And here is a piece I wrote out of an interview with a Kurdish activist…
MOBILIZING SKILLS AND FRAGMENTATION: THE KURDS IN THE SYRIAN REVOLUTION
I have been trying getting in touch with Shanar* since I arrived in Syria at the beginning of April. She is an experienced Kurdish activist I met in Damascus last year, who has been jailed several times, the last time after one of the first protests which broke out in Damascus by mid-March. Shanar recalls that episode, when they dragged her by the hair across the street of Damascus and almost broke her hand, by beating her savagely in prison. She got used to the behavior of the security forces, like most of the Kurds in Al-Jazira, the Kurdish stronghold in North-Eastern Syria. The region already witnessed riots in 2004 in Qamishli, when a football match between an Arab and a Kurdish team degenerated into clashes with security forces and the subsequent decision to send the army to ‘restore security’. The death toll at the end of the unrest was of at least 36 Kurdish citizens.
The condition of Kurds in Syria has been constantly affected by discrimination.
Following a census carried on in 1962 in the Al-Hasaka province, some 120.000 Kurds were stripped off their citizenship rights and registered as ‘foreigners’ (Ajanib). According to UNHCR, the Kurds without Syrian citizenship today are around 300.000. On 8 April 2011, in an attempt to contain Kurdish participation to the uprising, President Al-Assad issued a decree granting citizenship to those ‘foreigners’ of Al-Hasaka, but most of the Kurds have rejected this late concession. Another discriminatory measure was taken in 2008, when Decree 49 was issued to restrict the freedom of certain border areas to sell and purchase lands without prior government approval. The Kurds saw this as a further attempt to exacerbate their living conditions and force them to leave their lands.
When asked about Bashar’s latest concession, Shanar shows no hesitation replying: “Was it a compensation? We are not asking for citizenship now, we’re calling for freedom. We demand fundamental constitution amendments, like the abrogation of article 8 and not gifts from the President.” Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution states that “the leading party in state and society is the Socialist Arab Ba’th Party.” Another important aspect in the agenda of Shanar’s Future Movement (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal), one of the main Kurdish youth group, is that they demand “the recognition of Kurds not as a minority or the second largest ethnic group in Syria, but as first class citizens without any sort of distinction.”
Shanar made no mention of the historical aspiration to be part of an independent Kurdistan. However, at least among some Arab activists, a form of mistrust seems still to affect the relations with Kurdish parties: Ahmed, a university activist of the University of Damascus, is still convinced that the Arabs should beware of Kurdish support, because the Kurds will have a different agenda after the revolution. In fact, the cooperation between Arab and Kurdish opposition groups has not been smooth so far. Shanar told me her group had a meeting with the signatories of the Damascus Declaration on March 5. The Damascus Declaration is a document subscribed by several Arab and Kurdish opposition groups in 2005, which partially anticipated the current demands for political freedom. The outcome of that meeting was particularly frustrating for Shanar. First of all, the Arab parties did not seem to have a clear vision on whether there should have been reforms or the only acceptable solution was the collapse of the regime; secondly, unlike the Future Movement, they did not enjoy a base of support among activists in the streets; thirdly, there was no agreement between Kurds and Arabs on the days to be chosen for mobilization, with the latter not willing to take the streets on March 12, the anniversary of the Qamishli riots.
If disaccord affects the relations with the Arab opposition, the Syrian Kurdish political scene is already fragmented by itself.
There are 12 Kurdish parties for around 1.5 million Kurds in Syria, many of them tied to the Kurdish parties based in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Turkey. Shanar prefers to be member of a fully local Kurdish party, strongly connected with the network of young activists. “As Future Movement, we insisted on ‘stopping the violence’ (waqf al-‘unf) as a conditio sine qua non for national dialogue,” recalls Shanar about one of their meeting with the National Movement of Kurdish Parties [ndr the major coalition of Kurdish political forces in Syria], “other parties preferred a more diplomatic approach, talking about ‘avoiding the violence’ (tajannub al-‘unf), as if brutal repression was not already taking place!.” On March 16, following major disagreements, the Future Movement, the Yakiti Party and the Azadi Party quit the greater Kurdish coalition. Shanar’s conclusions on the Kurdish political scene are quite eloquent: “I call the Kurdish coalition a ‘Group of Division and Nothing Else’ (Majmu’a taqsim wa la shi’).”
