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 Their persecution in Syria started in 1962 when their citizenship was revoked, their land was confiscated and resettled by Arabs, and the Kurdish language was banned.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.