Will There Be Room for Kurds and Other Minorities in a Post-Assad Syria?

by Jerry Gordon (June 2012)

Sixteen months of bloody repression by the Assad minority Alawite government in Damascus has inflicted more than 15,000 deaths and countless injuries across the troubled country. The latest excess was the reported deaths of 49 children in an artillery assault on the city of Houla in late May that may caused over 100 deaths in what the UN observers called a massacre. According to a press report:

Britain and the United States condemned the Houla massacre, along with Israel, in a rare public statement on the 14-month-old Syrian conflict.

The attack was condemned by UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon and Syrian ceasefire envoy, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The UN has been unsuccessful trying to rein in the sectarian violence. The New York Times reported that the US hopes that Russia, one of the Assad regime’s allies, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran and China, might offer some assistance to facilitate Assad leaving the embattled regime in Damascus. Prof. Eyal Zisser of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University in a recent Israel Hayom article, “The Road to Damascus Runs Through Moscow,” noted the transition proposal of the Obama Administration:

The Americans pulled a new rabbit out of their hat in the form of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They suggested that Moscow and Washington jointly impose the “Yemen solution” on Syria, which calls for Assad's removal while keeping his regime in place to rule Syria until elections can be held; similar to what took place in Egypt and Tunisia. The Americans hope that such a solution will appeal to those inside Assad's inner circle, who feel his end is near and will agree to abandon him in order to ensure their own futures.

However that may be a vain hope. Given US, Turkey, Saudi, Qatar and Gulf Emirate support for the Syrian National Council what might follow in Syria could be a Sunni Arab nationalist regime.  A regime dominated by a fundamentalist Islamist coalition. That would dash hopes of minority ethnic and religious groups for a secular democratic federal republic. A federal republic that might include secular Sunni and Alawi moderates, Christians, Druze, Turkmen and the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Kurds. Arabs constitute nearly three-fifths (57 percent) of the country’s 22 million population. That is the hope of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KURDNAS) leader Sherkoh Abbas. He has joined with US Syrian Sunni reformer Dr. M. Zhudi Jasser to advance this cause via the Syrian Democratic Coalition.

Abbas’ own history is reflective of the vicissitudes that have afflicted the estimated 45 million Kurds in landlocked Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq over the course of the 20th and 21st Centuries. He left his home community of Qamishi, Syria in the 1980’s for the US. This followed his criticism of the dictatorial Baathist regime of Hafez al- Assad, a former Air Force officer who led a coup in the late 1950’s and remained in power for more than four decades. Hafez al-Assad set the brutal precedent for his son, Bashar, in a bloody repression 1982. That resulted in the massacre of upwards of 25,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the Syrian city of Hama and equal numbers of other civilians who got caught in the middle of the conflict. The Assad family created “an Islamo Mafia state triumphant.”

For Abbas and other Syrian Kurds, the past four decades witnessed socio-economic deprivations and Arabization of the Kurdistan Region by the Assad regimes – a virtual ethnic cleansing. An estimated 500,000 Kurds were denied Syrian citizenship following a special census in 1963. They lived as aliens in their ancestral lands in the northeastern border areas adjacent to Turkey on the north and Iraq to the east. Arable land and control of valuable oil resources in the Syrian Kurdistan heartland were seized to become the personal wealth of the Assad family. Instruction and schooling in Kurdish language and culture was stopped. This repression of Syria’s Kurds witnessed virtual starvation and usurpation of their national provenance. That led to the uprising in 2004. Dozens of Kurds were killed; more than 4000 were jailed and tortured.   

Earlier this year, there were meetings in the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) capital of Erbil (Hawlar in Kurdish) with representatives of various Syrian Kurdish political parties and ex-patriate groups. They discussed the latter’s aspirations and rights under the aegis of KRG President, Massoud Barzani.   Barzani has established a wary rapprochement with the Islamist Turkish AKP government during meetings in Ankara in April 2012. Barzani entreated the PKK (Turkish Kurdish Workers Party), whose leader Abdullah Ocalan is imprisoned there, to stop their armed rebellion against the AKP regime. The Hafez al- Assad regime had given Ocalan sanctuary to fight Turkey. He was eventually captured in Kenya and deported to Ankara in 1999 for trial which resulted in a death sentence, commuted to life imprisonment. Like his father before him, Bashar Assad has recently brought back PKK operatives into the Syrian Kurdish heartland, which is viewed as divisive by KURDNAS leaders. 

Barzani met with President Obama and Vice President Biden earlier in April in Washington. Syrian Kurds have fled  to safe havens in refugee camps in the KRG given the turmoil back home. 

