Every since Syrian Kurdish communities went on a protest rampage in March, the Syrian authorities have imposed a dense blackout on the Kurdish scene. On the face of it, the protesters have simmered down and gone back to their normal lives in the areas of habitation close to the Iraqi border and the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Iraqi Kurdistan report that matters are far from normal. An undercover tussle is taking place between the US and the Assad regime over who will dominate Syria’s two million Kurds, which make up 10 percent of the country’s population.
In the last week of April, those sources reveal, the leaders of at least five of the dozen or so Syrian political factions fled with their families and staffs to Iraqi Kurdistan. This refugee movement was joined by the families of several Syrian opposition leaders, notably the former Syrian chief of staff Nizam Eddine and the ageing founder of the Syrian communist party Khaled Bakhdash.
For many years, the two Iraqi Kurdish chiefs, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, refused to acknowledge Syrian Kurdish nationalist aspirations or have anything to do with them, on ethnic grounds: the Syrian community stems from the Turkish, not the Iraqi branch, of the Kurdish people.
All this has now changed.
Talabani and Barzani have agreed to grant their Syrian brethren political asylum.
They are willing to subsidize their resettlement in Iraqi Kurdistan and their political action inside Syria.
The two Iraqi leaders’ media networks in their autonomous regions and in other countries will be made available as platforms for Syrian Kurds – four large TV stations broadcasting in Europe, dozens of newspapers and hundreds of Kurdish language Web sites. Already, eight new Kurdish internet sites have been created in Iraq for the benefit of Syrian audiences.
A brand new radio station is going up in Iraq to beam special broadcasts to the Syrian Kurdish public.
Syrian president Bashar Assad is convinced that Washington put Talabani and Barzani up to these subversive steps against his regime. Indeed, he is quoted by our sources as telling his close aides that the Americans are doing this to him, but not on their own; he discerns the signature of the Israeli Mossad which he suspects of maintaining a large presence in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Syrian ruler is not taking lying down what he sees as a campaign of subversion against him. In an effort to win Kurdish hearts, he sent his brother Maher Assad last week to meet a group of Kurdish leaders with an offer of Syrian citizenship to the first group of a quarter up to half a million members of the Kurdish community in return for their support of the regime. This is the limited number that the regime is prepared to recognize. Kurdish ethnicity is not listed in the population register, although it has been part of the fabric of Syrian society for centuries. While the Kurds granted citizenship will still be barred from voting for parliament, they will receive the same social benefits as other citizens.
Assad’s offer divided the Kurdish leadership, which is endemically fragmented anyway. At a secret conference last week, some faction leaders urged acceptance of his offer, while others warned that the Syrian leader was laying a trap for them.
While the Syrian Kurdish minority has an important place in Assad’s quarrels with the Americans, the key front he has opened against Washington is in Lebanon.