeze their membership or quit altogether.

So what are the Kurdish National Council's preconditions for joining the SNC fully?

We have four main demands, and they're not necessarily all going to be fulfilled: First, political decentralization of the government. Syria is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-ethnic country. If it keeps to the same governing style as now -- one central government -- there is a possibility of civil war. Second, a secular state. Third, constitutional recognition of the Kurdish issue, a constitutional assurance that the Kurdish people are on their historic land. And the lifting of all discriminatory policies that have been deliberately applied to the Kurdish people. Fourth, the right of self-determination within Syria's unity and integrity -- that's our condition to remain within Syria.

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Abdulhakim Bashar / Rudaw.net

If the SNC fully recognizes the Kurdish Bill of Rights, we will join the SNC fully. Because we are very concerned that the SNC is so much influenced by Turkey now, they may postpone guaranteeing our rights until after the regime falls. Therefore we ask for a recognition of these rights in order to become a draft for a new constitution.

So you want a written guarantee from the SNC?

We want a guarantee written and published internationally. The important thing to realize is that if we get our full rights, Turkey will be obliged to grant full rights to Turkey's Kurdish population. If the Kurds were to get recognition in the Syrian constitution, Turkey will give similar if not more rights to the Kurds in Turkey. Syria is the key player.

Change in Syria means change in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran. Iran will be isolated because Iran's connection with Hezbollah would not be so much facilitated as before [by the Assad regime]. The new Syrian government would not be an ally of Iran.

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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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