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Syria: Following In Libya’s Footsteps?

Posted By Stephen Brown On July 6, 2012 @ 12:30 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 7 Comments

Syria is beginning to look more and more like Libya every day in regard to getting a consensus among its splintered opposition groups. A two-day meeting in Cairo, hosted by the Arab League and attended by 250 opposition leaders to the Assad regime, nearly fell apart after delegates engaged in shoving matches and fistfights over a failure to resolve differences in authority and representation.

“This is so sad,” said Gawad al-Khatib, one of the opposition delegates. “It will have bad implications for all parties. It will make the Syrian opposition look bad and demoralize the protesters on the ground.”

The physical skirmishes occurred when Kurdish delegates walked out of the conference, angering others in attendance. The Kurds, who are non-citizens despite having lived in Syria for decades, were angry the “conference rejected an item” that stated “the Kurdish people must be recognized.” The Kurdish departure had the effect of throwing “the conference in chaos” as their exit was accompanied by fights and cries of “scandal, scandal.”

In his book The Truth About Syria, Middle East expert Barry Rubin says Syria’s Kurds are victims of the Syrian regime’s Arab nationalism policy. The Kurds are a non-Arab people, and the Syrian government wanted to make being Arab “…the fundamental definition of being Syrian…” The subsequent oppression of the Kurds arose from this policy of establishing an Arab identity as the basis of the Syrian state. The rulers’ desire to promote this policy of “Arabness” even led them to insert the word Arab in the country’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic.

Many of Syria’s Kurds originally came from Turkey where they had opposed the Kemalist reforms of the 1920s and 1930s. Arriving as refugees, they helped form the largest minority group in Syria at nine percent of the population or about two million people. Their persecution in Syria started in 1962 when their citizenship was revoked, their land was confiscated and resettled by Arabs, and the Kurdish language was banned. About 100,000  Syrian Kurds are currently without citizenship due to government discrimination.

“There is virtually no place for Kurds as such in a Syrian state whose foundation rests on a profoundly passionate insistence on Arab identity,” writes Rubin.

It appears strange that a conference called to map out a democratic and tolerant post-Assad future for Syria would not adopt a motion to recognise Kurdish rights, a measure that would constitute a beginning to right a terrible wrong inflicted on so many of their fellow Syrians for so many decades. One would think it would be among the opposition’s first human rights initiatives, promising to restore the rights and citizenship of a long-persecuted minority. Such a measure especially makes sense considering embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad is now offering Syrian citizenship to these very same Kurds, most likely as an enticement to stay out of the opposition’s camp and to keep them from becoming the “decisive minority”, as they have been called, that could end his rule.

The fact that the Kurds are perceived in some quarters as not wholeheartedly supporting the anti-Assad revolution and that some of their number may owe their loyalty to Kurdish separatist groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), should not stand in the way of correcting what is a fundamental human rights issue. The failure to address this travesty speaks volumes about what to expect from the opposition in a post-Assad Syria. It will probably be communal and clan politics as usual with discrimination practiced against less favoured and weaker groups.

There were also other clear indications that the delegates at the Cairo conference were not concerned first and foremost with the people’s interest after the revolution but rather with their own. Recognition of the Kurds was only one issue the delegates could not agree upon. There was also a power struggle between the two main opposition groups, the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Coordination Body over a committee that would coordinate the opposition parties and implement decisions. One accused the other of being “too close to the Assad regime,” while the accuser then stood accused of being  “a front for Western powers and the Muslim Brotherhood.” To top it off, another important opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, the ones actually doing the fighting, boycotted the conference altogether, calling it a “conspiracy.” And all this petty quarreling was going on while people were dying in Syria.

“They are so different, chaotic and hate each other,” said one Arab League official in what is probably the best character summation of the opposition.

All this does not bode well for the future of Syria when and if Assad is deposed. In Libya, the opposition was so fractured after Gaddafi’s downfall the writ of the National Transitional Council (NTC) did not extend much beyond Tripoli. There was constant fighting between the different militia factions and tribal fighting in southern Libya, over which the NTC had no control. And with the Libya going to the polls on Saturday in its first ever free election, the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to do well.

Such a forbidding fate most likely awaits Syria. After Assad’s downfall, the country will break down and fracture due to fighting between the different opposition and ethnic groups. The united-in-purpose  Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties will then use the chaotic situation to advance their cause to a victory at the polls. And the Middle East will then just have exchanged one anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Western dictatorship for another.

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