The Forgotten Kurds of Syria

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While some may be familiar with the Kurds and their suffering in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, little has been written about the Kurds of Syria.  Like their more “famous brothers” in Iraq, Syrian Kurds have been systematically repressed for as long as the Alawi-led regime has been ensconced in Damascus, and even earlier.  To Washington, D.C. in general, and the Obama administration in particular, the plight of the Kurds has never been a priority issue. More must be said on their behalf.

Trouble for the Syrian Kurds began with the September 1961 breakup of the United Arab Republic, a union led by Egypt’s dictator Abdul Nasser that had united Egypt and Syria. In its interim constitution, Syria declared itself an Arab Republic and in reinforcing its ethnocentric Arab identity, denied cultural and legal rights to all non-Arab groups – including the non-Arab Kurds.  Kurds were required to change their Kurdish names to Arabic names and no private Kurdish schools were allowed. All printed materials, including Kurdish books and newspapers, had to be in Arabic rather than in their native Kurmanji (the predominant language among Kurds in Syria and Turkey).

In the span of 20 years, from 1949-1969, Syria experienced 20 coup plots, nine of which succeeded, and 11 that brought their architects to the gallows or subjected to a life in exile or in prison. In 1961, the presidency of Syria changed three times.  It was held first by Maamun al-Kuzbari, who was replaced by Izzat an-Nuss, and then by Nazim al-Kudsi, who took over until the Baathist plot overthrew him in 1963. In 1970, Hafez Al Assad took over in a bloodless coup and his son Bashar Al Assad has ruled since his death in 2000.

On August 23, 1962, the government of Al-Kudsi ordered a special population census for the province of Jazira, a predominantly Kurdish province, which resulted in 120,000 Kurds being categorized as aliens.  Their identity cards were taken away, thus depriving them of their basic rights. This included ownership of property, government employment, state aid, travel abroad, the ability to register for school, or even the ability to go to a hospital.  The Syrian government openly engaged in a campaign of incitement against the Kurds with slogans such as Save Arabism in Jazira! Fight the Kurdish threat! Accusations of their being “Zionist agents” were also leveled at the Kurds.  The discovery of oil in the Kurdish areas of Syria motivated the Syrians to increase their intimidation of the Kurds, prompting many to flee.  With the area now ethnically cleansed, the Syrians gave the land over to Arab settlers.

At that same time, the Iraqi dictator Abdul Karim Qasim was waging a war against the Kurdish Peshmergas. The Kurds were led by Mustafa Barzani, who was seeking Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq.  The Baathist government, in 1965, decided to create an Arab cordon in the Kurdish areas and clear the border area (the Jazira region) with Turkey.  The implementation of the Arab cordon only began in 1973 under the rule of Syrian dictator Hafez Assad. The Syrian regime then brought Arab-Bedouins in and resettled them in Kurdish areas.  Simultaneously, they deported about 140,000 Kurds from their lands to the Southern desert of Al-Raad.

Saddam Hussein’s defeat in 2003 by U.S. and coalition forces, and the creation of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq, infused Syrian Kurds with new energy. They demanded autonomy for their distinct people and culture.  In March 2004, following an incident at a football game in the Kurdish city of Qamishli and the subsequent protests that broke out throughout the Kurdish areas of Northern Syria, “harassment of Syrian Kurds increased further as a result of the demonstrations.”  Syrian authorities proceeded to react with lethal force, killing at least 36 people, injuring over 160, and detaining more than 2,000, amidst widespread reports of torture and ill- treatment of detainees. Most detainees were eventually released, including 312 who were freed under an amnesty announced by President Bashar Assad on March 30, 2005.

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  • Chezwick_Mac

    It's a tragedy that in the drawing of post-colonial boundaries, the Kurds were not given provision for their own state.

    In northern Iraq, the Kurdish quasi-state is the most democratic and progressive in the region, particularly as Turkey slides back into Islamism. Women in Iraqi Kurdistan are often employed as militia and in other traditionally male-dominated professions. But alas, all is relative. Iraqi Kurds may be more civilized than their Arab countrymen, but even in northern Iraq, the ugly vestiges of Islam persist, including honor killings and female genital mutilation.

    As for the Kurds of Syria, they are not even a blip on the radar of the global grievance industry. If only they had the Palestinians' PR machine.

  • tanstaafl

    We can hope that the Kurds will not suffer the same fate as the Armenians.

