ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Syrian Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority, do not trust President Bashar al-Assad, nor the opposition, so for now have largely kept out of the uprising against the government, exiled Kurdish opposition representatives said.
The Kurds are also wary of Turkey’s growing influence on the Arab groups trying to overthrow Assad, fearing that if they succeed, they will crush Kurdish hopes for autonomy in Syria, due to Ankara’s opposition to home-rule for its own Kurds.
“There is no trust between the Kurds and the Arab opposition that’s why there are not huge protests in the Kurdish cities,” said Majed Youssif Dawi, a Kurdish member of the Syrian National Council main opposition umbrella group.
“We don’t have any agreements with the Arab opposition in terms of Kurdish rights,” he told Reuters in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil. “We don’t have any agreement on how to change the system ... also the statements of the heads of the Arab opposition do not give us any reason to trust them.”
While mainly Sunni Arab cities in Syria have seen 10 months of large, almost daily demonstrations against Assad, the mainly Kurdish towns and cities in northeast Syria, after initial protests, have remained much more calm.
“The Kurds don’t support the regime. We Kurds have been against the Syrian regime for more than 20 years and the Kurds were the one of first who came out onto the streets,” said Dr. Sarbast Nabi, a Syrian Kurdish politics professor at Salahaddin University in northern Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Syrian Kurds clashed with security forces for days, leaving several dead, after an incident at a football stadium in the main Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli in 2004.
“At that time I was in Damascus,” said Nabi. “I don’t want to mention any names, but those who are now the heads of the opposition stood against the demands for Kurdish rights ... They still support the ideology Arab-isation and political Islam.”
As well as the lack of trust between the Kurds and the main opposition groups, the Syrian Kurds have deep divisions among themselves and are backed by different regional players, some by the Iraqi Kurds, and another by the Turkish Kurd rebels, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), independent analysts said.
The Syrian government has increased its support for the PKK as a counterweight to Turkey’s backing of the Syrian opposition, the analysts said, and therefore the PKK’s proxies inside Syria had not joined in the struggle to overthrow Assad.
Mahmoud Mohammad Bave Sabir, a leading member of the Democratic Union Kurdish Party of Syria, one of the oldest Kurdish opposition groups, said Assad was playing on Arab fears of Kurdish separatism and Kurdish fears of Arab nationalism.
Any Kurdish protests, he said, had not been met with the same level of forces as elsewhere, where security forces have used live ammunition and killed hundreds of demonstrators.
That, he said, was because Assad feared the reaction of the many thousands of Kurds living in the capital Damascus, and the commercial hub Aleppo, which have until now remained much quieter than outlying smaller towns and cities.
But Kurdish activists inside Syria are still mobilizing the youths who took to the streets regardless of the Kurdish opposition parties, said Dawi, a student activist imprisoned for two months in Syria before feeling to Iraqi Kurdistan.
He is now in daily contact with fellow activists in the Kurdish towns and cities inside Syria as well as lobbying for greater recognition of Kurdish rights from within the main opposition umbrella group based in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
The support for the opposition by Turkey’s government, which evolved from a series of banned Islamist parties, has led to Sunni Arab Islamist groups coming to the fore of the protests, the Syrian Kurdish representatives said.
If those groups came to power, the Syrian Kurds said, they would likely still pursue the Arab nationalist policies of the Assad government and stand in the way of Kurdish demands for self-rule, similar to that of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous zone.
“I think the revolution in Syria has not remained in the hands of the Syrian people, but has become a conflict between the regional powers,” said student activist Dawi. “We should not trust those big countries because they are putting their own interests first.”
“We are afraid of any Turkish role inside Syria,” said Professor Nabi. “I am sure Turkey will face strong Kurdish resistance in Syria.”
For now, he said, Syria’s Kurds were keeping their powder dry, awaiting the outcome of the uprising, but were ready to fight to defend their rights when needed.
“I don’t believe they will remain neutral because they are obliged to defend themselves, either against the regime, or after it changes because then the struggle will become multi sided.”
Editing by Alison Williams