Uncovering Syria (III): Counting on Kurds

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Syrian anti-government protesters holding a banner reading "National unity: Kurds and Arabs" during a demonstration in Banias in northeastern Syria on April 22, 2011. AFP PHOTO/STR

By: Basheer al-Baker

Published Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Syria’s Kurds have played a prominent role in the protest movement despite the boon of a Presidential decree granting citizenship to over 100,000 of them. They have clearly chosen the Syrian revolt over the regime, sweeping away initial questions about their separatist tendencies.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s attempt to gain Kurdish loyalty or sideline the community by responding to historic Kurdish demands for citizenship status has failed. The April 7 decree, which granted Kurds living in Syria national citizenship, has been notably absent from banners brandished by Kurdish protesters. One slogan reads, ‘The Kurdish Cause is one of Freedom not Nationality,’ revealing Kurdish protesters commitment to the overall aims of the protest movement. This has caught the mainstream protest movement by surprise.

In recent years, Kurdish activism has drifted away from the general demands of the Syrian public and taken on a different character represented by two oppositional forces: the first is represented by those who advocate for resolving the status of more than 300,000 Kurds who had been denied citizenship; the second is of Kurdish nationalists and separatists, who have been emboldened by the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state in Iraq and prefer a more radical solutoin.

The Baath Party, with its nationalist tendencies, characterized by slogans such as ‘Syria is the pulsing heart of Arabism,’ has subjected the Kurds to discrimination and marginalization. The cornerstone of the Baath’s exclusionary policy towards them has been the refusal to recognize them as part of the fabric of Syrian society, with its different religious and ethnic groups. This included stripping them of citizenship rights and seeking to erode their national identity by prohibiting the Kurdish language and cultural practices, such as Eid Norouz (a New Years celebration that takes place on the day of the vernal equinox, usually March 21).

Kurds constitute approximately 10 percent of the Syrian population. Some 2 million are scattered across several governorates, but they are primarily concentrated in the al-Hasakah’s Qamishli area and on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi and Syrian-Turkish borders. Kurds also live in the rural Afrin area in the Aleppo governorate, and in Damascus in the Rukn al-Din neighborhood, known as ‘al-Akrad’ [The Kurds].

Some Kurds who settled in large cities such as Aleppo and Damascus have become prominent public figures in business, politics, and culture; but the vast majority of them are descendants of the tribes of the Jazira region of Syria. Similar to many Arab tribes of the region, the Kurds of the Jazira make a living through herding, agricultural production, and small industries on the banks of al-Khabour River – which springs from Ras al-Ain on the Turkish-Iraqi border and empties in the Euphrates near Deir Ezzor in Syria. The Kurds have historically lived on the Eastern bank of the river, not crossing over to the Western side, and continue to move between the borders of the northern Syrian governate of al-Hasakah and Turkey and Iraq.

Before the Baath Party’s ascent to power, the Kurds featured prominently in the historic developments in Syria, co-existing with Arab tribes and partaking in the defence of their lands against the Turks or the French colonialists. Some were among the leaders of popular revolutions, such as Ibrahim Hananu who was part of the early 20th century Arab Revolt.

The 1962 Census

Kurdish marginalization began with the rise of the Baath party, but passed through several distinct stages. The first phase was the population census of 1962 in al-Hasakah, during the rule of Abdel Karim al-Nahlawi, an Arab leader who led the separatist coup against Egypt in 1961. When the Baath Party seized power in 1963, they adopted the findings of the 1962 census as a matter of fact, thereby creating a stateless group of Kurds – numbering 142,462 people at the time – who were considered foreigners on their own lands. This status prevented them from travelling outside the country, as they lacked papers and travel documents. Subsequently, some were granted identity documents but were barred by law from owning land or property, working in the public sector, studying medicine or engineering at university, or marrying Syrian citizens. These laws did not cover all of Syria’s Kurds, but only those who were classified by the Syrian government as lacking proof of Syrian nationality prior to 1945.

On 23 August 1962, a politically motivated housing survey was conducted in the context of the breakup of the United Arab Republic (A short-lived union between Egypt and Syria) and a militant Kurdish uprising in Northern Iraq led by the Kurdish nationalist leader al-Mulla Mustafa al-Barzani.

Syria’s Kurds were subsequently placed in three categories: those with citizenship who must prove that they were Syrian citizens before 1945; stateless Kurds registered as foreigners by the government; and stateless Maktoum Kurds who are not registered with the government. This third grouping included all Kurds born to a Maktoum mother or father, even if the other parent was a Syrian citizen. With Kurdish intermarriage, this measure greatly complicated the lives of many families, dividing them between citizens and Maktoums.

