Are Syrian Kurds putting their support behind Bashar al-Assad?

Screen capture of a video showing clashes between rebels and Kurdish militias in the Aleppo suburb of Achrafieh. Posted on YouTube on October 28, 2012.
 
Although many Syrian Kurds joined the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime at the beginning of the Syrian revolt, some have since distanced themselves from the rebellion. A week ago, for the first time since the conflict began, rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) clashed with Kurdish militias. The rebels have since accused Kurdish leaders of having made a deal to support al-Assad.
 
The clashes pitted FSA rebels against members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the main Kurdish political party in Syria – in the majority Kurdish suburb of Achrafieh in the northern city of Aleppo. This suburb had been, until then, spared of the violence that has shaken Aleppo since July 20.
 
According to local residents contacted by FRANCE 24, the confrontation broke out when several FSA rebels entered Achrafieh, and members of Kurdish militias manning checkpoints into the neighbourhood tried to chase them out. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, the PYD has declared itself neutral and has consistently tried to keep FSA fighters away from areas under its control.
 
The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a London-based opposition watchdog, claims 30 people died in the clashes. This latest incident could signify a shift in relations between Syrian Kurds and the rebellion.
 
Since July, the Syrian army has been pulling out of the towns mostly inhabited by Kurds in areas bordering Turkey, and these areas are now under PYD control.
 
Before the start of the conflict, the Kurdish community, which accounts for almost 15 percent of the Syrian population, had been marginalised by the authorities. In March 2004, a Kurdish protest movement was bloodily suppressed by the regime.
 
Images showing clashes between armed groups that are part of the FSA and Kurdish militias in the suburb of Achrafieh. Video posted on October 28 on YouTube.
Contributors

“We want to stay out of the armed conflict”

Ahmed Bahoz, a Kurdish activist close to the PYD, lives in the suburb of Achrafieh in Aleppo.
  
The army bombarded Achrafieh the day before the Eid holiday [October 26] because members of the Free Syrian Army had infiltrated the area. Around 15 people were killed in the air strikes, all civilians. We were angry; we didn’t want this to happen again. So we organised a protest march the following day. Unfortunately, this didn’t dissuade the rebel groups from trying to enter the suburb again. But this time, defence committees in charge of protecting the suburb tried to push them back, thus sparking the clashes.
 
Some of them accused us of being subservient to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. That’s not true. The Kurds rose up against the regime in 2004, well before the start of the Arab Spring. We have also been part of the demonstrations against the regime since April 2011. But when the revolt turned into an armed conflict, we preferred to stay on the sidelines because we chose to follow the path of non-violent resistance.
 
Video of the demonstration against the Free Syrian Army in the Kurdish suburb of Achrafieh. Posted on YouTube on October 27.

“Bashar al-Assad’s regime has signed a secret non-aggression pact with the PYD”

Hamid Mesud is a Syrian Kurd journalist who has taken refuge in France.
  
Bashar al-Assad’s regime has signed a secret non-aggression pact with the PYD [Kurdish Democratic Party], the major Kurdish party in Syria. Since the start of the insurrection, the regime has been granting Syrian nationality to hundreds of thousands of Kurds who had lost it in the 1960s, as well as to stateless Kurds. We estimate some 60,000 people have benefited from this measure.

The regime has also allowed Kurds to speak the Kurdish language and exercise their cultural traditions. The authorities in Syria have clearly sought to placate the PYD, which is a branch of the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a guerrilla group fighting against the Turkish state for an independent Kurdistan] and whose members have large stockpiles of weapons. The regime’s sudden acts of goodwill towards the Kurds are also explained by its desire, since the beginning of the uprising, to show the international community that it cares about the fate of its minorities.
 
In July, the Syrian army outright withdrew from Kurdish areas in the north of the country, such as the towns of Derik, Ayn al-Arab, and Afrin, which have since come under PYD control. The PYD now controls the administration of Kurdish majority regions and its defence committees manage security in the region. In exchange for this, the PYD has committed to not supporting the revolution and to preventing the FSA – which it suspects was created by its enemy Turkey – from entering Kurdish areas.
 
The Syrian regime is an historic ally of the PKK, which has been at war with the Turkish regime since 1984. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, lived in Syria for 25 years. Bashar al-Assad could therefore, if needed, use the Kurds as a tool, notably by providing logistical support against the rebellion in order to destabilise Turkey, which supports it. The PYD’s leaders currently have their sights set on a future after Assad. They want to take advantage of the anarchic situation to gain their autonomy and assert their power over Kurdish majority regions; that way, they hope to be able to force the Syrian politicians of tomorrow to take their demands into account. They are also interested in keeping their region away from the war in order to prevent the estimated four million Kurds in Syria from fleeing the country.
 
"Arabs and Kurds are brothers in this country. We will not let the regime foster hatred between us", says a Kurdish officer of the FSA in a video statement published on YouTube on October 28. 
 
 
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