IRBIL, Iraq — Syria’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority is emerging as a key wild card with the potential to boost the momentum of a scattered and beleaguered opposition movement as a year-old revolt appears poised to become more violent.
So far, the Kurds have not been enthusiastic supporters of the wider revolution, which is primarily led by Syria’s Sunni Arab majority and has increasingly taken on sectarian overtones. They remain fearful that a new government dominated by Sunni Arabs could deepen their marginalization.
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.
“The Baath regime has always tried to teach that the Kurds are trying to divide Syria,” said Abdul Baki Youssef, a Syrian Kurdish politician, said in an interview in Irbil, referring to Assad’s Baath political party. “If we had started, the regime would have just said we were starting to partition.”
As the revolt gathered steam in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, Kurds began holding large protests in the northeastern town of Qamishli and other predominantly Kurdish areas, at times drawing tens of thousands, Kurdish leaders say. Protesters tore down once-ubiquitous posters and portraits of Assad and toppled a statue of his late father, longtime Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Youssef said.
Kurdish antipathy toward the regime soared in October, after the assassination of Mashaal Tammo, a prominent Kurdish activist. As he was buried, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the northeast, marking one of the relatively rare instances in which security forces were accused of firing live ammunition into crowds in the area, Kurdish activists said.
In addition to chants against Assad, demonstrations in Kurdish areas featured calls for greater sovereignty and self-determination. Protesters waved the red, white and green Kurdish flag. Security forces kept close tabs on activists and demonstrations, Kurdish activists said, and sought to disperse some with tear gas. But security forces have shown a notable degree of restraint in Kurdish cities, a stark contrast from its recent bombardment of Homs.
“The regime doesn’t want to start clashes with the Kurds,” Saleh Kado, a leader in the Kurdish Leftist Party in Qamishli said in a phone interview. “Until now, we stress that the revolution must be peaceful. Our belief is that change will come through peaceful means.”
Denise Natali, an expert on Kurdish politics at the National Defense University, said the Assad regime has sought to woo certain Kurdish factions, making concessions such as offering full citizenship to Kurds who have for years been denied official documents.
“To repress the Kurds violently would be another nail in the coffin,” she said. “It is one of the communities the regime is trying to co-opt.”
Although Kurdish leaders say most Syrian Kurds remain staunchly opposed to Assad, the Kurds have become increasingly alarmed by the leading role that Turkey has played in organizing the opposition. Turkey has become a haven for Syrian refugees and members of the opposition’s armed faction, known as the Free Syrian Army.
As Turkish leaders have devised their Syria policy, they have probably been mindful of the Kurdish angle at every turn. Members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has for years fought the Turkish government in a bid for independence, have used remote Syrian areas as staging grounds for attacks in the past and could more easily do so with the complicity of the Assad regime.
Kurdish groups boycotted a summit of Syrian opposition parties in May because it was held in Turkey. Few attended a conference in Istanbul in August during which the Syrian National Council was formed.
“The regime has sought to divide the opposition through divide-and-conquer tactics,” Shelal Gado, a Kurdish political leader, said in an interview in Sulaymaniyah, an Iraqi city where he is now based. “We regret that the majority in the opposition think the same way as the regime: They don’t want to recognize the rights of the Kurdish people.”
Seeking to bridge the divisions among Syrian Kurdish groups, Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, hosted a gathering of Kurdish politicians from the neighboring country last month. He pledged the support of the prosperous region as long as Syrian Kurds found a way to band together. The Kurdish elder also emphasized that they should not join the armed resistance.
“The era of armed struggle is over,” he said.
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report from Irbil.