  • Mike in VA

    I have a Turkish friend in Ankara whose family had to flee Kirkuk for their lives when the Kurds began massacring Iraqi Turkmen in July 1959. Not a pretty story.

  • Atilla the Hun

    During 21th century the artificial map of the middle east definably will change. Neither Turkey nor Syria will be able to suppress over 30 million people for long. Eventually the Northern Iraq will achieve independence and all USA efforts to keep Iraq in tact will go up in smoke. Once Iraq is broken up Then all hell will broke loose. And the winners will be Israel and the Kurds.

    • Mike in VA

      Rest assured the Arabs and Turks will do everything in their power to keep the Iraqi Kurds from achieving independence.

      It is hard to imagine a stable Middle East without resolving the national aspirations of the Kurdish people. This problem isn't going to magically go away with time.

  • USMCSniper

    Most Muslim jihadists are motivated by the core principles of Islam with the goal of converting, killing, or subjugating all non-Muslims. Unfortunately, too many non-Muslims have reverted to a pre-9/11 mentality and do not see the necessity of an offensive war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or of a defensive war at home. Non-Muslims are going to have to decide to fight for their cultures, freedoms, and values or they are going to lose them. Islam the Enemy

  • USMCSniper

    Most Muslim jihadists are motivated by the core principles of Islam with the goal of converting, killing, or subjugating all non-Muslims. Unfortunately, too many non-Muslims have reverted to a pre-9/11 mentality and do not see the necessity of an offensive war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or of a defensive war at home. Non-Muslims are going to have to decide to fight for their cultures, freedoms, and values or they are going to lose them. Islam is the Enemy.

  • guest

    They did indeed. But could you not include the entire Kurdish population. Only Hamidiye Cavalry participated in the Genocide, and that cannot incriminate all the Kurds. Plus, they were following orders. It was not like the Kurds had a systematic plan to annihilate Armenians.

  • ciccio

    The West can never defeat militant Islam, at the least sign of attack they all join ranks whatever their individual differences. Only Islam can do that and the Kurds are the wedge that could split that solidarity apart. For 100's of years the Kurds were considered heathen by most Muslim, they have been persecuted in their own lands which are no longer theirs, it has been swallowed up by Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Since the fall of the Ottoman empire the Kurds have become more Muslim only because of their desperate attempts to fit in, they don't, nobody wants them to fit so let the West give them all the covert and overt help they can. The veneer of Islam is very thin, help them rip it off, the countries in the region will be far to busy to bother about the West if they have an infidel in their midst

  • sam000

    The kurds in IRAK and Syria are living in tribals, the khan at the head decides for at least 2000 heads;
    the individual kurds are the very poor and brave and honnest people, they are forced to live in tribals because alone they don't have any protection for their famillies.

  • dario

    if you were right! armenians wouldnot have asked Turkey for appology!

  • dario

    sooner or later Kurdistan will become an independant state..let the enemies of Kurds, die in agony. like Iraq, one day syria will have trouble with israel, and will see how Kurds will teach syrians a lesson by siding with israel.

  • dario

    As a Kurd I can say that most Kurds do not practice islam and want to get rid of the backwarded culture that arab brought to us through islam.

  • dario

    Mike in VA those Kurds who killed the turkmen were not revolutionary Kurds fighting for kurdistan but were mecinaries of sadam and killed both Kurds and turkmen. so donot blame Kurds fot their action.

  • Kawa

    I have realised in this article that Kurdistan name has NOT mention.
    instead saying Western Kurdistan, u r saying syria. same with other 3 parts.

    I feel kurdish people from Kurdistan is described as kurdish people living in Africa.
    Moreover, we should know that Kurds are living on their on mother land, is not syrian land. The history of syria is less than 70 years whereas kurdistan History go back to Noh period.

  • Modernity

    The kurds in Syria are moderates and secular. They have suffered under the Arab-islam ideology. furthermore the Kurds in Syria are sympathized with Israel which makes the regime even more agressive towards the Kurds.

  • Koger

    We do not expact from arab and turks which never have known some thing named freedom respect our rights but we kn0w they must changed with the new map of nations . The freedom which came from usa .israel and europe .and people which suffer dream by it like kurdish and armin will change arab and turks .


    \It i\s about time for the West, Russia, China, and Israel to stop supporting or looking the other waysss