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Kurds And The Syrian Revolution.

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Stuck in the Middle: The Struggle for Syria’s Kurds


By: Ernest Khoury, Tarek Abd al-Hayy, Tamam Abdallah

Published Friday, March 23, 2012

After decades of complete marginalization, Syrian Kurds today are being lured by a shy acknowledgement of inferior rights from both the Syrian government and opposition groups.

“We wish we were Kurds,” a group of four Arab Syrian activists say sarcastically as they watch the annual Kurdish demonstrations held during the national holiday of Newroz.

During Newroz, which marks the Kurdish new year, celebrations take place in Derbasia and Amouda in Hasaka province, and throughout the country, including in Aleppo and Damascus.

Many Newroz celebrations this year became anti-regime protests. They were permitted by security forces, or at least not subjected to excessive violence.

Pro-regime festivities were covered by official media channels. They were held in streets and closed halls by groups such as the Patriotic Initiative for Kurds in Syria.

Kurdish youth opposition groups – which include the Union of Young Kurdish Coordinating Committees in Syria, Sawa Youth Coalition (part of the Local Coordinating Committees), Avahi Coalition for the Syrian Revolution, Coordinating Committee for Brotherhood, Aleppo, Efrin Youth Coordination, and the Alind Kobani Coordination decided to cancel celebrations and transform them into protests calling for the fall of the regime.

They also planned a general strike and a candlelight vigil “to mourn the martyrs” killed since 15 March 2011. This year, the motto of the Kurdish national holiday, celebrated for thousands of years, was the “Newroz of Syria’s Freedom.”

While celebrations turned to demonstrations, a Kurdish opposition activist remarked, “We will not celebrate the Newroz as we usually do. Martyrs have fallen in the last year. The country is mourning and we cannot sing and dance.”

She explained how preparations took place in basements of buildings to avoid security. “Syrian TV decided to broadcast last year’s celebrations…This year, we want to stop official media from exploiting them.”

For the second year in a row, these gatherings were not held in secret. Hiding one’s Kurdish identity is now a thing of the past. Kurdish protests against the regime are now a natural occurrence. The Kurdish language can even be heard in the streets of Damascus.

On the other hand, since 15 March 2011, the regime started to flirt with the Kurdish community, offering them a decree that grants many Syrian nationality, a long-standing demand of the Kurdish community in the country.

This allowed them to participate in municipal elections and the constitutional referendum. Some are already preparing to run for the upcoming parliamentary elections in May.

While the Kurdish street has participated in the daily protests since the beginning of the uprising, many on-the-ground activists from the community describe it as an “average” showing.

The strength varies from place to place and does not yet compare to the rage of the Kurdish uprising in Qamishli in 2004.

Arab activists who say they are “far from being nationalistic” admit that the “Kurdish earthquake” is yet to happen. They see this as unfortunate. According to them, the Kurds “are the most likely to form a force strong enough to topple the regime, at least in their willingness to offer many martyrs.”

The issues are clear to everyone, but both the regime and opposition still need to exert more effort to make the necessary “concessions” needed to win over the Kurdish street.

Activists who visit majority-Kurdish areas also stress that the situation there is different from what media reports suggest – be it the official Syrian TV or the anti-regime Arab satellite stations.

Kurdish areas are not as stable as in Sweida, where the Druze community is based, nor are they rebellious and militant, like in Homs or Idlib. They are somewhere in between.

Fridays are mostly for the opposition. Protests are held in numerous Kurdish cities and neighborhoods. The popular non-violent mobilization in the last year marked many important dates around Kurdish issues and initiatives, sometimes overshadowing national actions in the sheer number of participants.

The funeral of Kurdish Future Current leader Mashaal Tammo last October is a noteworthy example. Before that, there was the Azadi (freedom in Kurdish) Friday on 20 May 2011. On 9 March 2012, the Friday of the Kurdish Intifada was a tribute to the events of the Qamishli uprising in March 2004.

Activists are not satisfied with the level of Kurdish participation in the current uprising, although they have a realistic understanding of the reason behind the numbers. Young activists, some Kurdish, mention a number of reasons that are “no longer secret.”

Most of the 13 Kurdish political parties are split in their allegiance between Massoud Barzani and Abdullah Ocalan. Barazani is steering them toward full participation in the mobilization while Ocalan’s party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), headed by Saleh Muslim, is playing a “malicious role, even on the security level,” according to the activists.

