Syrian Kurd Leader: Revolution Won't Succeed Without Minorities

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.

Ghalioun said this in his interview with the Wall Street Journal two months ago, though he's gone back and forth on partnering with Hezbollah recently.

Ghalioun wants to be diplomatic. In fact, I believe, the SNC would completely cut ties with Hezbollah.

Recently, university students [in Syria] have said that Lebanese are enrolled in Syrian universities who aren't of university age. This is from student sources. Students have said that these are Hezbollah members.

The SNC has not been recognized by world governments, apart from Libya's, as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. If it were, would you be more willing to join?

If the international community recognized the SNC at this stage, that would be a very quick decision. It still represents only one side of the Syrian opposition, it doesn't include Kurds as Kurds. We are united and we have agreements. If we were to join the SNC fully, we'd do so from a unified political standpoint on this issue.

Is the KNC all in for regime change or are you entertaining a possible reconciliation with the Assad regime?

We are part of this revolution, we are not neutral. One of the main points in the KNC statement is that we don't want the present dictatorship and we refuse to accept any future dictatorships. We don't accept an Islamic government or a Muslim Brotherhood-led government. We will refuse that very firmly.

We have also decided not to have any dialog with the regime separately from the Syrian opposition. For example, if the international community decided all the opposition groups had to have a dialog with the regime, we'd support that, in case the current regime asks for negotiations for a transition of power, just like in Yemen. But that's unlikely.

When I've asked SNC members about the poor representation of Kurds as a bloc in the Council, they usually reply by saying something like, "Well, we don't want to give the Kurds their own bloc as we see the SNC as a non-sectarian political entity. Kurds are fairly represented in strictly political groupings that reserved seats in the Council, such as the Damascus Declaration bloc and the Local Coordination Committees bloc." Is that just an excuse for exclusion, in your opinion?

Yes. It's not just about Kurds, however. Arabs, Druze, Ismailis, Alawites, Christians have been ignored by the SNC, which is responsible for these minorities failure to participate as united communities in the revolution. Also, if the SNC says that Local Coordination Committees are very active in the SNC, I'd like to add that the Committees have very little participation of Alawites and Druze; only the elites of these communities are involved in them.

In my opinion, Syrian Alawites would not accept working in a central government with Sunnis because the regime has succeeded in sowing fear amongst [Alawites].

The Democracy ReportThis is why we ask for political de-centralization in Syria. The regime has succeeded in convincing minorities that any change would mean a new Islamic system coming to power and the rights of these minorities would be lost completely. In order for the SNC to convince minorities to take part in the revolution and hasten the fall of the regime, it must send a clear message to these minorities to participate. Transitioning to democracy in such a country is very difficult; it can't happen in one day. You have to give guarantees and assurances to each minority as these fit their rights and benefits.

You seem to be arguing that the Syrian opposition is doing the regime's propaganda work for it, by not convincing minorities of the multicultural nature of this revolution.

Yes, exactly. Let me give you an example. In Qamishli [a predominantly Kurdish city in Syria], Assyrians have formed a pro-democracy organization, however they can't gather even ten people to demonstrate in the Kurdish region. Why? Because the Church is playing a major role in turning Syrian Christians into shabbiha [pro-regime death squad] thugs for the sake for regime preservation.

The French ambassador to Syria has told me personally that he see loads of Christians every day telling him that their lives would be at risk if this regime changed. This is evidence that the SNC is still not able to be clear with other minorities to show their rights will be guaranteed.

The SNC is mainly focusing on things on the ground -- the number of people killed, how to topple the regime -- but not a political program to address the issue of minorities.

By taking what concrete steps, apart from guaranteeing Kurdish rights as you already discussed?

The SNC should, in my opinion, keep in contact with all the minorities and be positive about their demands within the unity and integrity of Syria. For Christians, the [SNC should emphasize] freedom of religion. It should reassure Alawites, Ismailis and Druze that they are equal in belonging to Islam, they are not outsiders to the faith. There must be a very clear program for each and every ethnic group.

The current path is the one that Islamists are taking in the SNC, not the liberal representatives.

Are there enough liberal representatives in the SNC to alter its approach to the minorities question?

The liberals are not enough to influence the SNC. That's also our responsibility as Kurds. It's the international community's responsibility to pressure the SNC, and the Muslim Brotherhood, to guarantee the rights of minorities. And also -- most important -- for the international community to pressure Turkey not to take one side of the opposition over all others.

The Kurds are Syria's largest minority, larger even than the Alawites. Would it be fair to say that there is no Syrian revolution without their full and wholehearted participation?

We are more organized and recognized as a society within Syria and other Arab countries than other minorities. If we do participate more actively, other minorities will feel more assured and follow suit. The regime has tried to convince the world that the conflict is between them and the Arab Sunnis. We want to prove that wrong. The revolution is not sectarian but it is being threatened by sectarian interests.

Presented by

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

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