But largely unnoticed, the Kurds in the northeast of the country have been engaging in daily peaceful protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The government has concentrated most of its efforts to suppress revolt on Sunni Arab cities such as Homs and Hama, and it has, for the most part, refrained from using force against the Kurds.
Sunni Arabs make up a majority in the nation of 22 million, which for decades has been ruled by members of the Shiite Alawite sect. Kurds are estimated to make up between 8 and 15 percent. Syria’s deep ethnic and religious divides make its revolt far more complex and potentially divisive than those in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.
Syrian Kurds appear divided over what kind of role they want to carve out for themselves if the opposition movement succeeds in toppling the Assad government. But U.S. and allied Western nations are increasingly trying to find ways to bring the Kurds into the mainstream opposition, an effort that remains elusive.
A Western diplomat involved in Syria policy said the United States and European allies have worked behind the scenes to encourage the mainstream opposition to make commitments about Kurdish rights in a post-Assad era.
“If and when the Kurds decide to get involved in a big way, it could cost the regime physical control over an entire region and could also be key to getting Aleppo and Damascus to rise up,” said the Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity.
The predominantly Kurdish region, strategically important because it shares borders with Iraq and Turkey and has substantial oil reserves, remains essentially up for grabs.
Officials in Turkey, whose own oppressed Kurdish minority includes an insurgent wing, and in Iraq, where Kurds have attained a great degree of sovereignty, are watching the conflict closely, worried about cross-border ripple effects. The Kurds, an ethnic group spread out in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, have long aspired to have their own state, an ambition that has often led to their persecution.
The story of the uprising of Syrian Kurds, based on interviews with experts and with Kurdish leaders in Syria and neighboring Iraq, is key to understanding why the revolt in Syria has been slow to gather decisive momentum and just how messy the post-Assad era could become.
When Syrians first took to the streets in March, buoyed by successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Kurdish political leaders were reluctant to rise up, according to those who were interviewed. As a long disenfranchised segment of society with an extensive history of revolt, Kurds had every incentive to join the protest movement. But political leaders decided that they shouldn’t play a visible role early on.