QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) - A decade into their experiment in self-rule, Syria's Kurds fear an apparent rapprochement between Damascus and their foe the Turkish government could cost them their hard-won way of life.
Before Syria's conflict broke out, the country's roughly two million Kurds were not permitted to learn the Kurdish language in school or celebrate their cultural occasions.
A year after Syria's uprising began in 2011, government forces withdrew from swathes of the north – paving the way for a Kurdish-led "autonomous administration" to run its own institutions, including schools where Kurdish was taught.
But many in the so-called autonomous administration say they could lose their newfound rights if Syria's government reconciles with Turkey – which backed rebels against President Bashar al-Assad since 2011 and has attacked Kurdish-run Syrian regions, which Ankara considers a national security threat.
"If we assume that this agreement happens, it will be the final blow to the autonomous administration that was built on a system of equality, democracy, and freedom," said Suleiman Abu Bakr, a 55-year-old resident of the autonomous zone.
The fears arise from an apparent thaw in relations between Damascus and Ankara that is being encouraged by Moscow, four sources told Reuters last week. Any normalisation between Ankara and Damascus would reshape the decade-long Syrian war.
Turkey’s intelligence chief has held secretive talks in Damascus this month, its foreign minister has encouraged reconciliation between rebel fighters and the government, and President Tayyip Erdogan said he would have liked to meet Assad had the latter attended a summit last week in Samarkand.
'MOTHER TONGUE' AT RISK
Any discussions between Turkey and Syria would likely be about the 3.6 million Syrian refugees still residing in Turkey, which Erdogan would like to see begin to head home before he is up for re-election next year, but could also include agreements on security and governance in the north.
For schoolteacher Dalal Mohammad, 45, the Kurdish language could be the first on the chopping block as both Ankara and Damascus are opposed to it being taught in schools.
"We're afraid the rapprochement between Turkey and Syria (could lead to) the oppression of some demographics in this region, including erasing the Kurdish culture and mother tongue after everything we accomplished the last ten years,” she said.
While Turkey is an avowed enemy of the autonomous administration, Syria's Kurds had engaged in a tense dialogue with Damascus while maintaining good ties with Moscow and the U.S.-led coalition fighting jihadists in Syria.
But even Russia may have turned against the Kurds now, said Saleh Muslim, the co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party, the main party in the autonomous zone.
"This is all coming at an invitation from Russia, which is encouraging this rapprochement," Muslim said.
For shopkeeper Dilvin, an agreement between the two rivals would mean her daughter wouldn't enjoy the short-lived autonomy that she experienced in the northern Syrian town of Kobane.
"It would get rid of the autonomous administration and in this case, everything will change for us," she told Reuters.
"The way we work, the language we've been teaching our kids, the currency. We see all of Turkey's efforts as being aimed at getting rid of the autonomous administration – nothing more, nothing less."
(Reporting by Orhan Qereman and Maya Gebeily; Writing by Maya Gebeily, Editing by William Maclean)