Israel supported independent Kurdish movements in Iraq in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It maintains Kurdish language and cultural programs at major universities to serve as a future ally in a post-revolutionary Syria. There is a vibrant Kurdish Jewish community of more than 150,000 in Israel. One member of that community Yitzhak Mordechai who served as a Minister of Defense. There have been visits to the Iraqi KRG by members of the Israeli Kurdish community.

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Uzi Dayan, former head of Israel’s National Security Council created a groundswell of interest in a possible separate Kurdish state in Syria with public remarks earlier this year.

KURDNAS leader Abbas was interviewed in a Jerusalem Post article about the prospects for a separate Kurdish state in Syria. 

Prof. Zisser of Tel Aviv University said in a Jerusalem Post article that “a bloodbath would follow the overthrow of Assad.”  

Abbas demurs. He maintains that Syria post-Assad may not become another fundamentalist Sunni Arab post-revolutionary government. He noted in a recent Front Page Magazine interview with Joseph Puder, “Syria: An Alternative Choice”:

The Muslim Brotherhood, with the support of President Obama and Turkey, will not succeed in controlling all of Syria. The Alawis and Hezbollah backed by Iran, Russia and China, will not give up power easily.

Asked what the US role might be in the current struggle, Abbas asserted:

The US has a moral responsibility to insure freedom and democracy for all Syrians. .. an Arab nationalist or Islamist regime would lead to more violence and civil war.

Against this background we held an interview with KURDNAS and its President, Sherkoh Abbas.

Jerry Gordon:   Abbas, thank you for kindly consenting to this interview.

Sherkoh Abbas:  Thank you for inviting me.

Gordon: How Significant are Kurds among Syria’s ethnic groups?


Abbas:  Look at the two charts. The first is from a 1958 Census in Syria conducted with Russian assistance, while the second is from 2010. You will note that the Kurds accounted for 35 percent of the 1958 population of 4.5 million. While in 2010, the non-Arabized Kurds represented 15 percent, while the Arabized Kurds, 19 percent of a total population of more than 22.5 million. Thus Kurds make up the second largest ethnic component in Syria, after the Arabs, in terms of population size and geographical distribution. Therefore it should not be underestimated that the Kurdish population could be a significant player in any future electoral process.

Gordon:  Where are the Kurds located in Syria?

Abbas:  Kurds are spread throughout Syria. They have had a continuous presence deep inside Syria since the reign of Sultan Saladin. Their core area extends from the Iraqi border in the north east of the country to a few kilometers from the Gulf of Iskenderun in the northwest. Major Kurdish areas include Jazeera (Mesopotamia), Koubani, Efrin, and Mount Kurds. They form the Kurdistan of Syria. Kurds comprise a large proportion of population in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Hasaka. They also have had a long presence in the cities of Hama, Raqaa and Latakia near Mount Kurds.

Gordon:  What resources are found in the Northeastern Kurdish area of Syria?

Abbas:  The area has substantial oil and gas fields, and other mineral resources such as iron and red ruby. It has natural resources such as water and arable land for cultivation of cotton, olives, wheat, and livestock. The Kurdish area is the bread basket of Syria.

Gordon:  What is the extent of petroleum reserves in the Kurdish area of Syria and who controls it?

 Abbas:  All Syrian extracted oil comes from the Kurdish region. All of the income from oil goes into private accounts of the ruling Assad family. According to international petroleum sources, Syria has 2.5 billion barrels of oil reserves, mostly in the northeast.

Gordon:  What were the effects of the Arabization process on the socio economic status of Syria’s Kurds?

Abbas:  Baathists after seizing power in 1963, pursued a racist policy against the Kurdish people, and tried to Arabize Kurds in various ways. Primarily they denied the use of the Kurdish language in education. Over the last five decades they prevented the emergence of anything culturally related to Kurds in the Syrian media, even preventing songs and videos. The Assad regime continued to apply these policies. That included a systematic assimilation process that involved changing the names of villages, towns, plains, valleys and mountains from Kurdish to Arabic. As well as changing the demographic makeup of the Kurdish region by resettlement of Arab worker and positioning security force support to enforce government racist policies thereby altering demographics. In short, we only exist according to the Syrian constitution as “Arabs.”

Gordon:  What prompted the 2004 Kurdish uprising in Syria and what was the outcome?

Abbas:  The Kurds were oppressed by the Assad regime as a result of their racist and ethnic cleansing policies. For decades, Kurdish people lost property, jobs, and had to emigrate from their homeland and abandon their lands. The application of a policy of starvation and the prevention of trade and ownership of property in the Kurdish region resulted in a methodical “social –economic genocide.” Many people died of starvation, others fled the country and many were killed crossing the borders. Not being able to provide for their families caused many long term adverse effects on the mental health of the people.

