Asia — A sleeping dragon awakes: Kurds Take Centre Stage in West Asia

As pop­u­lar upris­ings and post-revolt tran­si­tions change the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social struc­tures of the Mid­dle East, Kurds, the world’s largest nation with­out a state of their own, are emerg­ing as the force that could spark a redraw­ing of bor­ders and rewrit­ing of minor­i­ty rights in West Asia.

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As pop­u­lar upris­ings and post-revolt tran­si­tions change the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social struc­tures of the Mid­dle East the strug­gle for Kur­dish rights, includ­ing auton­o­my if not inde­pen­dence, moved cen­ter stage in the past week with a Syr­i­an Kurd becom­ing head of the oppo­si­tion Syr­i­an Nation­al Coun­cil (SNC), Iraqi Kur­dis­tan host­ing an inter­na­tion­al tour­na­ment for nations that world soc­cer body FIFA refus­es to rec­og­nize, and the hard­en­ing of atti­tudes of Turk­ish Kurds.

The elec­tion of Abdel­bas­set Sie­da, a Swe­den-based Kur­dish activist and his­to­ri­an, is intend­ed to unite Syria’s frac­tured oppo­si­tion as the coun­try reels from mass mur­ders of civil­ians believed to be by mili­tias loy­al to embat­tled Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad and teeters on the brink of civ­il war. The attacks on civil­ians and mount­ing armed oppo­si­tion have all but stymied the joint Unit­ed Nations-Arab League medi­a­tor Kofi Annan’s efforts to put an end to the 16-month blood­shed in Syr­ia.

Unit­ing Assad’s oppo­nents is no easy task. The SNC unlike the Libyan Nation­al Coun­cil on which it was mod­eled, has not been able to build a con­sen­sus among a myr­i­ad of oppo­si­tion groups. Nor has it suc­ceed­ed in bridg­ing the gap between Assad’s oppo­nents in Syr­ia and those in exile. As a result, the SNC has failed to project itself as a cred­i­ble alter­na­tive to Assad’s gov­ern­ment despite back­ing from the Unit­ed States, the Euro­pean Union, the Arab League and Turkey. Crit­ics claim that the SNC is dom­i­nat­ed by Islamists, which has allowed Assad to either gar­ner sup­port from the country’s reli­gious and eth­nic minori­ties or ensure their neu­tral­i­ty.

In the spot­light

By elect­ing Sei­da, the SNC wit­ting­ly or unwit­ting­ly has moved the strug­gle of the 26 mil­lion Kurds, who are spread over Turkey, Syr­ia, Iraq and Iran, into the spot­light. For much of their post-World War his­to­ry the var­i­ous Kur­dish com­mu­ni­ties have cam­paigned for greater polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al rights rather than for inde­pen­dence from their host coun­tries. Even the Turk­ish Kur­dish Work­ers Par­ty (PKK), the only major group to have called for a pan-Kur­dish state, has low­ered its sights, call­ing for greater free­dom for Kurds in Turkey who account for up to 20 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

For its part, Iraqi Kur­dis­tan has flour­ished under the US air umbrel­la that shield­ed it from deposed Iraqi leader Sad­dam Hussein’s wrath for 12 years and has since the fall of Sad­dam in 2003 become a coun­try-in-wait­ing as it puts all the build­ing blocks of a state in place. Kur­dis­tan last week demon­strat­ed its abil­i­ty and inten­tion to con­duct a for­eign pol­i­cy at odds with that of Bagh­dad with its host­ing of a World Cup for nations that world soc­cer body FIFA refus­es to rec­og­nize. It was sig­nif­i­cant that Moroc­co protest­ed against the inclu­sion of the dis­put­ed West­ern Sahara in the tour­na­ment to the Kur­dish depart­ment of for­eign rela­tions rather than the Iraqi for­eign min­istry, and nego­ti­at­ing a deal under which the Saha­rans were not allowed to fly their flag dur­ing cer­e­monies and match­es.

