When protesters took to the streets of Syria last year, one of those who joined in was Abu Azad — a pseudonym he uses to protect his safety.
A member of the Kurdish ethnic group, Abu Azad helped organize protests in Kurdish areas, calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. But Abu Azad recently found out he was wanted by Syrian authorities.
“They were chasing me and they want to kill me,” he says.
Abu Azad and his family, which includes five children, recently walked out of Syria and ended up in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, where the Kurds of Iraq govern an autonomous zone that’s grown stronger and more prosperous since the fall of Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s leader in 2003.
The trip took Abu Azad’s family an entire night, crossing streams and climbing mountains. Now they share a house with dozens of other Syrian Kurdish refugees. Soon they’ll be living in a tent.
“We are against this [Syrian] regime, 100 percent,” Abu Azad says. “All Kurds are against this regime.”
But this is only part of the story for Syria’s Kurds, who make up an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the country’s population and are concentrated in the northeast.
Most will tell you they’re against a regime that has withheld citizenship for many Kurds, forbidden them to speak or teach in their own language, and treated them like second-class citizens. But they’re not all willing to fight to bring down the Assad regime.
A Soldier Defects
A man who goes by the name Abu Shiro says he was a soldier in the Syrian army for a year until he escaped to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
He says he paid bribes to stay in his barracks, rather than shoot unarmed protesters or arrest civilians and hand them to the dreaded security services.
A growing number of Syrian soldiers have defected and joined the Free Syrian Army, leading an insurgency that seeks to topple the Assad regime.
Asked why he hasn’t done this, Abu Shiro says, “It’s simple. Because I’m a Kurd.”
The Kurds are unsure what sort of status they might have under a new government, and therefore have been hesitant to join the fighting against the current leadership.
It’s a position that infuriates many in the Syrian opposition. If you are against the Assad regime, the thinking goes, why not stay and fight, or at least stay and protest?
The reason, says Abdulhakim Bashar, who heads a Syrian Kurdish political party, is that predominantly Arab members of the Syrian opposition have refused to reassure the Kurds that they’ll have it better if the current regime falls.
At Odds With The Syrian Opposition
At a recent meeting meant to unite the Syrian opposition, Kurds walked out after opposition leaders refused to promise the Kurds some special recognition in the new Syria.
“If this regime falls, and we don’t have a clear program of how we’ll get our rights, it could be worse than the regime itself,” Bashar says.
Bashar says U.S. and European diplomats have been pushing the Kurds to focus on bringing down the Assad regime first, and worry about the details later.
But the Kurds don’t totally trust the international community either, says Robert Lowe of the London School of Economics, who has co-edited a book about the Kurds of Syria. They believe they were abandoned when they rose up against the Syrian regime several years ago.
“Kurds have suffered before. They had their own uprising in 2004. And they suffered very badly for this,” Lowe says.
Dozens of Kurds were killed, and hundreds more fled the country.
A Mistrust Of Turkey
What’s more, says Lowe, there’s the question of Turkey. Turkey has been very supportive of Syrians who oppose their regime. But Turkey has for decades dealt harshly with its own Kurdish minority.
“The Kurds of Syria are very suspicious of Turkey and are very hostile to Turkish involvement,” Lowe says.
Even if Turkey acts against the Syrian regime by, say, arming the Syrian opposition, the Kurds will not trust Turkey’s motives or intentions, says Lowe.
So until the Kurds know more about how their friends and enemies will act, the Kurds of Syria say they will wait and see.