Regime repression and suppression of freedoms coupled with looting of wealth, Arabization, and starvation, resulted in a Kurdish popular uprising. This uprising began in the northeastern Kurdish region and spread to major cities like Aleppo and Damascus. The results were torture, killings and destruction, as the Assad regime is doing now to the Syrian people.

Gordon:  What are the major Syrian Kurdish parties and national movements?

Abbas:  There are many Syrian Kurdish parties; however they are all small and weak for a variety of reasons. They are threatened by the existence of a totalitarian and terrorist Assad regime in Syria. However, there are not any extremist or racist Kurdish political parties. All the Kurdish political parties call for democracy and freedom. Prominent among them are Yekiti Kurdish Party, Kurdish Democratic Party, and Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KURDNAS). Unfortunately, the regime penetrated the Kurdish political parties through authoritarian rule. There are Kurdish parties that are directly linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of Iraq and the Kurdistan Workers' Party of Turkey. These three major groups had or have historical ties with the Syrian regime which cannot be denied. However, the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria is not linked to any of the groups mentioned and thus is independent and able to seek Western support and regime change.

Gordon:  Given this background where does the Syrian Kurdistan National Assembly fit in?

Abbas:  The KURDNAS believes in democracy, freedom, human rights and separation of religion from state. The KURDNAS desires to create a decentralized Syria with a Kurdish Federal Region and regime change. We have been seeking Western and democratic support for our cause, while avoiding regional Kurdish short-sighted vision. We know that Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey are not friends of Kurds; therefore, we view them as being a threat to democracy and freedom. In fact, they have proven it.

Gordon:  What is the vision of the Syrian Kurdistan National Assembly for a Post-Assad Syria?

Abbas:  We are working to build a modern, democratic, civil, federal state to be a key player in the Middle East. A future Middle East festooned with banners of peace, security and stability with all the neighbors. We aspire to maintain human, national, and cultural rights of all minorities including the rights of religious minorities, without exception. We propose to establish a Kurdish Federal Region for the Kurdish people of Syria in a new federal state.

Gordon:  Does the opposition Syrian National Council warrant Kurdish participation? 

Abbas:  The Syrian National Council (SNC) does not guarantee the Kurdish people full participation in the future of the country. Moreover, it is racially motivated. Thus they have been against anything that promotes our God given rights. Furthermore, they have not served the Syrian people. In fact, they have been helping the regime by refusing to acknowledge and accept the rights of minorities like Kurds, Druze, Alawites, Christians, Turkmen and others.

Gordon:  Recently, the Syrian Kurdish parties held discussions with the leaders of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. What was the purpose of the conference and what did it achieve?

Abbas:  The reasons for holding the conference in Erbil, including the Kurdish political parties of Syria was to try to secure political and moral support to the Kurdish National Council inside Syria. The conference included two major Kurdish political parties in South Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan), and the communities of the Syrian Kurdish Diaspora to be in alignment with KRG policies. In this case they did not serve the interests of the Syrian Kurds.

Gordon:  What is behind the rapprochement between the new leadership of the Iraqi KRG and Turkey vis a vis the crisis in Syria?

Abbas:  There are large external pressures on the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, particularly from Iran, Turkey, Syria, the Iraqi central government, and the Obama Administration. Thus, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership is forced to follow a certain policy in connection with the situation in Syria that does not necessarily serve the interests of the Kurdish people in Western Kurdistan (Kurdistan of Syria).

Gordon:  Given the possibility of Kurdish sectarianism in Iraq what would be the prospects for confederation with the adjacent Syrian Kurdish area?

Abbas:  The natural consequences of sectarian and political conflict in Iraq on Syria in general could reflect negatively on the region. Internal conflicts of Kurdish groups from neighboring countries could impact negatively on the Kurdish movement in Syria. In my view, we should discourage any confederation with the Iraqi Kurdish Region and we should be part of a Federal Syria, unless the future Syria will look either not change or become the Arab nationalist vision of the SNC.

Gordon:  What is the historical relationship between Kurds, Kurdish Jews and the State of Israel?

Abbas:  Kurds were more open to followers of other religions, including Jews. History proves that with the birth of Judaism and Christianity in the Middle East. The Kurdish Jewish community had a role in Kurdistan.  The Kurdish Jews fled to Israel because of the repressive policies of the authoritarian regimes in general and against Kurdish Jews in particular. There have been cultural communications between the Kurds in Kurdistan and the Kurdish Jews in Israel. However, the establishment of political relations would be a “kiss of death” in the words of one Israeli expert, because the general atmosphere in the region does not cultivate such relations. Meanwhile the Arab states, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority to have issues in their relations or communications with Israel. On the other hand, the Kurds are often accused by these groups of constantly seeking to establish a “second Israel,” meaning, we are anti Arabs, Persian, Turks, and Islam.

