Syria's Kurds: Are They About to Join the Uprising Against Assad?

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Syrian antigovernment activists display wreaths and framed photos of slain activist Mashaal Tammo during a protest, as Egyptian army soldiers secure the surrounding area of the Syrian embassy in Cairo on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011

"I am sick. I cannot sleep," says Hervin Ose, fighting back tears as she remembers her friend and fellow Syrian Kurdish activist Mashaal Tammo. "Till now I cannot believe he is not here. Sometimes I even try to call him. Sometimes I wait for him to call me."

On Friday, Oct. 7, Ose met Tammo at a friend's house in Qamishli, a Kurdish-majority town in northeastern Syria, just across the border from Turkey. "He had a sadness about him," she recalls, speaking via Skype. Tammo, one of the few Syrian Kurdish leaders to have openly called for the overthrow of President Bashar Assad, had recently escaped an assassination attempt. Now he spoke as if he were going away on a long trip. "My message is finished in this life," he told her. Before taking his leave, Tammo even snapped a few pictures of his friend. "I wondered," says Ose. "He'd never taken a photo of me before."

It was the last time she saw him alive. Hours later, according to reports, masked assailants gunned down Tammo inside his Qamishli home, leaving his son and another Kurdish activist wounded. Ose, who insisted on being quoted by her real name — "I am a wanted person already ... I am tired of being afraid," she says — has no doubts as to who ordered her friend's murder. "Bashar," she says. "He made this decision."

The day of the funeral, after going to see Tammo's body at the morgue, Ose joined tens of thousands of people — as many as 100,000, she says, though most observers put the figure at 50,000 — in the streets of Qamishli. It was, by any count, the largest protest in the northeast since the beginning of the popular uprising against the Assad regime. It too ended in bloodshed, when Syrian security forces began to spray the mourners with gunfire, killing at least two people.

Although protests have been taking place in the north since the early spring, they now show signs of escalating, observers say. (Since Tammo's funeral, they have continued every day, one activist told me.) According to Henri Barkey, a Lehigh University professor and former State Department official, the fresh wave of demonstrations may well mark the Syrian Kurds' long-awaited entry into the popular revolt against Assad. "After Tammo's murder, [the Kurds] are now a party to the conflict," says Barkey. As he sees it, "increased mobilization" in the Kurdish northeast, one of the poorest and least developed regions of Syria, appears to be imminent.

Of course, were Syria's Kurds to rise en masse, the numbers of protesters would be much higher, acknowledges Ose. (Syria is home to 2 million Kurds — about 10% of its population.) What stands in the way, she says, is the disconnect between a number of local political parties and the people on the street, particularly young Kurds. "The young people understand the responsibility they have. They understand that the Syrian revolution needs their help," she says. "The normal people support. They have joined ... but the parties haven't made up their mind."

Earlier this year, the Syrian government managed to drive a wedge between the parties, promising to grant citizenship rights to 300,000 stateless Kurds descended from families who escaped Turkey after a series of brutally suppressed Kurdish uprisings. Banking on these and future concessions, a number of Kurdish groups chose to remain on the sidelines rather than join the popular uprising against Assad. A telling sign came in the wake of Tammo's release in June after more than three years in prison. According to a source familiar with the details of the event, when Tammo reiterated his support for the anti-Assad revolution at a reception held in his honor, several Kurdish leaders left the room in protest.

Precedent may also have played a role. In 2004, when antigovernment riots swept through Qamishli as well as Kthe urdish neighborhoods of Aleppo and Damascus, Syrian security forces responded not only by killing dozens of Kurds but also by deploying several Arab tribes against the protesters. Solidarity with the Kurds among Syria's Arab population was scarcely perceptible. The memory of the 2004 events, according to observers, has kept many Kurds wary of closing ranks with the Arab opposition.

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