Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are around 2.5 million Kurds in Syria. They speak Kurdish (the Kirimanji dialect), but most speak Arabic, too, and many Kurds have at least partially assimilated into Arab society. Most are Sunni Muslims. About a third of them live in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains north of Aleppo, and an equal number along the Turkish border in the Jazirah. A further 10 per cent can be found in the vicinity of Jarabulus north-east of Aleppo, and from 10-15 per cent in the Hayy al-Akrad (Quarter of the Kurds) on the outskirts of Damascus.
The Kurdish community of Kurd Dagh and some in Jarablus has been in existence for centuries, and is more assimilated into Arab culture. The larger community of Kurds in Jazira was largely composed of those who fled the Turkish Republic during the repression there in the 1920s. It is among these Kurds that national awareness and tension with the Arab majority has been most acute.
The French policy of encouraging minority separatism fostered intercommunal tensions, for example with the Assyrian and Armenian communities in the Khabur valley. Kurds were recruited into Les Troupes Speciales and encouraged to found Khoybun, a Kurdish nationalist party of the 1920s and 1930s, which made Arab nationalists uneasy.
The first three coups following Syrian independence were carried out by officers of part-Kurdish background, each relying on officers of similar background. Following the overthrow of the last of them, Kurds were purged from senior army ranks. During the heyday of Arab nationalism from 1958 to 1976, Kurds came under increasing repression, partly because of their close identity with the Syrian Communist Party. Many Kurds were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. In 1961 a census in Jazira discounted 120,000 Kurds as foreigners. In the following year the government announced a major population transfer, intended to settle Arabs all along the Turkish border. Although never fully implemented, 60,000 Kurds left the area for Damascus. Repression lessened, but continued under Hafez al-Assad. In March 1986 police fired on thousands of Kurds in traditional dress gathered in Damascus to celebrate a spring festival, killing one.
Syria supported the Kurdish movement in Turkey and Iraq at the time, and in 1990 politically active and nationalist Kurds were elected to the Syrian Parliament. Yet domestic repression of Kurds continued. Government pressure on Kurdish land rights, exacerbated by drought in the second half of the 1990s, accelerated Kurdish urbanization. In 2003, after US-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Iraqi Kurds rapidly consolidated their power in northern Iraq, Syrian relations with Turkey improved markedly – borne of a common fear of a Kurdish state that could make territorial claims on the two countries.
The situation for Syrian Kurds took a decided turn for the worse in 2004. Clashes between Arab and Kurdish fans after a football match in March led to Syrian security forces in Qamishli opening fire on crowds for two days running. Kurdish anti-government riots spread to other cities, and security forces killed 38 people, injured hundreds and detained over 1,000 more. In April 2004, a 26-year-old Kurd was reportedly tortured to death in prison in Afreen. Although the government released most of the Kurds detained in March over the following months, in June it banned political activities by Kurdish parties.
In May 2005, Sheikh Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi, a cleric who had been outspoken regarding discrimination against Kurds, disappeared. Authorities told his family the following month that his body had been found. He had been tortured. Following his funeral, some 10,000 Kurds took to the streets in Qamishli but were beaten, and Kurdish shops were raided. In November 2006, the son of Sheikh al-Khaznawi, who had been demanding an investigation into his father’s death, was arrested.
On several occasions, Syrian security forces opened fire on crowds of Kurds celebrating Kurdish New Year (Newroz) in Qamishli, killing 3 people in March 2008 and one person in March 2010.
In October 2008, the Syrian government issued Decree 49, which aimed to evict the inhabitants of border areas in Syria from their lands. This particularly affected the Kurdish minority who, under Syrian law, were forbidden to buy and sell property or bequeath it to their heirs. At the same time, the impact of drought on Kurdish farming forced many Kurds to leave their villages and cities, heading for Damascus in search of jobs.
Police violently prevented an October 2006 rally in Damascus in support of the approximately 300,000 Kurds who were stateless as a result of the 1960s government scheme. Instability in Iraq indirectly led to more violence between Syrian Kurds and state authorities in 2007. As Turkish anger over cross-border Kurdish rebel incursions from northern Iraq increased over the course of the year and Turkey massed troops at the frontier, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Turkey to express his support. With the crisis mounting, in early November around 200 Syrian Kurds took to the streets in the north-eastern town of Qamishli, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, to express their support for Iraqi Kurds. Government security forces broke up the rally with bullets and teargas, killing one young Kurd and injuring four others. Thousands of Kurds attended the funeral of the Kurdish youth the following day.
In April 2011, shortly after the start of the uprising, the Assad government sought to placate minorities in Syria by issuing Decree No. 49 granting citizenship to Kurds in Al-Hassakeh governorate who were previously registered as foreigners. However, as the citizenship process included an interview with the state security apparatus and possible military conscription, many Kurds declined to go through with it. Moreover, the decree did not apply to the approximately 150,000 maktumeen [‘concealed’] Kurds, who remained stateless.
Kurdish areas initially did not witness many protests for two reasons. Firstly, at the beginning of the 2011, the Assad government was quick to reach a rapprochement with the Democratic Union Party, the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), allowing them to set up cultural centres and schools in Kurdish regions. Secondly, Kurdish parties were wary of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), since its leader, Bourhan Ghalyoun, had stressed the ‘Arab’ nature of Syria. Kurds also distrusted the SNC’s relations with Turkey, fearing they would quash their demands for full civil and political rights.
But some Kurds did participate in the uprising. Beginning in March 2011, Kurdish activists were arrested due to their participation in the opposition local coordination committees. Leading Kurdish activist Mashaal Tammu was killed on 7 October, when armed men forced him out of a house during a meeting with activists and shot him dead. His funeral, which turned into the biggest demonstration in the Kurdish areas since the uprising began, was attended by 50,000 people. State security forces fired on protesters, killing six and wounding several others.
The lack of government presence in the Kurdish areas during the early stages of the civil war gave them more freedoms and they started teaching the Kurdish language, which was forbidden before the March 2011 uprising. In July 2013, Kurdish forces launched a campaign to gain control over towns and villages controlled by al-Qaeda affiliated militias in Kurdish-inhabited enclaves in the north. Following military victories, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party announced steps towards self-rule of the Kurdish dominated regions in November. Their security forces presented themselves as a pan-ethnic organization defending all the communities in the region, including local Christian communities such as the Syriacs. In January 2014, Syrian Kurds established an Interim Transitional Administration in the cantons of Jazira, Kobane and Afrin.
The newfound autonomy of Syria’s Kurds provoked the hostility of the Turkish state and opened their areas to cross-border raids. At the same time, Kurds were brought into violent confrontation with ISIS. When ISIS entered the village of Tel Akhader in March 2014, the group issued an ultimatum to the Kurdish residents to leave or be killed. In May of the same year, the group kidnapped nearly 200 Kurdish civilians from the village of Qabasin. The same month, they kidnapped 153 Kurdish schoolboys, held them captive in Minbij for five months, and showed them violent videos while imbibing them with the group’s ideology. Beginning in September 2014, ISIS besieged the Kurdish city of Kobane, cutting off food supplies, water and electricity from the city and causing over 200,000 people to flee.
The autonomous administration, known as Rojava in Kurdish, has introduced positive practices of respect for the rights of linguistic and religious minorities and uses three official languages (Kurdish, Arabic and Aramaic). In March 2016, Kurdish leaders declared Rojava to be a federal region. In December of the same year, a constitutional blueprint was approved for the region, which was renamed the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. Neither the Syrian government nor the opposition Syrian National Coalition recognize the legitimacy of the northern federal region.
Updated March 2018
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