These practices did not mean total exclusion of all Kurds from public life. Kurds have also risen to positions of power during Baathist rule. They worked as ministers, members of parliament, party leaders of the ruling National Front, writers, artists, and businessmen. Notable personalities included President Hafez al-Assad’s Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Ayoubi and Khaled Bekdash, the founder of the Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party.

The Isolation Belt

During the second phase, in the 1970s, the Government adopted a policy known as the Isolation Belt, which consisted of resettling Arab tribes from the Euphrates in areas surrounding Kurdish villages to create a buffer zone between them and the Turkish border. This adversely affected the livelihoods of Kurds who relied on smuggling between Syria and Turkey and led to mass evictions of Kurds from their villages, to free space for the new arrivals, the freshly minted ‘Arab settlers.’

The Syrian Government denies these claims, maintaining that it relocated the Arab tribes that were living on the banks of the Euphrates where the Tabaqa Dam was built because the water of Assad Lake had flooded their lands. As compensation, they were granted state-owned properties in the border areas.

This issue has been a source of contention between the Kurds of the area and the new arrivals, and relations between the two groups remain tense. It is widely believed that the measures were politically motivated, stemming from the perceived threat of cross-border links between Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. The buffer zone was meant to ward off the contagion of separatism.

The ‘Dangers’ of Iraqi Kurdistan

The third phase was after the occupation of Iraq. During this period, a Kurdish autonomous state began to take shape in Northern Iraq – eventually forming the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. This spurred a sense of empowerment among Syria’s Kurds, while also provoking a sense of defeat among the Arab tribes, especially the larger tribes of al-Jabbour and Wati that were spread across the Syrian and Iraqi borders.

Syrian state security prevented confrontations between Arabs and Kurds during Kurdish celebrations of this event, but only for a time. A large-scale Kurdish uprising erupted on 12 March 2004 in Qamishli and spread to al-Hasakah city, greater Aleppo, and the suburbs of Damascus. The rebellion lasted for several days and foreshadowed grave dangers due to the inability of the state security apparatus and the military to control the situation, especially in Qamishli and al-Hasakah. The Kurdish rebellion was only eventually quelled with the intervention of the tribes of al-Hasakah.

It all began during a football march at the Qamishli National Stadium when a fight between the Kurdish supporters of the Qamishli home team and the Arab supporters of the visiting team from Deir Ezzor resulted in 13 deaths. The violence spread into neighboring areas, reaching Aleppo and Damascus. A wave of arrests were made and, according to Amnesty International, some 2000 Kurds were detained, including women and children as young as 12. Several Kurdish students were expelled from universities. Kurdish accounts maintain that the Deir Ezzor team supporters provoked the violence by raising photos of Saddam Hussein and chanting racist slogans at the Kurds.

Although the damage was contained, tensions continued to simmer beneath the surface and a small spark had the potential to unleash momentous rage. That is exactly what happened in 2008, when three young men aged 17 to 22 were killed by indiscriminate police gunfire meant to disperse a crowd gathered to celebrate Eid Norouz in Qamishli.

The Kurds and the Protest Movement

The Kurdish political movement is no different from its Arab counterpart. It has been systematically oppressed, infiltrated by state intelligence, and dismembered into disparate groups and political factions. In the late 1970s, Kurdish politics moved towards a nationalist discourse; and during the leadership of Syria’s Communist Party head Khaled Bekdash, Kurds constituted much of the rank and file membership, but they were increasingly driven out by frustration within the party about the issue of Kurdish nationalism. Many younger Kurds have also assimilated into mainstream political life without giving much weight to their Kurdish origins.

The great surprise has been that the Kurds, until now, have followed in the footsteps of the larger protest movement and have not focused narrowly on their own demands. Habib Ibrahim, leader of the Democratic Unity Kurdish Party, one of the most active Kurdish groupings, recently said of the Presidential decree granting 100,000 Kurds citizenship: “We have long striven for democracy in all of Syria. Citizenship is every Syrian’s right, not a privilege.” Similarly, Muhi al-Din Sheikh Ali, the leader of the Yekiti Party (aka the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party), has said: “There are national Kurdish demands that converge with the demands of the Syrian people and the protesters in most cities.”

Like other Syrian opposition parties, the Kurds are not protesting as political parties but as individuals. They told party members that protest is a legitimate right, expressed their support for popular protests across Syria, and maintain that the demands of the different elements of the Syrian people are one, including calls for freedom, political pluralism, repealing the emergency laws, and moving towards democracy.

This article is a translation from the Arabic Edition.


Nice job, a precise and concise of the Kurds in Syria

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