When it nominated Abdulbaset Sieda as its leader a few weeks ago, the Syrian National Council acknowledged what otherwise should have been obvious to everyone from the start: The Kurds can make all the difference in shaping the outcome of the Syrian uprising.
But it is not the SNC or any other group in Syria that is likely to force the Kurds off the fence. Kurdish apathy is a reflection of something more profound. The 20 million Kurds in Turkey have always been the cultural and political trendsetters for the 2 million or so Kurds living in Syria. If Syria’s fate is indeed determined by the behavior of its Kurdish minority, then Turkey’s Kurds will likely play a role.
Kurds make up 10 percent of the Syrian population, but they are a unique 10 percent. They are predominantly Sunni, and not being Arab they have been especially disregarded by the Assad regime. They are also a group that, while conservative, has not developed a strong Islamist contingent. As a large, unaligned minority in the midst of revolution, the Kurds are the equivalent of a swing-vote in Syria.
Syria’s late president, Hafez Assad, was once the primary backer of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in its war against the Turkish Republic. That war has claimed almost 40,0000 lives, most of them during the 1990s. Turkish diplomatic and military pressure eventually forced Syria’s regime to relinquish most of its support for the PKK. However, Damascus has maintained ties to Kurdish separatists over the last decade, while suppressing its own smaller, less politicized Kurdish population. Still, Kurds in Syria and Turkey alike view Turkey, not Syria, as their main adversary. Isolated fighting between the PKK and the Turkish armed forces continues until today, and the PKK periodically threatens to renew all-out war.
So it is no surprise that although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ramped up pressure on Syria in the last six months, the Turkish government is loath to go too far in its support for the Syrian opposition. Erdogan recognizes that Assad has a wild card in Turkey’s Kurds, who continue to be denied their basic rights. The prime minister also knows that by mobilizing the tools at his disposal to effect change in Syria, he will be playing with fire at home.
This dichotomy represents a failure of the international community. Over the course of the last decade, Turkey has progressed in almost every measurable way toward a vibrant, prosperous society. But this has failed to translate into new openings on the Kurdish question. Many states, focused on the specter of Islamism and distracted by wars and uprisings in the Middle East, have failed to push Turkey to make meaningful reforms with respect to its Kurdish minority.
The repercussions of this failed policy are significant. Even though we are 18 months into the Syria uprising, the Kurds have been largely uninterested in taking sides. They view their struggle as, essentially, a Kurdish one, not a Syrian one. And the international community that is interested in unifying the Syrian opposition has failed to recognize how the psyche of the Kurdish minority is actually constraining Turkey’s continuing and indispensable involvement in the conflict.
And with no clear end in sight for Syria’s civil war, the international community cannot afford to continue wasting a precious opportunity. Erdogan himself recently expressed hope that a dialogue could be pursued between Ankara and Turkey’s Kurdish population. In what would have been unthinkable last year, he recently held discussions with one of Turkey’s best-known Kurdish parliamentarians and activists, Leyla Zana, who spent a decade in prison for speaking Kurdish. This was no coincidence, but it is also not enough.
Turkey should take steps that would help move toward a resolution of the Kurdish question, as a sign to Syria’s Kurds that Turkey and the international community are on the right side of history, unlike Bashar Assad. A first step can be the immediate enactment by the Erdogan government of its recently proposed plan to begin allowing instruction of the Kurdish language in privately funded schools.
At the same time, this summer the Turkish government should launch a delayed formal dialogue with Kurdish parliamentarians on the Kurdish question. This will have the added benefit of virtually guaranteeing stability in Turkish Kurdistan over the coming crucial months and years, while allowing Abdulbaset Sieda the potential to consolidate all of Syria’s ethnicities under his leadership.
Ali Ezzatyar is a lawyer and the executive director of the Berkeley Program on Entrepreneurship and Democracy in the Middle East. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.