In a long meeting with young Kurdish activists in the “coordinating committees of the revolution,” someone mentions that they made sure there will be no “purely Kurdish coordinating committee, therefore the regime cannot accuse us of secessionism.” The alternative was “to spread ourselves among various coordinating committees to keep this diversity.”

A Kurdish activist from the Rukn al-Din quarter in Damascus speaks about two recent phenomena in the Kurdish street. They are “the Kurdish pro-regime shabbiha (thugs) and the Free Efrin Military Brigade.”

The term “Kurdish shabbiha” was coined after the events of Efrin, Aleppo, in the Friday of “Forgive Us, Hama” on February 3, after young Kurdish men attacked predominantly Kurdish protesters. These thugs come mainly from the PYD, who some blame for the murder of Tammo.

“The second phenomenon,” according to the Kurdish activist, “is the Free Efrin Military Brigade.” It announced itself in a bilingual, Arabic-Kurdish, video that showed its members carrying the flags of pre-Baath Syria and Kurdistan. There are two conflicting stories about the brigade: some see it as a part of the FSA, while others maintain it split from the PKK.

Sources familiar with the activism taking place explain that the Kurdish community is attempting to take advantage of the uprising, in order to “blackmail” both the opposition and the regime. They are not willing to be participants in the fall of the regime, nor will they support it “for free.”

They want written guarantees from today’s opposition that it will fulfill the historical demand of a binational state, resolution of the issue of confiscated Kurdish lands, recognition of Kurdish as an official language, federalization, recognition of Newroz as a national holiday, returning the Syrian nationality to the thousands denied it by the infamous census of 1962, amnesty for PKK fighters, development of the poverty-stricken Kurdish areas, and agreeing immediately on the future relationship with Turkey.

The activists say this type of politicking “is not in its place, nor will it benefit the Kurds.” The equation is clear: if the Kurds are not seriously involved in the revolution, their political, economic, and social gains will be small, if any.

The regime knows Kurdish demands very well and has tried to seduce them on various occasions, without much success.

However, the new constitution kept the old balance. The country is still pan-Arab, and Arabic is still the official language, although it mentions that this should not be at the expense of other ethnicities, since all citizens are equal.

The regime’s decision to naturalize a large number of Kurds was not enough, according to activists. Kurds felt that the “offer” was to “buy” their loyalty, “so many refused the nationality.”

Opposition activists also admit that armed battles are yet to take place in areas with a large Kurdish population. There, authorities avoid confrontations with Kurds, and attempt to create a rift between them and Arabs by referring to occasions where current members of the opposition spoke of them with disdain or considered them inferior, socially and politically.

Syrian Kurds are still infuriated with SNC president Burhan Ghalioun’s comparing them with “immigrants in France.” This issue brings back memories of a more general atmosphere. An Arab activist who supports their national, humanitarian, and political causes explains: “Discrimination against Kurds is not limited to the regime. It has also been shared by some of the opposition in the past and continues today.”

Many Kurdish youth are reluctant to join the mobilizations because many segments of the opposition do not recognize their identity and accuse them of separatism, although those who support it openly are few.

Some activists also see that the community’s problem is not necessarily with the regime, but with the political and social atmosphere that works to exclude them, disrupt their livelihood, and attempt to Arabize them. This is also true of some prominent members of the Syrian opposition.

“There is no evidence or serious indicator that the opposition is willing to recognize Kurdish rights,” a Kurdish source says. “All what SNC members have promised is only on paper. The opposition insists on talking in a convoluted manner when it comes to the Kurdish issue, while asking Kurds to support its political program, which does not mention Kurdish national rights.”

“This could be the reason behind the weak relationship between the Kurdish opposition with other Syrian opposition groups in general,” he adds.

There is also debate about which of the main opposition coalition better represents the Kurds. The National Coordinating Committee (NCC) says that it includes Kurdish parties and local coordinating committees in its membership.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) claims that they have the support of the Kurdish youth, based on the 20 Kurdish representatives in the council’s secretariat. One of those was the assassinated Tammo. There is also Abdel Basset Sayyed, current member of the SNC executive committee.

Activists from Hasaka, a major Kurdish region, confirm that the desire for independence is on the rise there. In the last few days, “some protests called for secession and carried the Kurdish flag.”

