The quarrel began when a young Arab called Mohammad drove up to a Kurdish checkpoint. The Kurdish fighters manning it beat him up. Bruised, angry and humiliated, Mohammad gathered up a group of armed friends. There was a shootout; Mohammad, his brother and three others were killed. Three Kurds also died. Both sides agreed a truce. As part of the deal the Kurds abandoned the mountaintop checkpoint in the village of Qastal, seven miles from the town of Azaz in northern Syria, and retreated down the road.
The violent clashes last month are indicative of the tensions that have surfaced in the wake of Syria’s uprising. The Kurds are the third biggest group in Syria’s delicate ethnic mosaic: 3 million in a country of 23 million. Long discriminated against by successive Arab regimes in Damascus, and often denied citizenship, they are now staking a claim to self-determination. It’s unclear, however, whether their lot will be any better in a post-revolutionary Syria with President Bashar al-Assad gone.
The Kurds live predominantly in the mountains of the north, next to the Turkish border. Their informal “capital” is the north-east frontier town of Qamishli. In July the Democratic Union party (PYD) – the biggest Kurdish political group – seized control of many Kurdish towns and enclaves. The PYD set up checkpoints and hoisted the party’s once forbidden flag. It now flutters above rugged Kurdish hamlets set among Byzantine ruins, and in tidy villages of tractors, concrete houses and chickens.
Over the summer the Syrian military effectively withdrew from Kurdish areas. Assad seems to have made a strategic calculation. The PYD is closely allied to the outlawed Turkish militant group the PKK, which has been battling Ankara for decades.
Turkey is now Assad’s biggest regional foe.
Whatever Assad’s motives, the withdrawal has sparked mistrust between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel armed movement, and the Kurdish leadership. FSA commanders bitterly accuse the Kurds of being stooges of the regime. “Why didn’t they join the revolution?” Sheikh Omar, a commander in the rebel-held town of El Bab asked. Omar said he was opposed to Kurdish demands for federalism in the new Syria. “What they really mean is independence,” he asserted.
Jihadist groups, meanwhile, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, view the Kurds, who have traditionally taken a laid-back approach to Islam, as infidels. Two weeks ago an alliance of FSA units, including fighters from Omar’s al-Tawhid brigade, and jihadists, fought with Kurdish militias in the town of Ras el Ain. They pushed the Kurds from the border crossing with Turkey.
In other parts of Syria, however, Kurds and Arabs co-exist in harmony. Qabbasin, north of Aleppo, is a model of inter-ethnic co-operation. The town has a permanent population of 18,000, split equally between Arabs and Kurds. The flag of Kurdistan – red, white, green with an orange sun in the middle – hangs in the town square next to the Syrian rebel tricolour. The walls of the local council office were repainted last week with friendly slogans in Kurdish and Arabic: “Kurd-Arab one heart.”
“We are brothers,” the Kurdish mayor Bashar Muslim said, pointing out that his deputy is an Arab. “There are no differences between us.” But what about the violent clashes in Ifrin, Ras el Ain and Aleppo? These disputes began after Jabhat al-Nusra fighters erected checkpoints in Aleppo’s al-Ashrafiya district; the Kurds, fearing that the regime would start shelling them, drove the jihadists out, with several killed. “It’s nothing. We can sort it out,” the mayor said.
Sitting over a cup of strong, black, sugary tea, a group of Kurds discussed Syria’s future – and the Kurds’ place in it.
Abu Khalil, a 52-year-old farm worker, said he supported the PYD, but his son did not. His son was disappointed by the PYD’s seemingly unenthusiastic attitude to Syria’s revolution, he said. What would happen to the Kurds once Assad was overthrown? “Maybe things will be worse for us,” Khalil answered.
The PYD’s leader, Salih Muslim, rejects the charge his party is a collaborationist fifth column. Muslim points out that it was the Kurds who first revolted against Assad – with a bloody uprising in 2004 in Qamishli – and that before the revolution the regime jailed many of his supporters. Kurdish volunteers, meanwhile, have fought alongside the FSA and died in the battle for Aleppo; ordinary Kurds have held anti-Assad protests. Thousands of displaced Arabs have moved to the comparative safety of Kurdish areas.
But there are many obstacles in the way of Kurdish autonomy. The Kurds are not only at odds with the current regime – and its likely replacement – but also with each other. There is a rival political alliance of 12 Kurdish political parties, the Kurdish National Council (KNC). It enjoys the support of Masoud Barzani, the influential president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish north.
Turkey backs the KNC and pro-Barzani factions, perceiving them as posing less of a threat than the PYD.
In July, Barzani convened a peace conference in the Iraqi town of Irbil; all Kurdish political groups took part. They agreed to set aside their differences and to participate in a new supreme Kurdish body. But this deal to share power and hold joint patrols appears to be working badly on the ground. The PYD still controls most checkpoints, and has a network of armed fighters; critics complain its structures are less than democratic.
All Kurdish factions agree on what they want: self-determination within a united, sovereign Syria. But this vision appears too much for the Syrian Arab opposition leaders as they inch closer to power.
This week the US recognised the Islamist-dominated opposition council as the country’s legitimate authority. Earlier this year the KNC stormed out of a meeting with the council’s predecessor after it refused to include wordings about the rights of Kurds. In particular, the Kurds want to drop the word “Arab” from Syria’s official Ba’athist name – the Syrian Arab Republic.
One FSA fighter who fought in last month’s clashes in Qastal, near Ifrin, a Kurdish stronghold, said he was deeply suspicious of Kurdish intentions. “The new Syria has to be a single entity,” Abu Ahmed insisted, recounting how several of his comrades had perished in the shootout. He added: “It’s impossible to make a Kurdistan in Syria like in Iraq. We want one Syria. We don’t want parts of Syria.”
Perhaps the hopeful slogans on Qabbasin’s walls will prevail. Kurds and Arabs have lived side by side for centuries, together with Armenians, Turkmens, Circassians and other ethnic groups. Optimists hope they can patch up their differences and agree a post-Assad political solution. But pessimists predict that once once Assad is gone, the rival forces inside Syria will embark on a new war – with Arabs, nationalists, jihadists, loyalists and Kurds all scrapping with each other.
Back in the coffee shop, Khalil shrugged. “We will have a new conflict, and then we will see who emerges as champion,” he predicted.