Out of the dark: Syria’s Kurdish question reborn

Special to The Daily Star / A Tharwa Project Editorial 

Even as the Syrian authorities seem to have successfully managed to contain the Kurdish riots that rocked the country’s northernmost city of Qamishli over the last few weeks, there could be no denying that the country’s long neglected Kurdish question is finally out of the dark and is crying out for answers. But can the Syrian authorities muster enough will and internal support to sit down with the Kurdish parties and hammer out an answer that is acceptable to both sides?

Dealing with the Kurdish issue from a security point of view only, as the Syrian government is doing at this stage, is clearly insufficient and will exacerbate the situation in the long run. Focusing on finding out the immediate causes and parties responsible for the events, as the Syrian government promises to do, is helpful, but does not constitute a real remedy for the situation as it ignores the underlying issues behind it, namely the aspirations of the Kurdish population for greater representation in the local government, for equal rights with other Syrian citizens and for special cultural rights emanating from their status as an indigenous ethnic minority and not some immigrant community.

On the other hand, some Kurdish aspirations need to be tempered. Autonomy a la mode in Iraq is not something that the Syrian authorities can entertain at this stage, or ever. Nor is the idea likely to have the support of the majority Arab population, whose understanding of the realities of the Kurdish situation in Syria is quite limited and contains many erroneous notions.

Correcting these notions is, of course, important and essential for the future of Arab-Kurdish relations in the country. But, even in the best of cases, and judging from precedents set in other parts of the world, majority populations cannot accept solutions that seem to jeopardize or compromise the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state. Even if the borders involved have been drawn by external parties rather than the peoples on either side, they have nonetheless acquired a certain aura of sanctity in the minds of the majority populations at least. Changing or undermining them in any way is, therefore, more likely to generate rather than prevent potential problems and conflicts.

Still, Kurdish separatism is not really the issue here, nor is it likely to pose any serious problem, as some would contend, provided the Syrian government shows a more proactive attitude in its handling of the situation.

While the Kurds of Syria cannot be psychologically separated from their kinfolk in Iraq, Turkey or Iran, most are aware of the uniqueness and particularities of their situation in Syria and realize that what works for the Kurds in other countries may not necessarily be suitable for them. The radical separatist sentiments that were expressed by some during the heyday of the riots seem to come more in the heat of the moment rather than revealing some kind of new strategy on the part of the internal Kurdish leadership.

Still, we cannot completely rule out the potential for involvement of radical elements and external dabbling in the future, now that the situation has come to a head.

For this reason, the future course of events depends in no small part on the way the Syrian central authorities will choose to handle the situation. Insisting on the security approach only or on anti-Kurdish polemics will play into the hands of radical Kurdish elements and external parties interested in weakening the Syrian regime. There is, therefore, no substitute for handling the issue on the political level, meaning that the state will have to adopt a whole new approach towards its Kurdish population, in effect abandoning its former policies of Arabization.

There is no room for vindictive short-sighted measures, which seem to dominate the scene at this stage, especially at the local level, further alienating the Kurdish population – feeding and justifying radical tendencies among them. There is also no avoiding direct negotiation with the more level-headed Kurdish leaders. The habitual disdainful attitude that the Syrian authorities have always projected vis-a-vis the internal opposition and civil society advocates will have very serious repercussions here, perhaps even in the not-too-distant future, leading to a potential more direct face-off between the Kurdish population and the state and more direct foreign involvement. There is nothing more harmful to the cause of national unity than such a development.

The ruling Syrian regime is faced with a new challenge that it can only win if it is ready to adopt drastic changes in its style and internal composition increasing the level of participation in the decision-making process and showing a more sober and respectful attitude toward members of the opposition and civil society. Falling back on old ways of doing things is no longer a viable option.