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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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