No fans of Assad, Syria's Kurds distrust uprising

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Syria's Kurds, who have long complained of discrimination under President Bashar Assad, would seem a natural fit to join the revolt against his rule. Instead, they are growing increasingly distrustful of an opposition they see as no more likely to grant them their rights.

Kurdish parties angrily pulled out of a recent conference aimed at unifying the opposition ranks after participants ignored their demands for more rights and recognition in a post-Assad Syria.

A few days after the withdrawal, while the rest of the country was protesting against Assad, Kurds in their main cities of Qamishli and Hasakeh protested against the predominantly Sunni Arab opposition, demanding it back a system that would give them greater say over their own affairs. "We want federalism," some protesters shouted, carrying red, white and green Kurdish flags.

Tens of thousands of Kurds have been joining in weekly protests against Assad's regime. But suspicion of the opposition has kept many of Syria's estimated 2.5 million Kurds — more than 10 percent of the population — sitting on the fence amid the country's turmoil. As a result, they effectively join Christians, Alawites and other key minorities whose fear for the future if Assad's secular regime collapses has kept them from joining the uprising in force.

Both the Damascus government and the opposition have courted the Kurds but neither have been willing to make full concessions. The Kurds are also hampered by their own divisions among multiple parties and factions, one of which is accused of openly siding with Assad's regime.

"The Kurds are being used as political pawns in the battle between Assad's regime and opposition forces," said Fares Tammo, whose father, Mashaal Tammo, one of the most vocal and charismatic Kurdish opposition figures, was assassinated in October by gunmen who burst into his apartment in northern Syria.

The Kurds' hesitation also underlines a major problem for the opposition: its overwhelmingly Sunni Arab nature and the perception that it is dominated by Islamic hard-liners who will discriminate against minorities if given a chance at power.

Omar Hossino, a Washington-based Syrian-American researcher, said it is key to the uprising's success for the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, to integrate the Kurds.

"This in turn could not only reassure other minority groups fearful of Arab Sunni Islamist majoritarianism, but would also guarantee a more pluralist regime in the post-Assad period," said Ossino.

Still, many in the opposition react to Kurdish demands much like the Assad regime always has. They see the demands as a call to split the country, particularly Kurds' hope for a federal system that would give them self-rule similar to northern Iraq's autonomous region of Kurdistan.

The SNC's chief further angered Kurds with an interview published Monday in which he told Kurds not to cling to the "useless illusion" of federalism.

"It is interpreted as a Kurdish demand for separatism," Burhan Ghalioun told the Iraqi Kurdish newspaper Rudaw. "The SNC refuses to give the Kurds self-rule because there is no part of Syria where Kurds represent 100 percent of the population ... There is no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan."

He said that if Kurds throw their weight behind the uprising, it would "strengthen their position in the future to demand their rights" and to have a greater role "in Syria in general."

Mustafa Osso, secretary general of the Azadi Kurdish Party in Syria, said Ghalioun's comments will "discourage Kurdish parties from joining the SNC."

"The Kurds have a right to self-determination and one of the options is federalism," he told The Associated Press. "Federalism is absolutely not the same thing as separatism, which we reject."

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, centered in the poor northeastern provinces of Hasakeh and Qamishli, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. Areas of the capital Damascus and Syria's largest city of Aleppo also have sizable Kurdish communities. The Kurdish ethnic group stretches into contiguous areas of Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Syrian Kurds have long complained of neglect and discrimination. Assad's government for years argued they are not citizens at all.

They rose up in 2004, clashing with security forces in Qamishli, the capital of Syria's Kurdish heartland, after a brawl between Kurdish and Arab supporters of rival soccer teams. The unrest spread to the nearby cities of Hasaka and Aleppo. At least 25 people were killed, and the clashes gave Damascus a pretext to further crack down on the Kurds.

Now Assad's regime has sought to assuage the Kurds enough to prevent them from joining the current revolt against his rule, which erupted early last year. Security forces have refrained from using deadly force against protests that have occurred in Kurdish areas.

Early on, Assad ceded ground on a major Kurdish demand: In April last year, he granted citizenship to some 200,000 Kurds who were registered as aliens before. The decree excluded thousands of other Kurds known as "maktoumeen," who are unregistered and have no identity cards.

"It was an obvious attempt to pacify us," said Amina Farman, a 37-year-old Kurd who was among those who acquired citizenship. "I would have been happy and grateful to get it had the circumstances been different. Now it just feels like a meaningless buyout," she said by phone from Qamishli.

Farman, who was born in Syria, can now for the first time vote, work legally and own property. But the regime still bans Kurds from publicly speaking in their own language or teaching it, prevents Kurdish political and cultural public gatherings and treats Kurds as second-class citizens.

Still, Farman is also not convinced by the opposition and is concerned about the growing militarization of the uprising.

"There's something not quite right," she said of the opposition's disregard of Kurdish rights.

"We want to bring democracy to Syria," she said. "We don't want to replace tyranny with tyranny."

Late last month, an opposition conference in Istanbul ignored Kurdish demands it support political decentralization and Kurdish rights in a post-Assad state. In response, the main Kurdish umbrella group, the Kurdish National Council, walked out of the gathering.

A few days later at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul on April 3, SNC head Ghalioun read a national charter for the new Syria that included a pledge to uphold Kurdish rights. But the KNC called the wording too vague.

The Kurds are also suspicious about influence over the SNC by Turkey, which has a history of oppressing its own Kurds and which, they believe, does not want them to gain rights in Syria as well.

Turkey is concerned "that the role played by Kurds in Syria would reflect on Turkey's Kurds, too," the Germany-based Kurdish Center for Legal Studies and Consultancy said in an international appeal for support last week.

Fares Tammo, whose Kurdish Future Movement is the only Kurdish party in the SNC, defends his party's presence in the council.

But, he admits, some of its members "see through chauvinist eyes and try their best to marginalize the Kurdish role."