‘We were promised our homeland in 1920 but then betrayed, you remember?’ my Syrian Kurdish lawyer had said to me, back in 2011 in Damascus, when the revolution first broke out. I knew that under the Assad regime many of them had been stateless and dispossessed, with no ID cards. He explained: ‘This means they cannot vote, own property, get a government job, or go to secondary school or university, but they are still forced to do military service. And people forget,’ he had added, ‘that the PKK [Kurdish separatist group fighting against the Turkish state for an autonomous Kurdistan] troubles already killed 45,000 people back in the 1980s and 1990s.’
No informed observer doubted that the Kurds needed to be courted, by both the Syrian and the Turkish governments. Bashar finally gave them citizenship in 2012 after 50 years of state deprivation, in an attempt to deter them from joining the revolution, but by then it was not enough. They were already fighting, sometimes against the regime, sometimes against the rebels, not only in the northeast Hassakeh and Qamishli areas, but also in Aleppo and north of it, in the Kurdish villages like A’zaaz. When Syrian regime forces withdrew from the Kurdish border areas in summer 2012, the PKK took control. Many speculated it was even a tacit agreement between the PKK and Bashar – there is a strange link, as the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan is from the rarefied minority of Alawi Kurds. It should have been a dream come true for the Kurds, but it quickly became worse than under Assad, with local Kurds complaining the PKK were mercenaries and criminals.
Although most are nominally Sunni Muslim, the Kurdish identity is based not on religion, but on ethnicity and cultural tradition. In Iraqi Kurdistan schools do not impose Islam but teach all world religions equally. The last thing Kurds want is to be ruled by an Islamic state. This explains the fighting that broke out around Ar-Raqqa in summer 2013 between Syria’s Kurds and the extremist Islamist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS who are seeking to establish precisely such an old-style caliphate. These were the very groups the Italian Jesuit Father Paolo sought to mediate between when he entered the lion’s den and was kidnapped by ISIS for his pains. This Kurdish versus Islamist in-fighting is an unwelcome distraction, but for Syria’s Kurds these extremist Islamists represent the greatest menace of all, and they would still choose the hated PKK over the Islamists. The leader of the Kurdish Saladin brigade declared his position: ‘We want a civil democratic government that treats everyone equally.’
He may have got his wish, for on the eve of the January 2014 Geneva II talks where Syria’s Kurds were denied a seat of their own, the establishment of Rojavo as a semi-autonomous region was declared, with 22 cabinet ministers based in Qamishli. True to their ideology, the new government is a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix.
The international community would not care greatly what the Kurds got up to, except that Iraqi Kurdistan is oil rich, Syria’s oilfields lie mainly in its northeast and Turkey’s oilfields are in its southeast provinces. A future independent Kurdistan has the potential to control a massive chunk of the Middle East’s oil reserves – to say nothing of its water or even its wheat reserves.
The new Rojavo region now has the 100,000 barrel-a-day Suwayda oilfield which accounts for more than 60 per cent of the country’s oil production; the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Khabour rivers; and one of Syria’s richest wheat-producing agricultural sectors. What a prize – well worth the wait.