In the latest round of Syria’s weekly Friday protests, another sign of the gradual broadening of the country’s uprising was seen on the internet: an enormous Kurdish flag rippling next to a Syrian one amid a crowd of protesters in the Kurdish town of Qamishli.
Activists say protests in the Kurdish heartland in the country’s north-east have been getting bigger with each passing week. But many observers wonder why Syria’s estimated 1.7m Kurds – close to 10 per cent of the population – have not mobilised more fully.
With 14 illegal political parties, Syrian Kurds are the only group in the country with a history of serious and organised opposition to the Arab nationalist regime, which has restricted the Kurdish language, suppressed its culture, expropriated land in Kurdish areas close to the Turkish and Iraqi borders and arrested thousands of Kurdish activists.
Analysts say the Syrian military – now involved in a heavy operation in the coastal city of Latakia– could be overstretched if it was forced to deploy in significant numbers to keep protests down in Kurdish areas.
When anti-government protests first erupted in the southern province of Deraa in March, the authorities sent reinforcements to Qamishli, assuming that the Kurdish areas would be among the first to follow suit.
While there have been protests in the Kurdish areas, they have been – as Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s Syrian researcher, puts it – “not on the same scale as what happened in 2004”.
Back then, riots broke out in the Kurdish areas after security forces killed seven football fans involved in a brawl with a visiting Arab team. Security services detained more than 2,000 people amid widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment, according to Human Rights Watch.
Analysts speculate that Kurdish demonstrations have not been larger because the Kurds are not convinced that the potential gains would be worth the risk of defying the regime.
“My sense is that it’s because of the uncertainty for Kurds of how this would play out for them – they have no guarantee that anything will be better,” said Robert Lowe, an expert on Syrian Kurds at the London School of Economics. “Their worry is that any dominant Arab nationalist government would deny Kurds their rights.”
Although some parties have expressed support for the uprising that has swept Syria, the Kurdish political leadership has yet to rally people on to the streets.
The regime appeared to offer concessions to secure their loyalty in early April when it said it was extending citizenship rights to about 300,000 Syrian Kurds who were rendered stateless by a rushed census in 1962, though this has yet to be implemented, say activists.
Syrian Kurdish activists abroad deny suggestions that Kurdish politicians have been co-opted by the Assad regime, but are concerned about emerging forces in the protest movement.
Some Kurdish representatives left a recent opposition conference in the Turkish capital of Istanbul after a dispute over whether Syria should be described as an “Arab” country.
“I walked out of the conference because we faced many problems with the Arabic opposition …Many of them are convinced the Kurdish are a second nation in Syria,” said Massoud Akko, a human rights activist and journalist living in Norway.
Turkey’s support for the opposition movement has also raised concerns among Syrian Kurds. While some express pragmatic appreciation for Turkey’s role, others are suspicious of the neighbouring state’s intentions. “It’s murky,” said a Kurdish activist living in Beirut.
Turkey has a history of repressing its own substantial Kurdish minority, who shares a language with Syrian Kurds living just across the border. Many Syrian Kurds have also worked with the PKK, the armed Kurdish group fighting the Turkish state.
So far, the Syrian regime has also been careful not to antagonise the community with a heavy-handed response to protests, and violence reported in Kurdish areas has been limited.
However, many Kurds live in cities outside the Kurdish heartland and have been subject to security crackdowns, and activists say the mood of the Kurdish street is moving ahead of the leadership. Protests have been growing in Rukn el-Deen, a predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood in Damascus, in recent weeks.
“The parties are against the regime, but they want to do it right, not quickly,” said the activist in Beirut. “But the Kurdish people are heated – they want to go faster.”
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