On the other hand, Kurdish groups seem to have developed substantial organizational skills and a greater freedom of mobilization than their Arab ‘allies’.
The youth taking to the streets of Qamishli during the day, usually sleep in the surrounding villages to avoid security raids in the night. They also thought about new ways to expand the uprising, bringing people from other neighborhoods to ignite those areas still relatively quiet. This is a strategy said to be adopted even in Midan (Damascus) and in the university campus of Aleppo, populated by Hourani and Kurdish students.
In the Future Movement, not everyone is active by joining the demonstrations: there is a press room, formed by a group of online activists coordinating people on the ground and spreading news outside Syria. Nonetheless, Shanar agrees that, because the epicenter of the riots is located in rural and peripheral areas with no regular internet access, the Syrian uprising will never be a ‘facebook revolution’.
The lesson learned in 2004 helped developing new modes of action. In these days, Shanar’s movement goes knocking on people’s doors to have them joining the protests, while ensuring the participation of whole families to maintain the demonstrations completely peaceful. This is clearly a freedom of movement, which dissidents in ‘security-armored’ Damascus cannot enjoy. According to Shanar, the Syrian authorities have avoided to intervene militarily in Qamishli for two reasons, firstly, because no campaign of civil disobedience has paralyzed the city yet; secondly, because military intervention would have meant opening two diametrically opposed fronts (Dara’a and Qamishli), thus weakening the state capability to control unrest in the rest of the country. In case of military intervention in Qamishli, the Syrian regime would still have to consider the reaction of the big Kurdish community living in Damascus and already active in the protests of Rukn el-Din. However, in the last weeks, military intervention has become the norm in several flashpoints –Jisr al-Shughur, Tal Kalkh- so that the opening of a new front cannot be categorically ruled out.
Remarkable mobilization skills cannot bring about alone the collapse of the regime. After three months of unabated bloodshed this is a matter of fact, even for Kurds.
Those dissidents who gathered in Antalya, between May 31 and June 1, are confident of affecting internal change by agreeing upon a platform of demands from abroad. The Kurds, like their ‘brothers’ did before in Turkey and Iraq, do not oppose the idea of coordinating the opposition from abroad, but the Antalya conference was not welcomed by all the Kurdish factions. According to a blog on Kurdish affairs (Kurdistan Commentary), only 5 of the 12 Syrian Kurdish parties were invited to the conference and, even among these ones, some refused to participate because of the choice of Turkey, which is not exactly the most sympathetic country to the Kurdish cause. Shanar has no objection to the choice of Turkey, but she admits that a meeting in Europe would have been a better option.
Shanar is expecting more from the international community and particularly from Europe, for example an arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, it is unlikely that such a resolution would stop the violence, considered the limited powers the ICC showed to have when willing to extradite political leaders. Syria, like Sudan, has never ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Since no one is eager to see neither an embargo imposed on Syria, which would cause grievances mainly among the population, nor military intervention from the West, the international community does not seem to have many options left.
The fate of the Syrian revolution is more dependent on two other factors: economic asphyxiation and military defection. It is more about which one of these factors, if not the combination of the two, will turn the balance of power in favor of the opposition. “Even one million people working in the Mukhabarat are not enough to stifle the protests,” says proudly Shanar, “this is why they deploy the army, but relying on the armed forces is dangerous on the long run.” It is dangerous, firstly because defections could increase with the continuation of the bloodshed and, secondly, because it requires extraordinary military expenses.
* Shanar is Hervin Ose, one of the prominent figures of Mishaal Tammo’s Future Movement. Tammo was killed on October 7 (2011), while she left Syria in 2012.