They note that “security forces ignored this for the most part [while brutally crushing other demonstrations calling for the fall of the regime]. This allowed traditional parties to revert to their secessionist rhetoric.” In the meantime, “dozens of activists are working on containing these calls,” according to the Hasaka sources.

In conclusion, they say, “Kurdish presence in the revolution will be based on who can accommodate their cause and discard the old prejudices.”

Nationalization, Arabization, and Land Confiscation

In Rukn al-Din, the “Kurdish neighborhood” in Damascus, a lawyer and “expert” on the Kurdish issue opens his briefcase to reveal a study documenting the accumulation of legal transgressions against Kurds. It is in three parts.

The first is about the census of 5 October 1962. When the government surveyed the Hasaka province, they left out 120,000 Syrian Kurdish citizens who consequently lost their citizenship.

The second is the confiscation of 138,853 hectares of agricultural land in 1966 to make room for government farms. These were later distributed among Arab Bedouin families from Riqqa and Aleppo who settled along the Ayn Dawwar-Sari Kanye highway.

The third is the Arabization of the names of Kurdish cities and streets. It was based on an order by the governor of Hasaka in 1995, calling for the implementation of the decision of the ministry of local affairs to ban “foreign” names, for both public and private places.

Another decree enforced the Arabization of the names of 209 schools in the area.


Edited by Noura
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What is the position of the Arabs of Hasakah and north-east Syria regarding Assad ?

Their are Arabs in Hasakah participating in protests against Assad with Kurds. But In my opinion, I do not think the Arabs of Hasakah are are enthusastic about the uprising as other Syrian Arabs are. Due to the fact that many of them were relocated their by Hafez Assad in order to distort the demographics of the province. The ones brought in by Assad, will most likely be asked to leave once Assad falls. Similar to the situation in Kirkuk and other disputed areas in Iraq.

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The Kurdish issue is complicated.

On one hand, the Kurds want their rights too, so they'll protest against Assad.

On another hand, the Kurds outside Syria (especially in Turkey) will support Assad's regime because the Turks are anti-Assad right now.

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The Kurdish issue is complicated.

On one hand, the Kurds want their rights too, so they'll protest against Assad.

On another hand, the Kurds outside Syria (especially in Turkey) will support Assad's regime because the Turks are anti-Assad right now.

The Kurds, Alevis ( many of whom are Kurds) and the Turkish left-wing (CHP) is supporting Assad.

However, it is common knowledge that the Druze people are very anti-Assad, yet there haven't been any protests by the Dryze.

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The Kurdish minority in Syria comprises nearly 3 million people, about 12% of the population, the largest ethnic minority in the fragmented country. Yet, much of the literature relating to the Kurds in Syria refers to them as the “silent minority,” “the newly-discovered minority,” “the forgotten people,” terms which somehow tend to downgrade their significance in the political history of the country, as well its future in it.

It never was right to belittle the role of the Kurds, much less so now. The Syrian Kurds are divided into two distinctly different groups. One comprises Kurds long settled in some of Syria’s urban centers, such as Aleppo, Damascus and Hama. Throughout the years they became an inseparable part of the Arab-Sunni majority in these places.

However, the bulk of the Kurdish community lives in north-east Syria, the Jazeera region, with Deir-al-Zor, Qamishli and Hasache as its main towns which had never been connected to the traditional centers of Syrian life. These areas were annexed to Syria as a result of imperial agreements after World War I, with their inhabitants being artificially cut off from their ethnic and tribal brethren in Iraq and Turkey.

Kurds and the Syrian state

The Kurds have always been a thorn in the side of the Syrian state, living in an area always deemed of vital strategic importance by the governments in Damascus. None more so than by the Ba’ath regime in power since 1963, which decided to resolve the Kurdish problem by a policy of forced Arabization of the Jazeera. The prominent Kurdish historian, Ismet Cheriff Vanly, called this “the final solution” of the Syrian Kurds.

The policy failed to change the demographic balance in north-east Syria, so the Ba’athists deprived many Kurds of their Syrian citizenship. The systematic policy of neglect and oppression caused a sharp deterioration in the economic conditions in the Jazeera. And even though, as of the 1980s, the region was an exporter of oil, revenues of derived therefrom were channeled to Damascus, rather than being invested locally.

Another result was the radicalization of the Kurdish population, which in the mid-1980s and in 2004 rose up violently against the regime, only to be put down by the use of brute force. It is significant to note that the Kurdish resisters did not get any help from other opposition groups in Syria, and were left to their own fate.

