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 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. Abdulkader is a Kurd, not an Arab, which means his experiences and decisions upend the conventional wisdom that holds that the Kurds do not see this as their fight.
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To hear the governments of Turkey and Syria describe it, Syria’s Kurds often side with or remain neutral toward Assad, whose government supported the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in its bloody insurgency against Turkey until 1998, when Syria — on the brink of war with Turkey — grudgingly extradited the Kurdish group’s leader.
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 in Alghooz note that they have suffered under Assad’s rule, too, and taken up arms against him. They contradict the notion that they rely on Assad’s government for protection.
And so while there have been signs that many Kurds remained pro-government, with some pro-PKK fighters clashing with rebels, hundreds of others have joined the Free Syrian Army, as the loosely assembled anti-government fighters call themselves, Kurdish and rebel leaders say.
The flatlands north of Aleppo are spotted with towns. Local men said about 40,000 Kurds live in the area, and their families have produced more than 600 fighters against Assad.
The fighters are organized into at least eight groups, Kurdish leaders and fighters said.
Defying official and popular accounts of Kurdish loyalties, these men fight beside Arabs against Assad. They and their leaders denounce the PKK, which the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization, and criticize many Kurdish nationalists, saying calls for an independent Kurdistan are not a vision they share.
“We are not interested in a separate homeland,” said Yousef Haidar, 72, Alghooz’s 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 largely kept out of the uprising. f
“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,” Haidar said. “We were wronged as well.”
Alghooz is a 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 that perhaps 30 men from local families were fighting, and that these men had attracted Arabs, Christians and Turkmens to fight with them under the rebels’ flag.
Abdulkader, who once served as a Syrian army infantry conscript, commands one of three sections of a group that calls itself the Grandsons of Saladin and claims to field nearly 90 fighters. It fights under the command of Al Tawhid Brigade, the largest Free Syrian Army unit in the Aleppo region.
The Grandsons of Saladin split time between their 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 members received during their brief service as conscripts in 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 denounced the lack of Western support and said their dearth of military equipment had 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 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 had suffered five killed and seven wounded.
“There has been much propaganda that the Kurds are with the regime,” Abdulkader said. “We are not with Assad. We are fighting him.”