Date:Thu, 19 Aug 2010 15:05:19 +0300
Reply-To:dayancenter <[log in to unmask]>
Sender:Tel Aviv University Notes <[log in to unmask]>
From:dayancenter <[log in to unmask]>
TEL AVIV NOTES - "Facing the Ba`th: The Syrian Kurdish Awakening"
Editor: Bruce Maddy-Weitzman August 19, 2010
Facing the Ba`th: The Syrian Kurdish Awakening
Vladimir Troyansky & Ofra Bengio
By now, even people with only a cursory knowledge
of the Middle East are aware of its Kurdish
dimension, thanks to the major challenges posed
to the political and socio-cultural order by the
Kurdish communities in Iraq and Turkey, and the
problematic status of Kurds in Iran. Far less
known is the situation, and even the very
existence of the Kurdish community of
Syria. Syria's Kurds, although constituting
between 8 and 15 percent of the population of 22
million, were long ignored by the international
community and thus remained a “silent minority”
within a state whose governing ideology had
always been Arab nationalism. About 300,000
of the Kurds who reside in Syria do not even
have Syrian citizenship, and are thus effectively
deprived of many civil rights. However, their
anonymity appears to be over, as recent domestic
and regional developments have focused the
spotlight on this long-deprived community.
Kurds as the "Internal Enemy"
Concentrated in the northern provinces of Aleppo,
Al-Raqqah and Al-Hasakah, as well as Damascus,
Syria's Kurds were not always a marginalized
community. Under the French Mandate (1920-46),
they enjoyed more rights than their kinsmen in
Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and the pan-Kurdish
movement was directed from Damascus. Thousands of
Kurdish refugees from Turkey settled in Syria's
Jazirah region, between the Tigris and the
Euphrates, and were granted Syrian citizenship by the French.
The arrival of independence fundamentally changed
the equation. As non-Arabs, the Kurds suffered
from harsh policies adopted by successive Arab
nationalist governments. In 1962, acting in the
shadow of a Kurdish revolt in Iraq, the Syrian
government implemented a special census in the
Al-Hasakah province for the purpose of weeding
out “illegal infiltrators” who had settled in
Syria after 1945. As a result, 120,000-150,000
Kurds were stripped of Syrian citizenship. In
1963, Muhammad Talab Hilal, a senior official in
the ruling Ba`th Party, produced a secret
document designating the Kurds as Syria's
“internal enemy” and tendering a 12-point plan to
Arabize the Kurdish region. Its objectives
included extraditing and transferring Kurds to
other regions, depriving them of education and
work. As part of the plan, the Arab Belt
initiative (1963-76) was undertaken in the 10-15
km.- wide area bordering Turkey and
Iraq. Between 60,000-120,000 Kurds were
internally displaced and were replaced by
thousands of Sunni Arab families, with the
official aim being "saving the Arabism of the
Jazirah". The Arab Belt, which disrupted
transnational links with the Kurds of Iraq and
Turkey, later became a model for Ankara and
Baghdad in dealing with their own restive Kurdish populations.
From that time forward, Syrian Kurds remained
prisoners of Ba`th policies and did not benefit
from pan-Kurdish ties. In fact, it was the
Syrian government which cultivated ties with
Kurdish groups beyond its borders. In the 1970s
and 1980s, Syria supported the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party
(KDP) of Iraq, and PUK leader Jalal Talabani
maintained an office in Damascus. Until 1998,
Syria also sponsored the Kurdistan Workers' Party
(PKK) of Turkey, and Hafiz al-Asad's regime
managed to channel the political activism of his
own Kurds into fighting alongside the KDP and PKK against Baghdad and Ankara.
Unlike their brethren, the Kurds of Syria had no
outside supporters. The Great Powers were not
interested in helping Syrian Kurds, and even
Syria's regional enemies did not employ the
Kurdish card against Damascus, probably because
the Syrian Kurds were considered too weak to be
of much use. Soon after its inception in 1957,
the Syrian Kurdish political movement splintered
and has remained divided ever since (with 12
illegal political parties in Syria).
It was only in 1984 that one witnessed the first
signs of a Syrian Kurdish awakening, inspired by
the PKK's guerrilla war in Turkey. However,
Damascus managed to keep discontent in check for two more decades.
Getting On the Map: the Qamishli Uprising
On March 12, 2004, intra-ethnic violence broke
out during a football match between Syrian Arab
and Kurdish clubs in the city of Al-Qamishli, in
Syria's northeast, near the Turkish border. It
remains unclear what sparked the violence.
Various sources reported the Kurds praising
Talabani, Barzani and George Bush Jr., and the
Arabs hailing Saddam Hussein. Kurdish unrest
soon spread to Al-Hasakah, Amuda, Afrin, Aleppo
and Damascus, and Syrian tanks were introduced in
the Jazirah. In 2005, further protests ensued at
the funeral of the Kurdish shaykh Muhammad
(Mahmud) Ma`shuq Khaznawi, who was allegedly assassinated in Damascus.
A number of domestic and regional developments
fuelled Kurdish unrest. Firstly, the change of
Syrian leadership in 2000 had raised certain
hopes. In 2002, Bashar al-Asad became the first
Syrian president in 40 years to visit Al-Hasakah,
a city with a large Kurdish population.
