Middle East
2:50 pm
Thu April 5, 2012

With A Dose Of Caution, Kurds Oppose Syrian Regime

Originally published on Thu April 5, 2012 10:38 pm

When protesters took to the streets of Syria last year, one of those who joined in was Abu Azad — a pseudonym he uses to protect his safety.

A member of the Kurdish ethnic group, Abu Azad helped organize protests in Kurdish areas, calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. But Abu Azad recently found out he was wanted by Syrian authorities.

"They were chasing me and they want to kill me," he says.

Abu Azad and his family, which includes five children, recently walked out of Syria and ended up in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, where the Kurds of Iraq govern an autonomous zone that's grown stronger and more prosperous since the fall of Saddam Hussein as Iraq's leader in 2003.

The trip took Abu Azad's family an entire night, crossing streams and climbing mountains. Now they share a house with dozens of other Syrian Kurdish refugees. Soon they'll be living in a tent.

"We are against this [Syrian] regime, 100 percent," Abu Azad says. "All Kurds are against this regime."

But this is only part of the story for Syria's Kurds, who make up an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the country's population and are concentrated in the northeast.

Most will tell you they're against a regime that has withheld citizenship for many Kurds, forbidden them to speak or teach in their own language, and treated them like second-class citizens. But they're not all willing to fight to bring down the Assad regime.

A Soldier Defects

A man who goes by the name Abu Shiro says he was a soldier in the Syrian army for a year until he escaped to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

He says he paid bribes to stay in his barracks, rather than shoot unarmed protesters or arrest civilians and hand them to the dreaded security services.

A growing number of Syrian soldiers have defected and joined the Free Syrian Army, leading an insurgency that seeks to topple the Assad regime.

Asked why he hasn't done this, Abu Shiro says, "It's simple. Because I'm a Kurd."

The Kurds are unsure what sort of status they might have under a new government, and therefore have been hesitant to join the fighting against the current leadership.

It's a position that infuriates many in the Syrian opposition. If you are against the Assad regime, the thinking goes, why not stay and fight, or at least stay and protest?

The reason, says Abdulhakim Bashar, who heads a Syrian Kurdish political party, is that predominantly Arab members of the Syrian opposition have refused to reassure the Kurds that they'll have it better if the current regime falls.

At Odds With The Syrian Opposition

At a recent meeting meant to unite the Syrian opposition, Kurds walked out after opposition leaders refused to promise the Kurds some special recognition in the new Syria.

"If this regime falls, and we don't have a clear program of how we'll get our rights, it could be worse than the regime itself," Bashar says.

Bashar says U.S. and European diplomats have been pushing the Kurds to focus on bringing down the Assad regime first, and worry about the details later.

But the Kurds don't totally trust the international community either, says Robert Lowe of the London School of Economics, who has co-edited a book about the Kurds of Syria. They believe they were abandoned when they rose up against the Syrian regime several years ago.

"Kurds have suffered before. They had their own uprising in 2004. And they suffered very badly for this," Lowe says.

Dozens of Kurds were killed, and hundreds more fled the country.

A Mistrust Of Turkey

What's more, says Lowe, there's the question of Turkey. Turkey has been very supportive of Syrians who oppose their regime. But Turkey has for decades dealt harshly with its own Kurdish minority.

"The Kurds of Syria are very suspicious of Turkey and are very hostile to Turkish involvement," Lowe says.

Even if Turkey acts against the Syrian regime by, say, arming the Syrian opposition, the Kurds will not trust Turkey's motives or intentions, says Lowe.

So until the Kurds know more about how their friends and enemies will act, the Kurds of Syria say they will wait and see.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Syria is patchwork of ethnicities and religions held together for 40 years by one family's rule. Now, it appears to be unraveling. For the next few minutes, we're going to focus on just one of these groups, the Kurds.

CORNISH: In Syria as elsewhere, the Kurds are a long-oppressed minority making up about 10 to 15 percent of the population. Western diplomats and think tanks believe the Kurds could tip the balance of Syria's year-long uprising and help bring down the Syrian regime, but NPR's Kelly McEvers reports it's not quite so simple.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Abu Azad is a Kurd who, until very recently, was living in Syria. His five children have never had Syrian citizenship. That's because of a decades-long policy in the country that discriminates against Kurd.

ABU AZAD: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: When protesters began taking to the streets of Syria last year, Abu Azad - not his real name - joined them. He helped organize protests in Kurdish areas, calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. He recently found out he was wanted by authorities.

AZAD: (Through translator) And they were chasing me, and they want to kill me.

MCEVERS: Abu Azad and his family recently walked out of Syria and ended up here in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Kurds of Iraq govern an autonomous zone that's grown stronger and more prosperous since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The trip took Abu Azad's family an entire night fording streams and climbing mountains.

AZAD: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We are against this regime 100 percent, Abu Azad says. All Kurds are against this regime. But this is only part of the story for the Kurds of Syria. Most of them will tell you they're against a regime that for so long has withheld citizenship, forbidding them to speak or teach in their own language, and treated them like second-class citizens, but they're not all willing to fight to bring down that regime.

ABU SHIRO: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This man who goes by the name Abu Shiro says he was a soldier in the Syrian army for a year until he escaped to Iraqi Kurdistan. He says he paid bribes to stay in his barracks rather than shoot unarmed protesters or arrest civilians and hand them to the dreaded security services.

We asked him why he didn't join the growing group of defected soldiers known as the Free Syrian Army, who have launched an insurgency to bring down the Syrian regime.

SHIRO: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: It's simple, he says, because I'm a Kurd.

SHIRO: (Through translator) Until now, we haven't any hope in the Arabs to giving us our right.

MCEVERS: For that reason, he says, he doesn't want to die for nothing. It's a position that infuriates many in the Syrian opposition. If you're against the regime, the thinking goes, why not stay and fight, or at least stay and protest? The reason, says Abdulhakim Bashar, who heads a Syrian Kurdish political party, is that predominantly Arab members of the Syrian opposition, to this day, refuse to reassure the Kurds that they'll have it better if the regime falls.

At a recent meeting meant to unite the Syrian opposition, Kurds walked out after opposition leaders refused to promise the Kurds some special recognition in the new Syria.

ABDULHAKIM BASHAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: If this regime falls, Bashar says, and we don't have a clear program for how we'll get our rights, it could be worse than the regime itself.

BASHAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Bashar says U.S. and European diplomats have been pushing the Kurds to focus on bringing down the regime first and worry about the details later. But the Kurds don't totally trust the international community either, says Robert Lowe of the London School of Economics, who has co-edited a book about the Kurds of Syria. They believe they were abandoned when they rose up against the Syrian regime years ago.

ROBERT LOWE: Kurds have suffered before. They had their own uprising in 2004. And they suffered very badly for this.

MCEVERS: What's more, says Lowe, there's the Turkey factor. Turkey has been supportive of Syrians who oppose their regime. But Turkey also for decades has repressed its own Kurdish minority.

LOWE: The Kurds of Syria are very suspicious of Turkey and very hostile to Turkish involvement.

MCEVERS: Lowe says any future action by Turkey, like arming the Syrian opposition or creating a so-called buffer zone where fighters could regroup, would be met by much hostility from the Kurds. So for now, until they know more about how their friends and enemies will act, the Kurds of Syria say they will wait and see. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.