Although Syria’s Kurds have a long history of opposing the central government in Damascus, they have so far refrained from widespread, proactive participation in the ongoing rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime. However, if they continue to limit themselves to being mere spectators to the unfolding drama, they may well find themselves deprived of any long-term political gains in a post-Assad Syria.
The Kurds’ forbearance to date does not signal a fear of government repression or an unwillingness to make sacrifices. They have demonstrated such willingness on numerous occasions, most recently in 2004-2005, when clashes between civilian protesters and state paramilitary forces left many dead and injured (.pdf). Nor is their inaction premised on a cynical calculation of letting Syria’s Sunni Arabs bear the brunt of the rebellion while taking advantage of an eventual regime change. Rather, three other factors account for why the Kurds have not joined the Sunni majority in the bloody effort to bring down Assad.
First, Syria’s Kurds are deeply fragmented politically. With an estimated population of 2 million, Syrian Kurds make up the smallest Kurdish community in the Middle East. Yet, a plethora of organizations and parties claim to represent their interests in Syria (.pdf). This severe fragmentation has hindered the Syrian Kurds’ ability to realize their full political potential as a significant minority in the country. In this, their situation is not unlike other minorities who have lived under decades of repression and deprivation, but the Kurds’ plight has been compounded by the Assad regime’s concerted and systematic efforts to keep them divided.