Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has little faith in Bashar Assad’s ability to extricate himself from the very sticky situation created by a Kurdish uprising which his father Hafez Assad would have put down with an iron fist and rivers of blood before it got started.
Which is why, much as he hates late nights, the 76-year old Egyptian ruler climbed wearily aboard his private red-eye jet Sunday night, March 14 and forced himself to fly to Damascus. He hoped that a dose of seasoned statesmanship would pull Syria back from a civil war that could blow up in a trice from last week’s bloody riots in the northeastern al-Jazeera province near the border with Iraq.
On March 12, Arab tribesmen from the Deir al-Zuar descended on the Qamishli stadium in northern Syria to support their soccer team in the final round of the league games against a local Kurdish eleven. No one knows who would have won because the event degenerated into political violence from the word go. The Arab fans marched into the stadium waving photos of Saddam Hussein and shouting: “Halabje will return!” (In neighboring Iraq, the Kurds were just then commemorating the 5,000 Halabje Kurds Saddam poisoned to death in 1988).
The Kurdish fans, for their part, hoisted large photos of George Bush and yelled: “Amur, amur, Kurdistan!” (Independence for Kurdistan) and: “Saddam’s end is yours!”
Both sides were firing automatic weapons in short order.
It was the first time that Syrian ethnic Kurds, some 3 million in the general population of 20 million, had ever fired shots in anger, although they have long complained of official repression. Kurds are not recognized as Syrian citizens, for example.
The “Amur, amur Kurdistan” watchword quickly caught fire among Kurdish communities around the country. Kurdish gun squads turned on security forces and torched government buildings. They toppled statues of Bashar Assad and his late father Hafez and burnt Syrian flags. Kurdish students at Damascus University marched around the campus and halls with clenched fists and shouted slogans. Wednesday, they began handing out new maps of Syria marked as South Kurdistan.
Although figures are hard to establish, by Thursday, at least 70 Kurds appear to have been killed in clashes with Syrian security forces in several cities and as many as 2,000 had disappeared including some as young as 14. By then, the Syrian army had encircled two Kurdish districts of Aleppo – Deir Maqsud and Ashrafiya – and asserted control of the trouble spots in Afrin, Ras el-Ain and Amuda.
The Egyptian president owns a vested interest in stopping the Syrian ethnic cauldron from boiling over. He intends to lead an offensive at an Arab summit convening in Tunis on March 29 against President George W. Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative, which has alarmed Arab leaders by promoting democratic and economic reforms. Mubarak fears a civil war in Syria would prevent Assad from lining up in the united Arab front against the plan. It could even topple him.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Cairo sources, the Egyptian president gave his young Syrian counterpart some fatherly advice: “Put out the fires quickly. If the Kurds get the chance to dictate terms, they will get the same support from America as their brethren in Iraq.”
Syria’s Kurds have never before flexed their muscles and the ripple effect from Iraq was manifest in the huge American flags hoisted in their street protests and the pro-democracy slogans they chanted with demands for reforms in the Arab world.
Our sources report that the government in Damascus rushed a Republican Guard armored brigade over to the cities of Qamishli and Amura and the surrounding Kurdish villages to clamp them under curfew and seal the highways between Arab and Kurdish areas. Mass arrests were carried out to break the back of the movement.
Assad next dispatched a three-man delegation to talk to the Kurds. It was led by his younger brother Maher on his first important political mission, supported by two heavy hitters, interior minister Ali Haj Hammoud and General Mohammed Mansura, deputy chief of political intelligence.
The officials summoned the heads of all 13 Kurdish factions to a meeting. The Kurds refused to talk until all the detainees were released and arrests halted. The interior minister refused, retorting that the Kurds were anyway not fit to talk to because they were the only group in Syria never to have publicly denounced the American occupation of Iraq.
This brought the Damascus mission to impasse.
The Syrian authorities face the daunting tasks of calming Kurdish fury while letting them know that the Syrian army will move into crush them if they do not simmer down and hand in their weapons. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Damascus sources see little chance of accommodation. The Kurds are up in arms and refuse to listen before all their compatriots are freed and the regime is wary of showing any sign of weakness.
The Syrian Kurds’ unprecedented resort to arms against Syrian Arabs and government forces brought to light the existence of a new Kurdish militia in Syria. It also attested to the strong influence the Iraqi situation has already had on its neighbors.
Syrian Kurds have close ties with the two foremost leaders of Iraq’s six million Kurds, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barazani, both of whom support the new Iraqi constitution and are members of the US-appointed Provisional Government of Iraq. Third-class citizens in their own country, they enviously follow the evolution of the quasi-state Iraq’s Kurds are building, with their own army and government administration, in regions contiguous to theirs.
Our sources report that Syrian Kurds, fired up by the turbulence they generated, are now contemplating launching a Kurdish uprising, “Sirhalden“, against the regime.
It therefore looks as though Mubarak was too late. Syrian forces and Kurdish leaders are glaring at each other eyeball to eyeball. He may still go ahead with his bid to scuttle the Bush initiative at the Arab summit, but the Kurdish uprising is moving ahead too fast to stop, fueled by manpower, money and weapons from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Bashar Assad, who runs the Syrian corridor down which he pumps al Qaeda and Arab fighters into Iraq, looks like being punished in kind. His own Kurds will be running a route in the opposite direction carrying Kurdish fighters from Iraq into Syria. This subversive movement will further reduce the stability of his regime at a time when Washington proposes to clamp strong sanctions against Syria over its support for terror. Syrian expatriates who oppose his regime have begun staging protest demonstrations outside Syrian embassies in the United States and Europe, while a new radio station funded by Washington takes to the air from Cyprus on March 31.
The Americans are tightening a steel ring around the Syrian ruler’s throat. This Mubarak understands as well as Assad. However, fixated as he is on the menace from Washington, Assad does not seem to know how to cope with the peril he faces at home. It is easier for him and his advisers to whisper that Kurdish unrest is being whipped up by US and Turkish agents provocateurs. The Turks are suspected of hatching a conspiracy to give them a pretext for invading Syria to quell the Kurdish uprising.
However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Ankara, Turkey is chiefly worried that the Kurdish turmoil may spill over and infect to its own 10 million Kurdish citizens. Tuesday, March 16, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the Turkish-Syrian border for a close look at events on the other side. He ordered the border sealed as a safety precaution. Tehran does not feel its own large Kurdish minority of some eight and a half million souls is in immediate danger of rising up, but its response to long-running ethnic volatility is hard to gauge.
Thursday night, March 18, DEBKA-Net-Weekly learned that a delegation of US officials from Iraq had just landed in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria with the knowledge of the government in Damascus. There is no immediate information about the object of this visit.