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In Syria's war, long-repressed minority finds new freedom

Keen to secure loyalty, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has granted Syria's Kurds de facto control over predominantly Kurdish areas of the country. But with the freedom, divisions have emerged.

By Alexander Christie-MillerCorrespondent / October 17, 2012

Syrian Kurds who live in Lebanon, hold Kurdish flags during a protest against the Syrian regime marking the one year anniversary of the death of Mashaal Tammo, one of the most vocal and charismatic Kurdish opposition figures.

Bilal Hussein/AP

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Afrin, Syria

Of the changes triggered by Syria's 19-month-old uprising, few have been as sudden as the seeming empowerment of the country’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority.

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In what was once the headquarters of Syria’s ruling Baath Party in the town of Afrin, a Kurdish-populated town of about 60,000 in northwest Syria (see map), the faces of hundreds of dead Kurdish men and women now line the walls. Many of the people whose pictures hang in the memorial center – all natives of the town – died under torture in the prisons of the regime that once occupied this same building.

But now Afrin and several other towns and cities running along Syria’s northern border are under the Kurdish governance of the Democratic Union Party, an armed political movement known by the acronym PYD. The green, red, and yellow colors of the Kurdish national flag festoon streets and buildings throughout town.

Beneath the elation, however, simmers an argument over what role, if any, the Kurds should play in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, whose troops pulled out of the Kurdish regions this summer, leaving the PYD in control. 

Many Kurds doubt that the rebel movement seeking to overthrow President Assad will honor these freedoms.

“Until now, the Syrian National Council [an opposition political body] has not accepted Kurdish people,” says Mohammad Jernas, a member of the six-person council set up by the PYD to govern Afrin. “They haven’t even drafted a constitution that would accept Kurdish people. Why should we fight for them? We are not ready to send our people to die for nothing.”

No war here

Spread across four countries and numbering about 30 million, Kurds have their own language and cultural traditions, and have long faced persecution in the nations where they form minorities: Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.

In Syria, 20 percent of the country’s 2 million Kurds were stripped of citizenship rights in 1962, effectively banning them from owning property or marrying. But in April last year, Assad restored these rights in a bid to win Kurdish support in the early days of the uprising.

Many believe the PYD are now trying to pull off a feat similar to the Kurds of northern Iraq, who now enjoy extensive autonomy. Following the US invasion in 2003, they took control of their region and remained aloof from the sectarian fighting that gripped the rest of the country.

The rewards of the PYD’s neutrality were dramatically evident when the Monitor passed through the last checkpoint controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the main rebel grouping – that marks the start of Kurdish territory.

While the preceding stretch of rebel-held road was littered with burnt-out tanks and shattered buildings, in Afrin there is no sign at all of Syria’s civil war. The FSA has agreed not to enter the Kurdish regions.

“We don’t want them here because the regime will bomb us and we don’t want Kurds to die,” says Mr. Jernas. His organization has several thousand fighters defending Afrin, and is training more, he adds.

Even here, uprising divides

The PYD’s assumption of power was unusually painless, prompting accusations of collusion with the Syrian regime. 

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