How Bashar Assad Has Come Between the Kurds of Turkey and Syria

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AFP / Getty Images

Syrian Kurds rally against Syria's President Bashar Assad in the Syrian town of Qamishli on March 30, 2012

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The PYD, the PKK's Syrian offshoot, has vehemently denied reports of collusion with Assad. Such allegations, it has claimed, are part of a Turkish-led disinformation campaign. In an interview posted on its website, the group's leader Salih Muslim Muhammad claimed, "Clearly and explicitly we condemn the Baath authoritarian ruler and we call for the fall of the mono [sic] Baathist regime." A PKK spokesperson contacted by TIME did not reply to questions about the group's stance vis-à-vis the Assad government.

Aware that Syria's Kurds may well hold the key to the success of the rebellion against his rule, Bashar has been doing his utmost to appease them, or at least to ensure that they remain on the sidelines. Last year, the Syrian dictator offered to grant citizenship to 300,000 stateless Kurds descended from families who escaped Turkey after a series of brutally suppressed uprisings. His regime is also said to have also ordered its security forces to exercise restraint in suppressing Kurdish protests.

"Some of my friends in Qamishli are upset that government doesn't confront them," says Alan Hassaf, an activist who fled Syria two months ago. "They tell me, 'We go to the streets, we protest, we shout slogans against Assad. The regime attacks us, they use tear gas, sometimes they shoot at us, but not like in Homs, not like in Idlib. Why aren't they killing us?'"

The regime may be doing so — but selectively. On Oct. 7 last year, Mashaal Tammo, a prominent Kurdish activist who had openly called for the overthrow of the Assad regime, was gunned down inside his home in Qamishli. The following day, Luqman Sulayman, a political ally of Tammo's, received a phone call. A voice in Arabic said, "You will be next." A week later, someone smashed the windows of his house. Fearing for his life, Sulayman escaped to Turkey.

Dressed in a jacket, black turtleneck and green cotton trousers, with a graying goatee and a pair of dark-rimmed reading glasses to match, Sulayman, who is in his mid-40s, seems out of place in his new surroundings. His home, today and for the past few months, is a dingy one-room flat on the outskirts of Nusaybin. The furnishings are sparse: a pair of mattresses, a small TV, a laptop and an electric heater. Packs of Gauloises cigarettes lie scattered across the carpet. A single dried rose rests atop the television set. Another pair dangles from a small jar suspended above Sulayman's bed. From there, Sulayman helps coordinate efforts to smuggle electronic equipment, including cameras, flash sticks and laptops, to the Kurdish opposition in Syria. He is logged in to Skype most of the day, making calls to friends and fellow activists in Europe, collecting funds, contracting smugglers, and posting videos of protests in Qamishli on YouTube.

I ask why Sulayman has decided not to look for support among locals. "I'm afraid to build a relationship with the Kurds here, since many of them have relations with the PKK," he says. "Also, I'm afraid that the Turkish state would take an interest in me and that I would be sent back to Syria. We haven't asked for support, but Kurds I know here haven't offered any either."

It is a general fear among fellow expatriates from Qamishli. "Everything here happens through the PKK, and that's why people don't organize themselves [to provide more support to the Syrian Kurds]," Ibrahim tells me. "They can't, not without a green light from the PKK."

Much as mainstream Kurdish politicians in Turkey might personally sympathize with the anti-Assad protesters, "their hands are tied by the PKK's position on the entire revolution in Syria," says Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish columnist. As a result, she adds, they find themselves on shaky moral ground, claiming to represent a downtrodden minority in Turkey but giving little political support to their neighbors.

At Ayse Gokkan's office, a flat-screen TV flashes images of street battles between Turkish police and protesters during the Kurdish New Year celebrations across Turkey. (In Nusaybin itself, clashes broke out after Kurds marching back from a rally outside the city were met with tear gas and water cannons.) The mayor will tackle certain questions: Erdogan is fair game, and so is Assad, but those about the Syrian PKK and its relation with the regime in Damascus are a nonstarter. The mayor bats away a few of them, before adding: "Every Kurdish party in every country has the right to take its own decision in accordance with the situation."

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