Stuck in the Middle: The Struggle for Syria’s Kurds

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Riot police stand guard as Syrian Kurds protest in front of UN office in Iraq
Riot police stand guard as Syrian Kurds protest in front of the UN office in the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil last June (Photo: AFP - Safin Hamed)

By: Ernest Khoury, Tarek Abd al-Hayy, Tamam Abdallah

Published Friday, March 23, 2012

After decades of complete marginalization, Syrian Kurds today are being lured by a shy acknowledgement of inferior rights from both the Syrian government and opposition groups.

“We wish we were Kurds,” a group of four Arab Syrian activists say sarcastically as they watch the annual Kurdish demonstrations held during the national holiday of Newroz.

During Newroz, which marks the Kurdish new year, celebrations take place in Derbasia and Amouda in Hasaka province, and throughout the country, including in Aleppo and Damascus.

Many Newroz celebrations this year became anti-regime protests. They were permitted by security forces, or at least not subjected to excessive violence.

Pro-regime festivities were covered by official media channels. They were held in streets and closed halls by groups such as the Patriotic Initiative for Kurds in Syria.

Kurdish youth opposition groups – which include the Union of Young Kurdish Coordinating Committees in Syria, Sawa Youth Coalition (part of the Local Coordinating Committees), Avahi Coalition for the Syrian Revolution, Coordinating Committee for Brotherhood, Aleppo, Efrin Youth Coordination, and the Alind Kobani Coordination decided to cancel celebrations and transform them into protests calling for the fall of the regime.

They also planned a general strike and a candlelight vigil “to mourn the martyrs” killed since 15 March 2011. This year, the motto of the Kurdish national holiday, celebrated for thousands of years, was the “Newroz of Syria’s Freedom.”

While celebrations turned to demonstrations, a Kurdish opposition activist remarked, “We will not celebrate the Newroz as we usually do. Martyrs have fallen in the last year. The country is mourning and we cannot sing and dance.”

She explained how preparations took place in basements of buildings to avoid security. “Syrian TV decided to broadcast last year’s celebrations…This year, we want to stop official media from exploiting them.”

For the second year in a row, these gatherings were not held in secret. Hiding one’s Kurdish identity is now a thing of the past. Kurdish protests against the regime are now a natural occurrence. The Kurdish language can even be heard in the streets of Damascus.

On the other hand, since 15 March 2011, the regime started to flirt with the Kurdish community, offering them a decree that grants many Syrian nationality, a long-standing demand of the Kurdish community in the country.

This allowed them to participate in municipal elections and the constitutional referendum. Some are already preparing to run for the upcoming parliamentary elections in May.

While the Kurdish street has participated in the daily protests since the beginning of the uprising, many on-the-ground activists from the community describe it as an “average” showing.

The strength varies from place to place and does not yet compare to the rage of the Kurdish uprising in Qamishli in 2004.

Arab activists who say they are “far from being nationalistic” admit that the “Kurdish earthquake” is yet to happen. They see this as unfortunate. According to them, the Kurds “are the most likely to form a force strong enough to topple the regime, at least in their willingness to offer many martyrs.”

The issues are clear to everyone, but both the regime and opposition still need to exert more effort to make the necessary “concessions” needed to win over the Kurdish street.

Activists who visit majority-Kurdish areas also stress that the situation there is different from what media reports suggest – be it the official Syrian TV or the anti-regime Arab satellite stations.

Kurdish areas are not as stable as in Sweida, where the Druze community is based, nor are they rebellious and militant, like in Homs or Idlib. They are somewhere in between.

Fridays are mostly for the opposition. Protests are held in numerous Kurdish cities and neighborhoods. The popular non-violent mobilization in the last year marked many important dates around Kurdish issues and initiatives, sometimes overshadowing national actions in the sheer number of participants.

The funeral of Kurdish Future Current leader Mashaal Tammo last October is a noteworthy example. Before that, there was the Azadi (freedom in Kurdish) Friday on 20 May 2011. On 9 March 2012, the Friday of the Kurdish Intifada was a tribute to the events of the Qamishli uprising in March 2004.

Activists are not satisfied with the level of Kurdish participation in the current uprising, although they have a realistic understanding of the reason behind the numbers. Young activists, some Kurdish, mention a number of reasons that are “no longer secret.”

Most of the 13 Kurdish political parties are split in their allegiance between Massoud Barzani and Abdullah Ocalan. Barazani is steering them toward full participation in the mobilization while Ocalan’s party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), headed by Saleh Muslim, is playing a “malicious role, even on the security level,” according to the activists.

In a long meeting with young Kurdish activists in the “coordinating committees of the revolution,” someone mentions that they made sure there will be no “purely Kurdish coordinating committee, therefore the regime cannot accuse us of secessionism.” The alternative was “to spread ourselves among various coordinating committees to keep this diversity.”

A Kurdish activist from the Rukn al-Din quarter in Damascus speaks about two recent phenomena in the Kurdish street. They are “the Kurdish pro-regime shabbiha (thugs) and the Free Efrin Military Brigade.”

