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Barkhodan Balo and her father
Balo and her father in the Moqebleh refugeeImage: 2011 Reese Erlich

Kurdish refugees

November 4, 2011

Kurdish activists are supporting the current uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but fear that their people's demands for autonomy are going unanswered in the midst of the struggle.


Barkhodan Balo walks slowly through the Kurdish refugee camp near the Syrian-Iraqi border. She fled here with her family in 2005. The 20-year old lives among the 300 refugees in homes with plastic tarps and latrines down the road.

"In the winter it's very, very cold," she says. "In the summer, it's very, very hot."

Kurds, who make up about eight percent of Syria's 22 million people, have long faced discrimination and repression in Syria. The Kurdish area lies along the strategic borders with Iraq and Turkey, and is also home to Syria's oil production.

A group of residents at the Moqebleh Refugee camp, Iraq
Kurds have long faced discrimination and repression in Syria, turning to refugee camps for helpImage: 2011 Reese Erlich

The uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has now lasted over seven months, with neither the government nor opposition able to defeat the other. Syria's Kurdish minority have the potential to play an important role in the country's political future, but the Kurds are politically divided.

Like many young Kurds, Balo is a strong supporter of the current uprising. She wants democracy for all Syrians but also more rights for Kurds. Balo worries that the opposition, dominated by Islamists, doesn't support Kurdish demands for local autonomy.

Kurds politically divided

"After Syria had its independence from France, the Arab governments didn't give Kurds any rights," she says. "They worried about Kurdish separatism. We know after this regime in Syria falls, we are going to work for our rights, and we are going to free our Kurdistan."

For Balo, "free our Kurdistan" means political autonomy within the Syrian state. But the phrase could also be a call for independence, which worries many Syrian Arabs.

"You cannot separate the issue of Kurds in Syria from Kurds in Iran, Iraq and in Turkey," says Nabil Sukkar, an economic consultant in Damascus. "How far do you go in giving autonomy? Do you end up with the Kurds sometime down the line, maybe 20-30 years, saying we want to have a separate state in that part of south Turkey, northern Iraq and northern Syria?"

Kurdish activists argue that the Syrian government has implanted a fear of separatism as part of a divide and conquer strategy. Hassan Saleh is a leader of the Yekiti Party, which is helping organize the uprising in the Kurdish areas. He points out that all of the 12 Syrian Kurdish parties oppose separatism.

A call to arms?

A little girl in a refugee camp in Iraq
Kurdish children live in homes with plastic tarp roofs and latrines down the streetImage: 2011 Reese Erlich

The government has created a culture, he says, "to convince Arabs that the Kurds are separatists and a threat for Arabs and the state. This is the ideology of the regime used to make more tension between Kurds and Arabs."

Kurds, like other Syrians, have divided opinions on how to establish a parliamentary system and free elections in Syria. Many are frustrated after so many months of struggle. Some Syrians, especially those living outside the country, now call for a Libyan-style military intervention.

A store in the Moqebleh Refugee camp
Syrians want democracy, not a new dictatorImage: 2011 Reese Erlich

Activist Balo calls for limited intervention, such as creation of a no fly zone over Syria. "As a Syrian, I call for international military intervention," says Balo. "But we don't need it strongly, just to finish this."

But Kurdish leader Saleh, who lives inside the country, says such intervention can be dangerous. "Military intervention will lead to more casualties, more blood and more people who will die and suffer like Iraq. So we don't support such methods."

Saleh says military intervention inevitably means foreign powers will install their own strongman to replace Assad. He says Syrians want democracy, not a new dictator.

Author: Reese Erlich, Damascus/Northern Iraq

Editor: Rob Mudge

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