DAMASCUS // When a banned political party demanded autonomy for Syrian Kurds early last month, it was only a matter of time until arrests were made. And, sure enough, on December 26, four of the lead activists behind the call were invited to see the chief of police in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli. Once there, they were detained and have since remained in custody.
The Syrian authorities are unpredictable with the level and type of dissent they permit. Sometimes civil society campaigners are allowed to make criticisms of the way the country is run - although always within limits - while at other times the margins for critical comments are much narrower. Any demand that threatens the integrity of the state is, however, against the law and frequently results in long jail terms. That fact is well known to political opposition groups of all colours here, which has left even liberal reformists who spend their time walking a tightrope of dissent, confused as to why the push for autonomy was so openly made.
Other opposition groups have been reluctant to condemn fellow campaigners but have quietly criticised the step by Yeketi as counterproductive and out of touch with the needs of ordinary Syrians. "It's not simply a matter that government red lines were crossed with that hard sentence about autonomy," said Ammar Qurabi of the Syrian Platform for Non-Governmental Organisations (SPNGO). "That idea [of Kurdish self-rule] actually has no support in the Syrian street.
"There is sympathy with them for being arrested and there are questions about the manner in which they were detained and its legality. But there is clearly no support for the political position they took and even other Kurdish groups are angry with them. "Under the current circumstances, the statement was inappropriate. There needs to be a campaign for rights for all Syrians, not narrow ethnic or sectarian groups. This statement has done nothing to help Syrian Kurds."
The call for autonomy was made at the Yeketi party's sixth congress in December, where members gathered to formulate policy. According to news reports of the meeting, the controversial - and in Syria, dangerous - resolution was made only after a heated debate. It stated that the party would campaign on the basis that "the solution to the Kurdish issue in Syria comes through asking for autonomy for Syria's Kurdistan".
Three of the men who were arrested, Hassan Saleh, 62, Maaruf Mala Ahmd, 57, and Muhammad Mustapha, 47, were senior party officials. The fourth, Anuar Nasso, 47, is a well-known Kurdish activist and artist. Fuad Aleko, the leader of the Yeketi party, was not detained, something that was interpreted as clear evidence party members had not unanimously supported the autonomy call, with the Syrian security forces only arresting those who had most vocally insisted on it, rather than bluntly rounding up all officials.
In a telephone interview, Mr Aleko denounced the arrests of his colleagues and said the call for autonomy did not amount to a demand for independence. He was also adamant there had been no party split and that all members had agreed to abide by the congress' resolutions. "There is no excuse for the government to make these arrests," he said. "This slogan 'autonomy' or self determination is found in all the world, even in non-democratic counties, like China. It does not mean independence."
Mr Aleko dismissed the criticisms made by other opposition figures that it was inappropriate to demand Kurdish self-rule when all Syrians, not just Kurds, suffered from a lack of basic political rights. "What is now among the Arabs in Syria, those in power and in opposition, is a one colour culture," he said. "They have an idea of one ethnicity, one party, one leader. Sometimes we feel the authorities are more open than the opposition.
"I repeat, we were not calling for independence just autonomy. We have a good example of the type of autonomy we speak of in Iraq, next door to us." It is precisely that kind of comment that alarms the Syrian authorities. Since the 2003 invasion, Damascus has watched Iraq's Kurdish minority become increasingly powerful, carving out an autonomously governed region in areas rich in oil resources. Iraq's Kurds have their own well-equipped military force, outside of Baghdad's control, and Iraq's Arabs fear the Kurds are intent on independence. The United Nations is currently mediating a boiling dispute between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, primarily over who should control oil-rich Kirkuk. US military commanders have said they fear two groups would already be at war if not for an American military presence keeping them apart
Syria has made it clear that it does not want to go down a similar path with its own population of 1.5 million Kurds. Mr Qurabi, of the SPNGO, was adamant the demand for autonomy had done nothing to further the cause of embattled civil society activists here. "Most of the Syrian people need simple reforms on issues like political party laws, laws governing non-governmental organisations - essential foundations that we still do not have." Kurdish autonomy is too far, it's not something that anyone is thinking about. Walk before you can run. Autonomy is for the strong, not the weak."
Another human rights campaigner, Abdel Karim Rehawee, also of the SPNGO, said that the detained four knew the consequences of their demand. "Under the circumstances, it was insane to say that about autonomy, it was a kamikaze mission," he said. "Maybe they did it out of complete despair. Many people have been campaigning for reasonable reforms for years and there has been no result on the ground. That has led to a kind of depression.
"Maybe the Kurds gave up and thought they might as well try this because everything else had failed. They became desperate." The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights appealed to the Syrian authorities to free the arrested Yeketi party members, as well as other prisoners of conscience in Syria. It also urged Damascus to pass laws recognising the activities of political parties and civil society, on condition they "guarantee the integrity and unity of the country".
Under current laws, independent opposition political parties and Non-Governmental Organisations working on human rights are banned. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org