The Kurds have other reasons for holding back: the opposition movement in Syria is made up in large part by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists
KILIS, Turkey – The Kurds of Syria, long oppressed by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, are largely staying out of the fighting that has gone on for more than a year in their country, hedging their bets as they watch to see who will gain the upper hand.
Mr. Assad has made major efforts to keep them out of the fray, aware that their support for the opposition could prove decisive. He has promised that hundreds of thousands of Kurds will be given citizenship, something the ruling Assad family has denied them for nearly half a century.
The Kurds have other reasons for holding back: the opposition movement in Syria is made up in large part by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists, two groups that have little sympathy for Kurdish rights, and the Kurds cling to their long-sought goal of a Kurdish state.
“Syrian Kurds are, by and large, sitting out this dance,” said Jonathan C. Randal, the author of a widely respected book on the Kurds – the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. Yet a recent report by the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy research institute in London, describes the Kurds as a “decisive minority” in the Syrian revolution and says their support would help in a “rapid overthrow in the Assad regime.”
The Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s population, find themselves in something of a dilemma. If the revolution against Mr. Assad succeeds, their passive role will give them less of a say in how the country is ruled. But they also fear that any future government will be much more Islamist than the secular Assad government.
As Michael Weiss, a spokesman for the society, said, “The Kurds don’t want to join something that will lose.”
That is not surprising, given the oppressive history of the Kurdish people, not only in Syria but also in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, the four countries that intersect the traditional Kurdish region, much of it rugged mountain terrain.
In the past, they have been denied language, culture and any sort of national identity in those countries, though major changes have been made in oil-rich northern Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The history of their poor treatment in Syria is lengthy. But the most notable event took place in 1962, when 120,000 Kurds had their citizenship denied on the grounds they were not born in Syria. Today, that number has roughly doubled because of descendants who cannot lay claim to citizenship.
In 1973, Syria began creating an “Arab belt” in northern Syria, confiscating Kurdish land along a 180-mile strip and giving it to Arabs.
In 2004, Syrian security forces used live ammunition after clashes broke out between Kurds and Arabs at a soccer match in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli, killing at least 30 and wounding more than 160. After rioters burned down the local Baath Party headquarters and toppled a statue of former President Hafez al-Assad, hundreds of Kurds were arrested.
Besides the banning of the Kurdish language and books from schools, celebrations like Nowruz – the traditional Kurdish New Year – were long prohibited.
As part of his effort to appease the Kurds, Mr. Assad pledged last April that he would grant citizenship to about 200,000 stateless Kurds as protests were spreading – a promise he has yet to make good on.
Mr. Weiss said that it was Kurdish protests against the government in early 2011 that first alarmed the Assad government, who little realized that an uprising was to follow in other parts of Syria. “At first, Assad just thought he had a Kurdish problem on his hands,” he said.
Gokhan Bacik, the director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Zirve University in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, said the Syrian Kurds were fragmented among many political parties, making it all the more difficult for them to unite for any single cause.
But even though the Kurds as a whole do not want to jeopardize the long-term goal of a nation-state, he said, they are keeping their own counsel. “There is a nascent idea of a Kurdish nation,” he said. “They don’t want to risk this process. For them the major point is long-term survival in better conditions.”
The Kurdish National Council, a bloc of Kurdish parties, walked out of a meeting in Istanbul last month of the Syrian National Council, an organization that has come to represent the rebellion in exile. They did so because the Islamist-dominated Syrian group refused to include wording about the rights of Kurds.
The Kurds have said in the past that they are seeking constitutional recognition, compensation for their suffering and a federal government, as well as the removal of the word “Arab” from Syria’s official name – the Syrian Arab Republic.
The Kurds of Syria are hardly operating in a vacuum, what with neighboring Turkey and Iraq also involved. In Iraq, Masoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish north, has been an active supporter of the Kurdish National Council.
Turkey, meanwhile, has tried to act as the interlocutor for the Syrian National Council and the role the Kurds play. But that has its own set of pitfalls because the Kurds remain suspicious of Turkey, which has treated its own Kurdish population poorly.
A wild card in all this is the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the P.K.K., a well-armed and well-trained militia that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. In Syria the group has allied itself with the Assad government, which could use it to stir up tensions along the Turkish border, should Mr. Assad see the need.
In the past, Syria armed and protected the P.K.K. in its long campaign against Turkey, though that assistance cooled when relations between the countries began improving little more than a decade ago. The group has already threatened to turn all Kurdish areas in the region into a “war zone” if Turkey crosses the border to intervene in the Syrian crisis.
A Turkish journalist, Serdar Alyamac, who has specialized in Kurdish issues, said the group would also serve as an enforcer for Mr. Assad in the Kurdish regions of Syria.
“Assad naturally wants to use the P.K.K. to control the area,” he said. “Plus the P.K.K. is familiar with the area. It’s a win-win situation for Assad and the P.K.K., if it works.”
In the cluttered bazaar of this ancient city on the Syrian border, the merchant who sells lipstick and face powder in his tiny stall tells the story of the Syrian town of Afrin.
Before the troubles began, he said, there was no school there.
“It’s completely under the control of the Kurds,” said the man, who refused to give even his first name for fear of reprisal. “The government opened four schools for them, so it’s quiet there. I know because four of my children live in Afrin and I call them all the time.”
At another stall, a cloth merchant named Nouri reached into his pocket and took out his cellphone, which he used to pull up pictures of the refugee camp housing more than 9,000 Syrians just outside the city. A Kurd, he has been working part time as an interpreter from Arabic to Turkish for the refugees.
The shots show white, boxy prefab units, one of the two mosques in the camp and the beginning of a children’s playground.
“In the camps, there are some Kurds,” he said. “But if you ask them if they are Kurds, they always say no. And they always speak Arabic, not Kurdish. They are frightened because they think Turkish people will believe they are from the P.K.K.”