The Kurds are vital to Syria’s power balance. They make up roughly 10% of Syria’s population, or roughly 2 million people, and hold sway over a critical swath of Syria’s northeastern terrain.
Some notes on placing Kurds in the context of today’s conflict:
Kurds are not Arab, but rather have a distinct cultural identity that sets them apart from the mainstream. The Kurds have long been oppressed by the Syrian government: their language has been banned and their culture suppressed. An estimated 300,000 Kurds have lived without government ID cards that grant basic rights. That’s led to open frustration and bursts of opposition: a Kurdish uprising in 2004, centered in the city of al-Qamishli, was the first show of widespread dissent in Syria since the 1980s. Some argue it paved the way for today’s uprising. Assad has been nervous about this significant minority. In August 2011, he announced that he would grant Syrian citizenship to some Kurds.
Syria’s Kurds want freedom, but don’t necessarily want a state. Thomas McGee, a scholar of Syrian Kurds based at the University of Exeter, says the notion that the group wants a ‘Greater Kurdistan,’ joining terrain in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, is overblown. Kurdish leaders emphasize autonomy within a decentralized state, as opposed to the absolute control of the Assad regime. As for merging with the neighbors, McGee says that despite some cultural and political ties, Syria’s Kurds feel distinct – more liberal and secular – than Kurds around the region.
When relations get tense between Turkey and Syria—and they are very tense today—the Kurds become a political playing card. Turkey accuses the Assad regime of backing the Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK, a Kurdish militant group in Turkey. With Syria in turmoil, the Assad regime losing control of the north, the PKK has had more room to operate, (reportedly with the regime’s consent). That’s led to a major headache for Turkey as fighting escalates between government forces and the PKK in Turkey’s southeast region.
Syria’s Kurds are looking to Iraq’s Kurds for leadership. As a result of the US invasion of Iraq, Kurds in that country have had de facto autonomy in the form of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Many Syrian Kurds see their autonomy as model. There are even reports that Iraqi Kurds are giving Syrian Kurds military training, enabling Syrian Kurds to better defend themselves against either Assad’s forces or the Free Syrian Army.
While Syria’s Kurds have supported the revolution against President Bashar al Assad, they don’t quite like opposition Syrian National Council or the Free Syrian Army. “First of all, they are Arabs, we do not want the Arabs to control us.” Kawa Azizi, a Kurdish politician, told the New York Times. It exposes one division facing a post-Assad Syria: the challenge of bringing Kurds and Arab Syrians together once the fighting has stopped.
Washington Post: Syria’s Kurds Prepare for Life After Assad
Business Week: Turkey Rocked By Attacks as Syria Fallout Emboldens PKK