Kurdish Autonomy Calls Split Dissidents

Opposition wants to retain unitary Syrian state, rejects self-rule for Kurds.
By an IWPR-trained reporter (SB No. 94, 25-Feb-10)
A rift has emerged between Kurdish opposition groups and other Syrian dissidents over calls for Syrian Kurds to be granted autonomy.
Against the backdrop of Kurdish minorities in neighbouring Turkey and Iraq gaining more rights, the Syrian Yakiti party, one of the main Kurdish opposition groups, declared that the solution to the Kurdish issue would be to give Kurds the right to self-government.
The statement, which came during the party’s convention last December, sparked a wave of criticism from other elements of the Syrian opposition.
Pro-democracy dissidents, who in 2005 formed a united opposition front against the Syrian regime known as the Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change, rejected these demands as “untimely” and “separatist”.
The Damascus Declaration is an umbrella gathering of secular, Kurdish, and Islamist dissidents and other minority groups.
Kurds constitute around ten per cent of the 22 million Syrian population and live mostly in the agricultural areas of the north and northeast. International and local organisations say they suffer political and cultural discrimination.
The Kurdish language is not recognised and is banned from being taught in schools. Many Kurds are denied Syrian nationality even if they were born and live in the country.
New-York based Human Rights Watch said in a report in November, “Syria has been especially hostile to any Kurdish political or cultural expression.”
The report said that repression greatly intensified following large-scale Kurdish demonstrations in March 2004.
Fouad Aliko, the Yakiti party’s secretary general, said Syrian Kurds had a legitimate right to govern their own affairs and be granted autonomy as long as this does not harm Syria’s security and geographical integrity.
Aliko added that the opening of the Turkish government towards the Kurds and the autonomy of Kurds in Iraq had encouraged Syrian Kurds to hope for a regional solution to the issue.
But neither Aliko nor the Yakiti party have elaborated on the nature of their demands for autonomy.
Following their conference, the Syrian authorities rounded up four leading members of the Kurdish group, Hassan Saleh, Mohamad Mustafa, Maarouf Mala Ahmad and Anwar Naso. They remain behind bars.
The human rights watchdog Amnesty International called for their unconditional release in a January statement.
“Four Kurdish political activists were detained on December 26 in Syria, and have been held incommunicado since then. They are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” Amnesty said.
Although Kurdish groups in Syria had been calling for recognition as the country’s second largest ethnic group after the Arabs since 1957, it is only lately that Kurdish dissidents have clearly expressed their desire for autonomy.
“The universal declaration of human rights gives Kurds the right to self-determination, like any other ethnic group in the world,” said a Kurdish advocate who wished to remain anonymous.
Their demands have clearly irritated other members of the opposition. Hassan Abdel-Azim, leader of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, said, according to media reports, that the opposition “rejected categorically the use of terms like Syrian Kurdistan, self-rule or any separatist talk”.
He said that Syrian opposition groups in general seek solutions to the Kurdish issue “within the limits of the unity of Syrian land and people”, adding that they supported granting Kurds equal citizenship and cultural rights.
Many in the opposition believe that the moment is not ripe in Syria for talk of self-rule.
Separatist demands are divisive and weaken the opposition, said Faek al-Mir, a member of the Syrian Democratic Party, an opposition group.
“Syrians today need to be in a state of total unity and solidarity in their struggle to build a free society and democratic state,” he said.
The Syrian opposition has been violently crushed by the authorities for decades and hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain in jail for their peaceful opposition to the regime.
Twelve prominent figures from the Damascus Declaration are in prison today, serving sentences of two and a half years.
Another dissident said that there was no point in raising the issue of autonomy while the whole country remained under the tyranny of emergency laws, effective since the Baath party took power in 1963.
In 2005, when the Damascus Declaration voiced its vision for democratic change in Syria, the solutions presented to the Kurdish issue remained vague and contentious, according to observers.
“The rejection by Arab groups of the notion of autonomy results from a misunderstanding of that principle, which had been confused with separatism,” Aliko said.
He added that Kurdish dissidents were disappointed with the rest of the opposition, which viewed their demands the same way the government did.
A lawyer and civil rights activist based in Damascus who asked to remain anonymous agrees that Kurds should be allowed to decide their own future.
“Unity cannot be forcefully imposed on people who see themselves as independent. This only complicates the situation,” he said.