Veteran Kurdish human rights campaigner Radeef Mustafa lived in the shadow of huge Syrian secret police compounds towering over his decrepit hometown on the border with Turkey.
When security police cracked his son’s head open with an iron bar in a demonstration last year, Mustafa fled.
He and his family came to Turkey where he joined the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), hoping the year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad would end discrimination against the country’s largest ethnic minority.
His hopes were dashed, though, when the SNC, dominated by Islamists, vetoed a proposal at a meeting in Istanbul this week to recognize Syria’s Kurds and their demand for self-rule.
“This is chauvinism. The international community is worried about civil war and is demanding that the opposition guarantees minority rights,” Mustafa told Reuters.
“The Kurdish issue is a time bomb. It cannot be left to be decided when Assad falls.”
Constituting about 10 percent of the population, Syria’s Kurds have long opposed the ruling Baath Party, but have largely stayed out of the latest demonstrations.
If the Kurds fully joined attempts to overthrow Assad, it could prove decisive, a recent report by the Henry Jackson Society, a Britain-based think-tank, said.
But deep internal divisions among the Kurds and distrust of the SNC and the other Arab-dominated opposition groups have so far kept the Kurds largely out of the fight.
The Istanbul opposition meeting succeeded in reaching an agreement to expand and reform the SNC, and promised a democratic state and reconciliation once Assad is removed.
But the Kurds walked out and refused to sign the declaration as there was no reference to rights for them as a community, only promises to recognize individual rights for all.
Separatism or rights?
Unlike Iraq, where Kurds rule a semi-autonomous region in the north, Syrian Kurdish leaders say they only want a federal system that would guarantee citizenship, property rights, Kurdish language education and an equitable budget distribution.
They point to a wide distribution of Kurds across several regions of the country, and their integration into Syrian society and the job market, which makes autonomy impractical.
Most of Syria’s Kurds live in the east, where the country’s oilfields lie, in the arid region of Ayn al-Arab, and in the Ifrin agricultural area on the border with Turkey.
Large neighborhoods of the capital Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo, just 45 km (28 miles) east of the border with Turkey, also are dominated by Kurds.
“When I went to school I did not know a word of Arabic and I was wondering why the teacher did not teach us to write Kurdish,” said Mustafa, who is from Ayn al-Arab, a Kurdish town despite its name.
“Our demands are about the right to learn our own language, to sing and to dance, and for compensation for historic discrimination,” the burly, soft spoken activist said, referring to what he described as land taken from Kurds and given to Arabs along the Turkish border in the eastern province of Raqqa.
But some in the opposition are wary that Kurdish demands could lead to separation and a copycat movement among other ethnic groups. Too much leeway for Kurds, they say, also could upset neighboring Turkey, which has a large and restive Kurdish population of its own, and undermine Ankara’s support for the revolt.
“The priority is to bring down Assad. We have agreed on general democratic principles and guaranteeing the national rights of everyone under the umbrella of the unity of Syria as a people and a landmass,” said senior opposition figure Najati Tayyara, a liberal Sunni respected by the Kurds.
In the middle of Ayn al-Arab, secret police headquarters and observation points stand like fortresses, in marked contrast to Mursitpinar, the neat Turkish town just across the border. The towns are separated by the old Berlin-to-Baghdad railway.
Intelligence agents fled the compounds during protests that swept Kurdish areas of Syria in 2004, returning after Assad’s forces put down the revolt, in which 30 people were killed.
When the revolt against Assad’s rule broke out in southern Syria, crowds took to the streets across Kurdish regions to denounce the president. Authorities, fearful of provoking the Kurds, generally have refrained from using deadly force to put down protests in Kurdish regions.
The Kurds also are deeply divided among themselves, with regional Kurdish parties backing rival groups and one Syrian Kurdish party taking sides with Assad and his government.
Most Kurdish political parties united under the Kurdish National Congress (KNC) umbrella group this year to support the uprising and push Kurdish demands, but this has not translated into action on the streets, where demonstrations mostly are staged by young men with little party affiliation.
The KNC is backed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and was the main Kurdish faction that walked out of the Istanbul meeting.
The other main Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is backed by the Turkish Kurd militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and has kept out of all opposition activities.
Assad’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad, for years sheltered
PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, before the threat of a Turkish invasion in 1998 forced him to send Ocalan abroad where Turkish agents eventually captured him and brought him back to Turkey.
Bashar al-Assad later cooperated with Turkey by cracking down on the PKK as relations between the two countries improved after he inherited power in 2000.
Renewed Syrian backing for the PKK would be a further red line for Turkey which repeatedly has warned Assad over the violent crackdown on protests and escalating conflict.
The PKK’s Syrian proxy, the PYD, is accused by the Syrian opposition of acting as enforcers for Assad, putting down demonstrations in Kurdish areas and assassinating anti-Assad activists, most notably Mashaal Tammo, a charismatic Kurdish leader who was killed last year as he was seeking to form a broad-based anti-Assad political coalition.
Assad made concessions to Kurds early in the uprising, such as a decree to grant stateless Kurds nationality they were deprived of as a result of a census in the 1960s, and easing laws making it difficult for Kurds to own property.
But only an estimated 6,000 out of 150,000 stateless Kurds have been given nationality and most discriminatory regulations, including banning the teaching of Kurdish, are still on the books, Kurdish activists say.
Tension also have risen between Assad’s opponents and the Kurds after the opposition declaration on Wednesday pledged “equality to all citizens regardless of their religion or ethnicity” but did not mention the Kurds by name.
“Saideline Ismail, a senior Kurdish politician and a member of the Kurdish National Congress said he was dismayed that the SNC, led by Burhan Ghaloiun, a Paris-based secular professor, opposed mentioning the Kurdish cause.
“I don’t understand why they did not make an effort to gain the Kurdish street,” he said.
“The Kurds are the first who want to see the downfall of the Assad regime and are demanding a right of self determination within a united Syria.”