Over last weekend, I had the honor of being an invited speaker at the American Kurdish Congress, held in Arlington, Va. There was a good deal to celebrate, as against the same time last year. The three Kurdish-majority provinces of Iraq have consolidated their hard-won prosperity and autonomy, and Kurdish has been recognized as an official language of the new state. Kurdish security forces played a crucial role in isolating and capturing Saddam Hussein and in arresting the courier who was bearing the now-notorious Zarqawi manifesto, calling for Sunni-Shiite fratricide as the latest strategy of fundamentalism, across the Iranian border. There is some resentment and suspicion among Kurds at the seeming willingness of Americans to take them for granted. (Colin Powell, on his flying visit to the annual commemoration of the chemical weapons massacre at Halabja, had not seen fit to mention that the victims were Kurdish. If you want to know how to offend an Iraqi Kurd, by all means refer to him or her as one of those victimized when Saddam murdered “his own people.” “His own people” they decidedly were and are not.)
Amid all the discussions and debates about the disputed role of Kurds in the new Iraqi constitution, one could feel and hear another hot topic as it rushed around the periphery of the meeting. Many of those present had relatives and friends in northern Syria and were in cell-phone contact with them hour by hour. In and around the city of Kamishli, in the past few days, several dozen Kurdish protesters have been shot down by Baathist police and militia for raising the Kurdish flag and for destroying pictures and statues of the weak-chinned hereditary ruler, Bashar al-Assad. In tussling with local party goons who shout slogans in favor of the ousted Saddam, it is clear, they are hoping for a rerun of regime change.
It is early to pronounce, but this event seems certain to be remembered as the beginning of the end of the long-petrified Syrian status quo. The Kurdish population of Syria is not as large, in proportion, as its cousinly equivalent in Iraq. But there are many features of the Syrian Baath regime that make it more vulnerable than Saddam Hussein’s. Saddam based his terrifying rule on a minority of a minority—the Tikriti clan of the Sunni. Assad, like his father, is a member of the Alawite confessional minority, which in the wider Arab world is a very small group indeed. Syria has large populations of Sunni, Druses, and Armenians, and the Alawite elite has stayed in power by playing off minorities against minorities. It is in a weak position to rally the rest of society against any identifiable “enemy within,” lest by doing so it call attention to its own tenuous position.
There are many Kurds in the major cities of Syria, and their prestige as a minority is quite high since they originally came to the country as the soldiers of their fellow Kurd Saladin (oddly enough, born in Tikrit) during his victorious war against the Crusaders. When he died and was buried in Damascus, they elected to stay. The most successful Communist leader in the Arab world, Khaled Baqdash, was a Syrian Kurd. As many reporters have been noting in the last few days, the nascent human and civil rights movement in Syria has been galvanized by the events in the Kurdish north, which illustrate in sharp relief the general bankruptcy of the regime
Until recently, it was official Syrian policy to sponsor a Kurdish insurgency in neighboring Turkey, albeit an insurgency led by the Pol Pot of Kurdish politics, Abdullah Ocalan of the “Kurdish Workers Party” or PKK. That opportunist moment came to an end when the Turkish army threatened to invade Syria, causing the senior Assad to expel Ocalan from Syrian-occupied Lebanon (which also has its restless Kurdish underclass). But a steady official propaganda in favor of Kurdish militancy elsewhere has now partly come back to haunt its insincere authors.
The Syrian regime never had the ruthless self-confidence of its Iraqi neighbor, though it did bloodily crush a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama about a quarter-century ago. At present, it is in power mainly to be in power and doesn’t pretend to have any much grander aim. Its pan-Arab rhetoric is threadbare, its attitude to Islam necessarily compromised, its armed forces fifth-rate, its treasury a joke, and its occupation of Lebanon a thing of shreds and patches. It has made the huge mistake of promising “reforms” and then failing to produce them: always a sign of a moribund system. It has helped the CIA to identify and track down al-Qaida sympathizers, while continuing to flirt, somewhat unconvincingly, with the military wings of Hezbollah and Hamas. The last thing it needs is a rebellion by people who are sure that they are on the winning side. It can neither extirpate the Kurdish rebels nor satisfy them.
This indecision is partially replicated in Washington, which is in no hurry to alarm its Turkish ally with too much talk of Kurdish self-determination in either Iraq or Syria. But “regime change,” as those of us who favor it have always maintained, is not something that can too easily be manipulated. Colin Powell, who has always detested the policy, may have spent the past few days trying to reassure the Saudis that nothing too revolutionary is intended by American pronouncements about democracy. As usual, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Syria, and tomorrow in Iran, there are forces at work who intend to take these pronouncements with absolute seriousness. It would be nice if American liberals came out more forcefully and demanded that the administration live up to its own rhetoric on the question.