Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syrian Kurds Seek Autonomy

Hopes that uprising will lead to better future for Kurdish minority.
By Kawa Youssef

Since the Syrian uprisings started, the country’s Kurds have acted in partnership with the Arabs.

All the opposition movements in Syria say the Kurds are their brothers. That may be true, but unfortunately brother-and-sister relationships don’t often work out in politics. It’s much better to be partners.

Kurds and Arabs have very little in common. We have different languages and practise our faith in different ways. Most of the Kurds in Syria are Sunni Muslims, but there are also Christians and Yezidis among them. There used to be Jewish Kurds, but they emigrated to Israel. We have long been discriminated against by the Syrian regime.

In 2004, clashes between supporters of the local Kurdish team in the northeast town of Qamishli and fans of the Arab team they were playing led to fighting in which many people were killed, and others were arrested and mistreated. No one came to our aid then.

Kurds are now staging peaceful demonstrations against the regime in the areas where they are in the majority. A few have been killed, although the numbers don’t compare to those elsewhere. Kurdish-dominated demonstrations have not been attacked, and Kurdish protestors in Damascus and Aleppo have largely escaped serious injury.

It seems the regime does not want to kill us, and I believe that is because the Allawite regime believes the Kurds are the only section of society that might stick by it.

It is doing its best to win the Kurds over. In April, for example, the government finally granted citizenship to around 3,000 Kurds. But since the number of disenfranchised Kurds is close to 300,000, the gesture was almost worthless.

In any case, Kurds are now less concerned about gaining citizenship than with pressing for autonomy. I would say 99 per cent of them want an independent Kurdish region. We look at Iraqi Kurdistan and ask why we can’t have the same.

We are aware that this is unattainable at the moment, so for now our ambition is a Kurdish state within a federal Syria. Once we acquire the knowledge we need to run our own country, maybe one day we will be able to go beyond that.

Some activists say that if the whole of Syria achieves democracy, then the rights of Christians, Kurds and other minorities will be secured. But not everyone believes such promises. As the old saying goes, “The only friends the Kurds have are the mountains.”

We don’t see ourselves as Syrian and we don’t feel Syrian in our hearts, because we have always been treated as outsiders.

I fear conflict between Kurds and Arabs if and when President Bashar al-Assad goes. The Kurds will not sit back quietly, and I don’t believe the Arabs will accept a federal solution for Syria, so there could even be civil war.

Even if Assad is toppled or resigns, the state system will remain in place. It is deeply rooted. For instance, security is so tight that you even need a permit to arrange a small wedding party.

Kurds are taking part in the Syrian revolution because our ultimate aim is to be rid of the current regime and create a federal state. That does not mean we want to take away part of Syria, and the international community needs to understand this. We are not guests in Syria – we live in a part of our historical homeland.

My views are shared by lots of Kurds within Syria. Those in the diaspora are less outspoken, but they share the same aim. We are the best of allies for the Arabs, but we have a different agenda.

Originally from Syria and now living in London, Kawa Youssef is a 26-year-old student of oil engineering and a Kurdish activist.