The term “Kurdish shabbiha” was coined after the events of Efrin, Aleppo, in the Friday of “Forgive Us, Hama” on February 3, after young Kurdish men attacked predominantly Kurdish protesters. These thugs come mainly from the PYD, who some blame for the murder of Tammo.

“The second phenomenon,” according to the Kurdish activist, “is the Free Efrin Military Brigade.” It announced itself in a bilingual, Arabic-Kurdish, video that showed its members carrying the flags of pre-Baath Syria and Kurdistan. There are two conflicting stories about the brigade: some see it as a part of the FSA, while others maintain it split from the PKK.

Sources familiar with the activism taking place explain that the Kurdish community is attempting to take advantage of the uprising, in order to “blackmail” both the opposition and the regime. They are not willing to be participants in the fall of the regime, nor will they support it “for free.”

They want written guarantees from today’s opposition that it will fulfill the historical demand of a binational state, resolution of the issue of confiscated Kurdish lands, recognition of Kurdish as an official language, federalization, recognition of Newroz as a national holiday, returning the Syrian nationality to the thousands denied it by the infamous census of 1962, amnesty for PKK fighters, development of the poverty-stricken Kurdish areas, and agreeing immediately on the future relationship with Turkey.

The activists say this type of politicking “is not in its place, nor will it benefit the Kurds.” The equation is clear: if the Kurds are not seriously involved in the revolution, their political, economic, and social gains will be small, if any.

The regime knows Kurdish demands very well and has tried to seduce them on various occasions, without much success.

However, the new constitution kept the old balance. The country is still pan-Arab, and Arabic is still the official language, although it mentions that this should not be at the expense of other ethnicities, since all citizens are equal.

The regime’s decision to naturalize a large number of Kurds was not enough, according to activists. Kurds felt that the “offer” was to “buy” their loyalty, “so many refused the nationality.”

Opposition activists also admit that armed battles are yet to take place in areas with a large Kurdish population. There, authorities avoid confrontations with Kurds, and attempt to create a rift between them and Arabs by referring to occasions where current members of the opposition spoke of them with disdain or considered them inferior, socially and politically.

Syrian Kurds are still infuriated with SNC president Burhan Ghalioun’s comparing them with “immigrants in France.” This issue brings back memories of a more general atmosphere. An Arab activist who supports their national, humanitarian, and political causes explains: “Discrimination against Kurds is not limited to the regime. It has also been shared by some of the opposition in the past and continues today.”

Many Kurdish youth are reluctant to join the mobilizations because many segments of the opposition do not recognize their identity and accuse them of separatism, although those who support it openly are few.

Some activists also see that the community’s problem is not necessarily with the regime, but with the political and social atmosphere that works to exclude them, disrupt their livelihood, and attempt to Arabize them. This is also true of some prominent members of the Syrian opposition.

“There is no evidence or serious indicator that the opposition is willing to recognize Kurdish rights,” a Kurdish source says. “All what SNC members have promised is only on paper. The opposition insists on talking in a convoluted manner when it comes to the Kurdish issue, while asking Kurds to support its political program, which does not mention Kurdish national rights.”

“This could be the reason behind the weak relationship between the Kurdish opposition with other Syrian opposition groups in general,” he adds.

There is also debate about which of the main opposition coalition better represents the Kurds. The National Coordinating Committee (NCC) says that it includes Kurdish parties and local coordinating committees in its membership.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) claims that they have the support of the Kurdish youth, based on the 20 Kurdish representatives in the council’s secretariat. One of those was the assassinated Tammo. There is also Abdel Basset Sayyed, current member of the SNC executive committee.

Activists from Hasaka, a major Kurdish region, confirm that the desire for independence is on the rise there. In the last few days, “some protests called for secession and carried the Kurdish flag.”

They note that “security forces ignored this for the most part [while brutally crushing other demonstrations calling for the fall of the regime]. This allowed traditional parties to revert to their secessionist rhetoric.” In the meantime, “dozens of activists are working on containing these calls,” according to the Hasaka sources.

In conclusion, they say, “Kurdish presence in the revolution will be based on who can accommodate their cause and discard the old prejudices.”

Nationalization, Arabization, and Land Confiscation

In Rukn al-Din, the “Kurdish neighborhood” in Damascus, a lawyer and “expert” on the Kurdish issue opens his briefcase to reveal a study documenting the accumulation of legal transgressions against Kurds. It is in three parts.

The first is about the census of 5 October 1962. When the government surveyed the Hasaka province, they left out 120,000 Syrian Kurdish citizens who consequently lost their citizenship.

The second is the confiscation of 138,853 hectares of agricultural land in 1966 to make room for government farms. These were later distributed among Arab Bedouin families from Riqqa and Aleppo who settled along the Ayn Dawwar-Sari Kanye highway.

The third is the Arabization of the names of Kurdish cities and streets. It was based on an order by the governor of Hasaka in 1995, calling for the implementation of the decision of the ministry of local affairs to ban “foreign” names, for both public and private places.

Another decree enforced the Arabization of the names of 209 schools in the area.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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