The Forgotten Kurds of Syria

Will the ethnic group ever overcome oppression in Syria?

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.

The discriminatory law "Decree 49," which was implemented in 2008 by the Assad regime, requires the obtainment of a license for numerous things (building, renting, selling, and buying property) in the Kurdish areas, but the licenses are not given to Kurds. This policy is forcing Kurds to move out of their area into the cities.  The Syrian regime in Damascus has provided strips of land to Arabs while pushing Kurds out of their indigenous areas.  The Syrian government policy seeks to “break up Kurdish geographical and cultural cohesion.”

Ever since the 1963 Baathist takeover (The Baath Party was founded by Michel Aflaq as a secular nationalist and socialist party which relies on such catchphrases as "Arab unity," "freedom from colonialism," and "secularism"), a state-of-emergency has existed in Syria. While the ostensible reason for the state-of-emergency was to counter alleged threats from Israel, it has been used to make arbitrary arrests, imprison political activists indefinitely without trial, ban political parties, and divert all resources to the military while controlling economic activities.

A U.S. Institute for Peace report summarized the situation of the Kurds in Syria as follows:

Kurds in Syria have been denied basic social, cultural, and political rights, in many cases stemming from the Syrian state’s refusal to grant Kurds citizenship.  Kurdish political opposition in Syria is fractured. Though some join Kurds in other countries in calling for the emergence of a separate Kurdish state, many Kurds reject separatism and have generally been committed to peaceful democratic struggle.  Democratic reforms in Syria that improve the human rights situation for Kurds and non-Kurds could go a long way to alleviate the tension between the Kurds and the Syrian State.  The problems that Syrian Kurds face cannot be truly solved without an effort both to improve the human rights of Kurds throughout the region, and to foster their political inclusion in their state of residency.  The U.S. and the European Union should use any diplomatic tools at their disposal to promote appropriate reforms in Syria and in the region.

In a conversation with this writer, Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National Assembly-Syria (Kurdnas), emphasized the following: “Kurdnas is committed to democracy, human rights, and religious freedom in Syria, and the granting to Kurds their equal rights as citizens.  We seek cultural and political autonomy in Syria, but we would prefer a federal state in Syria where Kurds and other religious and ethnic minorities would be able to govern themselves.”

Given the Obama administration’s obsession with the creation of a Palestinian State, it seems rather hypocritical that over 2 million Kurds in Syria and 40 million Kurds in the wider region have been forgotten by Washington.  And since the Arabs already have 22 repressive states, don’t the Kurds deserve at least one democratic state or an autonomous region within Syria?  At the very least, their case for self determination should carry as much weight as that of the Palestinians in Ramallah or Gaza.


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