A tent city among the ruins of a former tobacco factory along the Turkish-Syrian border is home to Syrian refugee Ciwan and his four-year-old son. The Yayladagi camp is swarming with Syrians fleeing the bloodshed of their homeland. But for Ciwan, a Syrian Kurd, it’s unfamiliar living among the predominantly Arab population.
“Over there I lived mostly with my people, but here I am with them, it’s not very easy but slowly I am getting used to it,” he said.
His unease defines the struggle of Syria’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds. The violent year-long political and social upheaval in Syria has left the country’s estimated two million Kurds reeling.
Lodged between decades of oppression and the uncertainty of a future Syria ruled by the Arab-Sunni majority, Kurds have approached the uprising with caution.
They say they want to see President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal reign end, but they also see this as an opportunity to reverse their suffering under the hand of an Arab nationalist regime. The Kurds fear a post-Assad, Sunni majority government might enact conservative Muslim policies curtailing a secular state.
As Syria’s largest ethnic minority, Kurdish leaders and some experts believe the Kurds have the power to tip the scales of the conflict and help an emerging opposition bring down Mr. Assad.
A haunting past
The Kurds are a non-Arab population native to the central Middle East. Oppression of culture, language and their national identity has defined life for the Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq to varying degrees over the last half century and longer.
In 1962, the Syrian government stripped the citizenship of more than 100,000 Kurds, after holding a census in the Kurdish region. With this data, the government claimed these Kurds had illegally crossed the border into Syria. Today that number has grown to nearly 300,000, with the descendents of these Kurds unable to claim Syrian citizenship.
Even in peaceful times, Ciwan, who asked that his last name be withheld, had to protect his son from the Syrian state’s oppression of the Kurdish population.
“They did horrible things to us, they changed our villages’ names into Arabic,” he said. “They brought Arab people from other parts of Syria to our land, and they now live in our land. They don’t let us give Kurdish names to our children. My child’s name is Sexubun, but I have to give him an Arabic name too.”
At the start of the government crackdown in April 2011, in an attempt to appease the ethnic minority, the Assad government granted citizenship to about 200,000 of the stateless Syrian Kurds.
Still, Kurds were not safe as anti-government protests spread nationwide.
Ciwan says he escaped the violence in his hometown of Idlib, after seeing Kurds killed in the unrest.
Haunted by their past, the Kurdish consensus seems to be it is time for Mr. Assad to step down.
“We as Kurds envision [see] our rights in this revolution and in toppling this Assad regime with all its symbols,” said Radwan Hussein, a Syrian Kurd, as he protested outside an Arab League meeting in Cairo.
But for the Kurds, the challenges would not end with the downfall of President Assad.
“The regime is illegitimate,” said Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, secretary-general of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria. “We’re done with that already. But we need to think of a post-Assad era now.”
Kurds seek parity
As the former head of the Kurdish National Council, a unified bloc of Kurdish parties, Bashar outlined the Kurdish demands to join the Syrian National Council, Syria’s opposition umbrella group.
They are seeking constitutional recognition, human rights initiatives, compensation for suffering, and participation in a nationwide democratic process. They promote the idea of a decentralized government, a decision to be made by Syrians through a referendum vote. And they want to drop the word “Arab” from the country’s official name.
“Arab nationalists need to understand that Syria doesn’t only belong to them,” Bashar said. “They shouldn’t hijack the revolution for their own agendas.”
This stance has left them at odds with opposition groups.
The Kurdish delegation walked out of a meeting of Syrian opposition figures in Istanbul this week. In protest, the Kurds refused to sign on to a declaration naming the opposition Syrian National Council as the “formal interlocutor and formal representative of the Syrian people.”
The SNC is emerging as the main political group backed by the West and Arab nations as the replacement for the Assad government.
Tipping the scales
Michael Weiss of the London-based Henry Jackson Society said the Kurds are the “decisive minority group” in Syria playing a “savvy game” with the opposition to ensure their rights.
“It’s hard to imagine the revolution succeeding without their full participation in it,” he said.
Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser for the Middle East at the Stimson Center, says Kurdish support for the opposition would force a tougher hand on Kurds by the Assad government.
The Assad government has minimized its assault on Kurdish areas in what analysts see as an attempt to keep the Kurds from rising up.
“The eastern part of Syria has been relatively quiet,” Yacoubian said. “If the Kurds decide they want to throw their lot in with the opposition, I think that could change things significantly.”
But Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, says he believes the opposition can succeed without the Kurds.
“I think some of them are watching and waiting to see which way it might swing,” he said. “And if it was swinging in favor of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, I think the Kurds would very quickly become a part of it. But I don’t think their involvement is absolutely essential.”
Back at the refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border, Ciwan wants to bring his son home to a Syria free of the Assad government where he could live freely as a Kurd.
“All we want is to have our rights,” he said.