LONDON, United Kingdom – In a press conference last Tuesday, the Syrian National Council (SNC) failed to convince Syrian Kurds that they would grant them equal rights.“They have to do more to convince us,” says Kawa Rashid, a representative of a Kurdish youth group in Syria.
Kurds angrily walked out of a Syrian opposition conference in Istanbul on March 27, and later left the SNC because, they say, there was no mention of Kurdish demands for decentralization in their national covenant.
On March 31, SNC founding member, Haitham al-Maleh told Al Arabiya television that Kurdish demands are illegitimate. Haitham also said Turkey had suggested the Kurdish National Council be excluded from the Friends of Syria conference. This angered Syrian Kurds and raised suspicions about Turkey’s intention.
Cengiz Candar, a highly respected political analyst and journalist in Turkey, wrote in the Turkish newspaper Radikal that Turkey’s “fingerprints” are prominently visible within the Syrian opposition.
“One can immediately sense that Turkey’s basic approach to the Kurdish problem has been exported to the national pact of the Syrian opposition,” he wrote.
Heyam Aqil, the London representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria, which is prominent in the Kurdish National Council, told Rudaw that Turkey’s influence on Syria’s opposition was very clear. “The Turkish government will never allow Kurds to be recognized in Syria’s new constitution.” She added that the comments of Maleh “reflect both his Arab nationalism and Turkish agenda.”
The SNC released a document on April 3 for opposition groups to sign. “That document is the very first that they drafted months ago at the beginning of their negotiations with the KNC. The KNC does not agree to that document because it doesn’t recognize the Kurds’ right to self-determination or a politically decentralized government,” Aqil told Rudaw.
Omar Hossino, author of a report on Syria’s Kurdish opposition for the Henry Jackson Society, claims Turkey is a main stumbling block for an agreement between the SNC and the KNC. “Turkey fears a federal region for Kurds on its border — especially after Iraqi Kurds have achieved their own autonomous region — because it will put pressure on them to do the same with the Kurdish population in Turkey,” he concluded.
But Turkey is not the only stumbling block. Arab opposition leaders in Syria are also upset over Kurdish demands. “Saying that the main demand should be to overthrow the Assad regime, many have called the KNC’s demand for some sort of federalism odd and farfetched and claim that Syrian Kurds want secession from Syria or that federalism in Syria will break up the country,” he added.
This also explains the comments of Haitham Maleh, who traditionally held a hostile stance towards Kurdish demands. “(They) reflect a stance that sees the Kurds as ‘freeloaders’ who are attempting to exploit the revolution for their own narrow interests,” says Hossino.
Kawa Rashid, a spokesperson for the new Kurdish youth group the Syrian Kurdistan Movement, says that the Syrian National Council follows a Turkish Islamist agenda, and adds that there are plans to arm the opposition by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “Kurds are against arming the opposition. We want peace.”
Rashid emphasizes that the Kurds will not accept just language rights. “We want federalism. The Arabs do not want federalism. That is why we cannot agree. There cannot be a just solution without solving the Kurdish issue.”
Qubad Talabani, the representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the U.S., speaking at the conference of the Atlantic Council in Washington last February, suggested that the Kurds are in a difficult situation. “It’s unlikely that an Assad-led government will be good to the Kurds. But at the same time, the opposition is not talking about Kurdish issues, is not talking about the need to protect Kurdish rights or to have the Kurdish identity as part of any new Syria.”
He added that there are fears among Kurds of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The Muslim Brotherhood basically said … Kurds have no issues in Syria … Kurds haven’t been oppressed in Syria. And that just highlights for us that there is still a real chauvinist trend within certain elements of the Syrian opposition.”
Syria expert Hossino thinks that that perhaps the best player in the attempt to get the two parties to reconcile has been the United States, which has met frequently with both groups. “The U.S. has both pushed the SNC to compromise more on KNC demands — and the SNC has made some steps in that regard — and it has also pushed the KNC to compromise on their demands as well and join the SNC.”
He warns that if the KNC isn’t pushed towards the SNC, “it may drift towards the PYD, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which will not be in Turkey or the SNC’s interests.”
The PKK already seized control of cities such as Qamishli and Amude, to Turkey’s discomfort.
Talabani concludes that if “people want the Kurds to participate, there really has to be a complete rethink of how to reach out to them. And again, we’ll (KRG) continue to be a voice of counsel and try to guide them through this process. But others will probably need to do that as well.”
Talabani suggests that political organizations in the region must accept Kurdish demands. “There must no longer be the fear of this Kurdish national identity. It’s a reality, whether it’s in Iraq, whether it’s in Syria, whether it’s in Turkey.”