Gordon:  Recently, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Uzi Dayan, former National Security Council adviser in Israel, discussed openly the creation of a separate Kurdish state in Syria. How realistic is that and what precedents can you cite for this possibility?

Abbas:  The establishment of a Kurdish state composed of the four Kurdish regions in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria is more realistic than the establishment of a Kurdish state separately within Syria. This is not in the programs of the Syrian Kurdish political parties or in the programs of KURDNAS and its allies who are supporting a Federal Syria. However, if a future Syria does not support a Kurdish Federal Region within Syria and grant it rights, this could lead to a different alternative.

Gordon:  What was the reaction in the Middle East and world press to your comments in a Jerusalem Post article about a possible separate Kurdish state in Syria?

Abbas:  Dozens of Arab and Iranian newspapers and websites published accusations, comments, and analysis both positive and negative. The headlines accused the Kurds of wanting to divide Syria by seeking Israel’s help. In fact, the article published contains our vision of the establishment of a federal Syria. That would include the various Syrian national and religious components. That means federation and decentralization not the establishment of independent states. Interesting news here is that many Syrian people on the ground or part of the revolution, but not SNC members, supported the idea of decentralization by holding conferences saying “here is Kurdistan.”

Gordon:  KURDNAS has been a proponent of a secular confederation of ethno/religious provinces in a post-Assad Syria. How would that work and what support would be required from major international partners?

Abbas:  The establishment of a democratic system to ensure civil rights of all components of the Syrian ethno religious groups requires the full support of the free-democratic world. That is the duty of anyone who wants a real democratic government in Syria. The Syrian minorities will not contribute directly to the process of ending totalitarianism if there are no assurances for them of freedoms and rights in the future. It is crucial for the international community to remove any protection of the Assad regime and do whatever is necessary to pave the way towards real change. We feel that the US State Department has been working very hard to promote SNC and this is wrong. The US should support democracy, decentralization and regime change. This could prevent Islamists from assuming power or keep Baathists in place in Damascus. Democracy and regional decentralization for Syrians is the only ticket to prevent Islamist or radicals from seizing power. If Syria was a federal state, it would have been difficult to carry out atrocities against unarmed civilians. Local national guards in a federated Syria would have been there to protect children and civilians unlike the Houla massacre.

Gordon:  Recently, the US State Department held meetings in Washington with the Syrian National Kurdish Council. What were the purposes of the session, who attended and what did the Obama Administration hope to achieve?

Abbas:  The U.S. Administration has asked the Kurdish National Council delegation to join the Syrian National Council, and wanted this meeting to directly hear Kurdish opinion. The interpretation of the U.S. Administration in support for the Kurdish political movement is premature. This was a positive event, but the US government should contact and meet various representatives of the Syrian Kurdish street, especially those that work for a federal Syria and want to bring down the Assad terrorist regime.

Gordon:  Do you believe that the Obama Administration has played a productive role in fostering Syrian dissident opposition during this crisis? 

Abbas:  Unfortunately, the Obama administration played a role in the mismanagement of the Syrian crisis. It did not encourage a clear and supportive policy toward democratic groups. If the Syrian Revolution fails, the current U.S. administration will have had a key role. This policy is producing harmful results for the Syrian people and encourages the system to continue to commit crimes against humanity. The question for President Obama is what is his Administration’s goal? Is the goal either keeping the Baathists in power in Damascus or bringing Muslim Brotherhood Islamists who control the SNC to power? Both cases do not serve the interests of either the majority of the Syrian people or the international community.

Gordon:  Prof. Zisser of Tel Aviv University published an article on the CNN Global Public Square blog, “What Would a Post Assad Syria Look Like?”  Do you concur with his assessment and what would the Syrian Kurdistan National Assembly support?

Abbas:  Sorry to say, many experts on the Middle East do not have adequate information, accurate demographic realities or understand the distribution of components of national and religious groups in Syria.  Because of that they produce mistaken estimates and analyses. Those analyses claim that the Kurds have a lower population compared to Alawites and Christians ??in Syria and do not support the revolution.  The Kurds support the revolution and they have done their fair share since the 2004 Kurdish uprising. They were the first to break the curtain of fear. They have a genuine interest in the success of this revolution that could change the face of the region and increase the power of supporters of freedom and democracy in the world.

Gordon:  Sherkoh Abbas thank you for this timely interview about a post-Assad Syria and minority groups like the Kurds.

Abbas:  Thank you for the opportunity.

Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of intervews, The West Speaks.


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