Some Syrian Kurds Resist Assad, Defying Conventional Views

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ALGHOOZ, Syria -- The arc of Omar Abdulkader's transformation from farmer to fighter resembles uncountable others in Syria, where since 2011 tens of thousands of men have been drawn into a civil war.

A rebel commander seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, he described the choice of a cornered man. His resistance began with peaceful demonstrations, he said. When the government answered with force, his tactics changed. "It was only after they showed that they would kill us that we became armed," he said.

But there is a difference between this story and many others. Mr. Abdulkader is a Kurd, not an Arab, which means his experiences and decisions upend conventional wisdom which holds that the Kurds did not see this as their fight.

To hear the governments of Turkey and Syria describe it, Syria's Kurds often side with or remain neutral toward Mr. Assad, whose government supported the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or P.K.K., in its bloody insurgency against Turkey until 1998, when Syria grudgingly extradited the Kurdish group's leader at the brink of war with Turkey.

But the scenes in Alghooz and in a string of Kurdish villages north of Aleppo present a more complex picture of Syria's Kurds and their ambitions and relations with the government. Kurds here fiercely note that they have suffered under Mr. Assad's rule, too, and taken up arms against him. They sharply contradict the notion that they rely on Mr. Assad's government for protection.

And so while there have signs that many Kurds remained pro-government, with some pro-P.K.K. fighters clashing with rebels, hundreds of others have joined the Free Syrian Army, as the loosely assembled antigovernment fighters call themselves, Kurdish and rebel leaders say.

The flatlands north of Aleppo are spotted with towns. Local men said there are roughly 40,000 Kurds living here, and that their families have produced more than 600 fighters against Mr. Assad.

The fighters are organized into at least eight separate groups, Kurdish leaders and fighters said. Their names include the Islamic Kurdish Front, the Pesh Merga Falcons, and the Martyrs of Mecca.

Defying official and popular accounts of Kurdish loyalties, these men fight beside Arabs against Mr. Assad. They and their leaders bluntly denounce the P. K. K, which the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization, and also criticize many Kurdish nationalists, saying that calls for an independent Kurdistan is not a vision they share.

"We are not interested in a separate homeland," said Yousef Haidar, 72, Alghooz' mukhtar, or village elder. "We want to be part of Syria."

He added: ""For hundreds of years we have lived together with Arabs, and after the revolution we want to live together more."

The Kurdish revolutionary fighters also reject neutrality, like the public position of the Democratic Union Party, Syria's largest Kurdish political party, which has kept largely out of the uprising, furthering the impression that Kurds were not supporting the rebels.  

"I am Kurdish, and as a Kurdish citizen I am fighting side to side with the Free Syrian Army, because you cannot find anybody who was not stepped on by the regime, or was not wronged," Mr. Haidar said. "We were wronged as well."

Alghooz is a small farming village on an agricultural plain. It lies a few miles east of Marea, one of the area's thoroughly anti-Assad towns.

Fewer than 3,000 people live here. Its elders said perhaps 30 men from local families were now fighting, and that these men had attracted Arabs, Christians and Turkmens to fight with them under the rebels' flag.

Mr. Abdulkader commands one of three sections of a group that calls itself the Grandsons of Saladin and claims to field nearly 90 fighters in all. It fights under the command of the al-Tawhid Brigade, the largest Free Syrian Army unit in the Aleppo region.

From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Abdulkader said, he served a tour of duty as an infantry conscript at a base south of Damascus. Then he returned home to work in the local fields, growing potatoes, lentils, onions and other crops. His Kurdish village lived peacefully beside the Arab villages nearby.

When protests against Mr. Assad began in early 2011 and Syrians in other villages in the countryside north of Aleppo demonstrated and organized into an underground movement, the Kurds in Alghooz did not commit.

But as the Assad government turned violent, its elders said, the village picked a side. "We joined the revolution," Mr. Haidar said.

The imperative for the uprising, he said, was even greater than when the villages rose against colonial powers. "We were colonized by the French, but even France did not do what Bashar does," he said. "The government kills innocent people. We felt no other option but to fight against this criminal."

In doing so, the Kurds here noted that they face the same difficulties as the other Free Syrian Army units.

The Grandsons of Saladin split time now between their home villages, organizing roaming patrols at night on the roads, and holding a small portion of the front in Aleppo's shattered neighborhoods.

They have relied in part on the training many of their members received during their brief service as conscripts in Mr. Assad's army. One man was previously a rifleman, another a machine-gunner. One -- an Arab fighting inside the Kurdish group -- was in a Syrian military communications unit. Two were trained in air defense.

All of them decried the lack of Western support, and said their dearth of military equipment has slowed their progress and caused them many casualties.

"In general, we have a shortage of ammunition and weapons," said Hussein Abu Mahmoud, a construction worker who is one of Mr. Abdulkader's fighters. "Most of our fighters who were killed died because we don't have enough weapons."

Facing continued shortages, the Grandsons of Saladin make their own hand grenades, from pipes and locally made explosives, and use a large slingshot to heave some of their bombs, each slightly smaller than a grapefruit, toward army positions.

In recent months, the fighters said they have suffered five killed and seven wounded -- proof enough, they said, of their role in the anti-Assad cause, and that Kurdish loyalties in Syria should not be defined by the statements from Damascus or Ankara, the Turkish capital, alone.

"There has been much propaganda that the Kurds are with the regime," Mr. Abdulkader said. "We are not with Assad. We are fighting him."

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Antakya, Turkey.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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