Sieda’s elec­tion offers the SNC an oppor­tu­ni­ty to draw the Kurds, Syria’s largest minor­i­ty who account for nine per cent of the country’s pop­u­la­tion, into the anti-Assad front. They have been strad­dling the fence until now because the Syr­i­an leader’s oppo­nents have been unable and unwill­ing to make Kur­dish rights a part of their vision for Syria’s future. Win­ning Kur­dish sup­port would deal a sig­nif­i­cant blow to the Assad regime that until now has been able to rely on the neu­tral­i­ty or sup­port of the country’s minori­ties who make up an esti­mat­ed 45 per cent of the Syr­i­an pop­u­la­tion.

Syria’s minori­ties – Alaw­ites, Chris­tians, Druze and Kurds – have remained on the side lines of the revolt because of fear of what Syr­ia may become in a post-Assad era. The opposition’s inabil­i­ty to set aside inter­nal dif­fer­ences and form a unit­ed front has height­ened minori­ties’ sense of risk and uncer­tain­ty. Alaw­ites, the reli­gious sect to which Assad belongs, fear a cycle of sec­tar­i­an vio­lence and revenge if the Syr­i­an leader were forced out of office. Chris­tians are con­cerned that their rel­a­tive secure sta­tus would be under­mined in a post-Assad Syr­ia that would like­ly be dom­i­nat­ed by Islamist forces.

The oppo­si­tion has so far been unable to con­vince Kurds, Syria’s most dis­en­fran­chised minor­i­ty, that it would adopt a pol­i­cy that rec­og­nizes the group’s minor­i­ty rights by, for exam­ple, promis­ing to rede­fine Syr­ia as a mul­ti-eth­nic rather than an Arab state. Iraqi Kurds have advised their polit­i­cal­ly divid­ed brethren not to take sides in the Syr­i­an insur­rec­tion until the oppo­si­tion takes Kur­dish con­cerns into account.

Strength­en­ing the revolt

Win­ning the sup­port of the Kurds whose griev­ances include the strip­ping of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Kurds of their cit­i­zen­ship in 1962, clash­es with secu­ri­ty forces in 2004 after an inci­dent in a soc­cer sta­di­um in Qamish­li that left 60 peo­ple dead and 160 wound­ed, and last October’s assas­si­na­tion of a promi­nent Kur­dish oppo­si­tion leader Mashaal Tam­mo, would sig­nif­i­cant­ly strength­en the revolt against Assad. Tammo’s son Faris warned at the time of his father’s death that “my father’s assas­si­na­tion is the screw in the regime’s cof­fin.”

The Syr­i­an pres­i­dent sought to pre­vent Kurds from join­ing the revolt last year by promis­ing to rein­state Syr­i­an cit­i­zen­ship for those who were made state­less. How­ev­er, only sev­er­al thou­sand of the more than 300,000 Kurds who were deprived of their cit­i­zen­ship have seen it restored in the past year.

Even if Sieda’s elec­tion fails to enable Faris to make good on his promise to nail the regime’s cof­fin, Syr­i­an Kurds may well see their oppor­tu­ni­ty approach­ing soon. With no end to the vio­lence in sight, the like­li­hood that Syr­ia will fur­ther frag­ment polit­i­cal­ly and the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the revolt will even­tu­al­ly under­mine the country’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al integri­ty, Syr­i­an Kurds could well see a chance to carve out a polit­i­cal enti­ty of their own on the mod­el of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan.

That would not go unno­ticed in pre­dom­i­nant­ly Kur­dish south­east­ern Turkey where atti­tudes are hard­en­ing after last year’s break-off of talks between the gov­ern­ment and the PKK and the killing of 34 most­ly teenage Kurds last Decem­ber in a Turk­ish air force strike that was sup­posed to tar­get Kur­dish guer­ril­las. Sim­i­lar­ly, it would like­ly reignite fer­vour for auton­o­my in Kur­dish pop­u­lat­ed areas of Iran just across the bor­der from Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. Thus the rise of a Kur­dish leader from the Kur­dish dias­po­ra could awak­en the sleep­ing drag­on of Kur­dish nation­al­ism across West Asia.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.