For decades, the Kurds of north-east Syria were also in the center of a geopolitical imbroglio created by artificial borders. Turkey with its huge Kurdish population, as well as Iraq with its own Kurdish population were always suspicious about the handling of the Kurdish problem in Syria. The Syrian Ba’ath regime in particular, while oppressing any sign of Kurdish nationalism on its own territory, was willing, when it suited its interests, to use “its” Kurds against rival neighbors. For many years, the Ba’ath regime encouraged subversive anti-Turkish activities by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) operating from bases in Syria. This, however, came to an abrupt end in October 1998, when then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad capitulated to a Turkish ultimatum and removed the PKK from Syria, including their leader Abdullah Ocalan, who surprisingly enough found himself in a Turkish jail some time late. The same Syrian tactics were used also as part of the rivalry between the two Ba’ath regimes of Hafez al-Assad and the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Kurds, the current uprising and the future

For the Jazeera Kurds, the Syrian uprising starting in March 2011 offered possible advantages as well as obvious risks. Altogether, their attitude towards the uprising is one of opposition to and disdain for the Assad regime. But there is also their long historic baggage of being a persecuted minority in a state, which they never independently wanted to be a part of, and whose immediate neighbors are potential enemies, more than likely allies.

The Kurds were slow to react to the uprising, remembering the passivity of other Syrians to their oppression, particularly in 1986 and 2004. But after some months they made a decision through their political parties (at least 12) that the current regime of President Bashar al-Assad was likely to collapse. Resulting demonstrations which erupted in Deir-al-Zor and Qamishli were met with a violent crackdown. The murder of prominent Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo by a Syrian intelligence unit further fueled already high flames in the Jazeera.

The two main problems that have been confronting Syrian Kurds from March 2011 on are what political role would be assigned to them by the Syrian opposition in any post-Assad era, and how they would reconcile their ethnic interests with the interests of their immediate neighbors, Turkey and Iraq, and in the case of the latter, Iraqi Kurdistan.

While the Antalya conference of the Syrian opposition, convened in late May 2011, recognized the existence of many ethnic and religious communities in Syria, in a clear departure from Ba’athi dogma, it left in place an ambiguity about the status of the Kurds in a future, democratic Syria.

The most recent position of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), is against the creation of a federal Arab-Kurdish state, and that may reflect a change in the policy as stated in Antalya and some time afterwards.

Clearly, Turkey, a significant supporter of the SNC, resents granting so much to the Kurds, and, according to press reports, also Iraqi Kurds, who achieved their own virtual self-rule are not going out of their way to support their Syrian brothers. Tribal legacies of the past may be at play here, but also the fear of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership that a complete chaos in Syria, leading to an attempted separation of the Syrian Kurds from Damascus may lead to a chaos also in Iraq itself, and to a challenge to their own status there.

Be as it may, the Kurdish leadership in Syria is confronted with a dilemma, not uncommon in the long, troubled history of the Kurdish people: How to navigate in a way that will not leave them in the traditional role of Kurds in Middle East politics – that of the inevitable victims of geopolitical circumstances beyond their control.

The viewpoint expressed here is the author’s own and is not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you disagree with the author of this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. Also, you may submit a proposal for a Counterpoint.


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There was a Syrian Kurdish political leader Mashaal Tamo that was killed by Assad's forces in October, and his killing turned most of the Kurds in the country against the government. Of course, there is also uncertainty among the Kurds who aren't sure what a new government would mean for the Kurdish independence movement, but cessation in Syria isn't as big of an issue as it is in northern Iraq.

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There was a Syrian Kurdish political leader Mashaal Tamo that was killed by Assad's forces in October, and his killing turned most of the Kurds in the country against the government. Of course, there is also uncertainty among the Kurds who aren't sure what a new government would mean for the Kurdish independence movement, but cessation in Syria isn't as big of an issue as it is in northern Iraq.

Yes that is true. That is why the KNC is currently negotiating with the SNC, on a clear Kurdish platform for any post-Assad Syria. Another problem is the PYD (A Branch of the PKK), which is allied with Assad. Some even call them the Kurdish "Shibi7a."

They recently killed Tammo's nephew. Here is the funeral they had for him today.

تشييع الشهيد جوان القطنة الدرباسية 26-3-2012 ج1

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