Concurrently, in the spirit of the short-lived
“Damascus Spring”, censorship of Kurdish cultural
and political activities was relaxed, and Kurdish
music and Kurmanji language classes, although
technically illegal, proliferated.
Secondly, beginning in 2004, the Kurdish
diaspora, which normally focused its supportive
efforts on the Kurdish communities in Iraq and
Turkey, undertook substantial efforts to
publicize the Syrian Kurdish cause. That year,
demonstrations in support of Syrian Kurds were
held in the city of Diyarbakir (in Turkey's
heavily Kurdish southeast region), the
predominantly Iraqi Kurdish cities of Irbil and
Sulaymaniyya, and several European capitals.
Thirdly, political developments in other parts of
greater Kurdistan affected Syrian Kurds. Since
2003, the KDP and PUK had solidified the largely
autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government's hold
over the Iraqi Kurdish regions, and welcomed and
provided support to Syrian Kurdish
activities. The situation in Turkish Kurdistan,
an old ancestral land for many Syrian Kurds, has
further implications in Syria. In 1998, Turkey
threatened Damascus with war unless it ceased
support for the PKK. This brought relief to
Syrian Kurds, whose self-expression had been
curtailed by the Damascus-PKK alliance, and the
first demands for political autonomy in Syria
were not long in coming. More recently, the
renewal of PKK violence and Turkish government
reprisals in both Turkey and northern Iraq has
enhanced sympathies for the PKK among Syrian
Kurds, with some of them even joining its ranks.
Finally, Syria was on the defensive vis-a-vis the
US and the international community over its
support for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and its
alliance with Hizbullah and Iran. Consequently,
Damascus believed that it could not afford a
serious crackdown on the Kurds at that
time. Meanwhile, key Kurdish parties joined
other Syrian opposition groups in signing the
2005 Damascus Declaration demanding political
reforms. That same year, in order to decrease
international pressure, a presidential pardon was
issued to the 2004 rioters and high-ranking
officials, including President Bashar al-Asad,
made hopeful statements about solving the nationality issue.
Whither the Kurds of Syria?
The younger generation of Syrian Kurds, in
particular, feels frustrated that no progress was
achieved on the Kurdish nationality question over
the course of almost five decades. Descendants of
those deprived of citizenship in 1962 remain
stateless. Human rights groups and Kurdish
organisations report that there are two types of
stateless Kurds: about 200,000 classified as
ajanib (foreigners), who hold special (red)
identity cards, and an additional 80,000– 100,000
maktumin (unregistered), who possess no
government documents and thus no legal identity
whatsoever. Stateless Kurds cannot obtain a
government job or practice medicine and law,
access public health services, open a bank
account, obtain property or register a business,
enroll in higher education without a security
clearance (unavailable to the maktumin) or travel outside of Syria.
With the international pressure on Damascus
having recently been reduced, the Syrian
government has adopted a harsher stance towards
Kurdish socio-political activism. During annual
celebrations of Nowruz (New Year), a holiday
which symbolizes Kurdish national identity,
Syrian security opened fire at Kurds in
Al-Qamishli (2008) and Al-Raqqah (2010). The
Syrian Kurdish political leadership is
systematically harassed. Thus, in the last three
years, senior members of a number of
organizations - the Yekiti and Azadi parties, the
Kurdish Democratic Party and the Kurdish Future
Movement - were detained, as were others.
Earlier hopes of a Syrian glasnost, epitomized by
the 2005 promises for citizenship restoration, failed to materialize.
The 2004 uprising brought the Kurds of Syria out
of their anonymity and granted them a degree of
international visibility. Since then, they have
been struggling to maintain their momentum and
force Damascus to alter its repressive policies
towards them but with little substantive
results. Nevertheless, as they have in the past,
Kurdish trans-border mechanisms and influences
might again become operative at some point, i.e.
the flourishing Kurdish entity in Iraq and the
ongoing government-PKK conflict in Turkey may
well have spillover effects on the Syrian Kurds.
 Muhammad Talab Hilal, "A Study of Al-Jazeera
Province from Ethnic, Social and Political
Aspects" (Al-Hasakah, 1963), in Jawad Mella, The
Colonial Policy of the Syrian Baath Party in
Western Kurdistan (London, 2006), pp. 63-227.
 European Center for Kurdish Studies, "The
Al-Qamishli Uprising: The Beginning of a New Era
for Syrian Kurds?", KurdWatch Report No.4 (December 2009).
 Refugees International, "Buried Alive:
Stateless Kurds in Syria" (January 2006).
 Human Rights Watch, "Group Denial; Repression
of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria" (2009).
Vladimir Troyansky, a graduate of University of
St. Andrews, is the Amira Margalith Summer Research Intern at the Dayan Center.
Prof. Ofra Bengio is a Dayan Center Senior Fellow.
TEL AVIV NOTES is published with the support of the V. Sorell Foundation
Previous editions of TEL AVIV NOTES can be
accessed at www.dayan.org, under "Commentary".
You are subscribed to the Moshe Dayan Center
Electronic Mailing List. Should you wish to
unsubscribe, please send an email to
[log in to unmask], with the message: unsubscribe dayan-center