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Syrian People - Kurds

Estimates of the number of Kurds in Syria vary widely, but they are believed to number about 2 million, about 9 percent of the population of approximately 21 million. Although some Kurdish tribal groups have lived in the country for generations, many arrived from Turkey between 1924 and 1938, when Mustapha Kemal attempted to force his reform programs on the Kurds there.

The Kurds are a fiercely independent tribal people who speak their own language, Kirmanji. Living mainly in the broad, mountainous region of northwestern Iran, eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq, they are a cohesive people with intricate intertribal ties and a deep pride in their own history and traditions. Most Kurds are farmers; some are city dwellers; and others are nomads who drive their flocks far into the mountains in the summer and graze them on the lowlands in the winter.

Roughly 35 to 40 percent of the Kurds live in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains north of Aleppo. An equal number live in the Jazirah; about 10 percent in the vicinity of Jarabulus northeast of Aleppo; and from 10 to 15 percent in the Hayy al Akrad (Quarter of the Kurds) on the outskirts of Damascus.

Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims; a very small number are Christians and Alawis. In addition, the Syrian Yazidis, who speak Kirmanji, are sometimes considered Kurds. Numbering about 12,000, the Yazidis inhabit the Jabal Siman, west of Aleppo; the Jabal al Akrad, north of Aleppo; and a few villages south of Amuda and Jabal Abd al Aziz in the Jazirah. Most of the Yazidis work the land for Muslim landowners.

Syria's Kurds are almost entirely settled, but they retain much of their tribal organization. Although some groups in the Jazirah are seminomadic, most are village dwellers who cultivate wheat, barley, cotton, and rice. Urban Kurds engage in a number of occupations, but not generally in commerce. Many are manual laborers; some are employed as supervisors and foremen, a kind of work that has come to be considered their specialty. There are some Kurds in the civil service and the army, and a few have attained high rank. Most of the small wealthy group of Kurds derive their income from urban real estate.

Kurds who have left the more isolated villages and entered Arab society have generally adopted the dress and customs of the community in which they live. In the Jazirah, for example, many have adopted beduin dress, live in tents, and are generally indistinguishable from the beduin, except in speech. Most Kurds speak both Kirmanji and Arabic, although others, particularly those in Damascus, may speak only Arabic. Kurds who have entered the country in the present generation usually retain much of the language, dress, and customs of their native highlands.

For most Kurds, whether long established in Syria or recently arrived, tribal loyalty is stronger than national loyalty to either the Syrian state or to a Kurdish nation. They are traditionally distrustful of any government, particularly that in Damascus. However, relatively peaceful residence in Syria and gradual assimilation have mitigated their distrust of Syrian authorities.

Citizenship is derived solely from the father, living or deceased. Following the 1962 census, approximately 120,000 Syrian Kurds lost their citizenship. Many of the stateless Kurds had moved to Syria from Iraq and Turkey early in the 20th century, when borders were more porous. Although the Government stopped the practice of stripping Kurds of their citizenship, it never restored the nationality to those who lost it earlier. As a result, those who lost their nationality, and their children, remained unable to obtain passports, or even identification cards and birth certificates.

Stateless Kurds number approximately 200,000, according to UNHCR estimates, a recent Refugees International report puts the number at 350,000 Kurds, the figure commonly used by Kurdish groups. These stateless Kurds - somewhere between one in ten and one in six of the total Kurdsh population - are without citizenship, unable to own land, not permitted to practice as doctors or engineers, denied government employment, ineligible for admission to public hospitals and public universities, without the right to vote, and could not travel to and from the country. They also encountered difficulties in enrolling their children in school, and in some cases, in registering their marriages. Despite the president's repeated promises to resolve the matter of stateless Kurds, there was no progress over the years.

Although the Government contended that there was no discrimination against the Kurdish population, it placed limits on the use and teaching of the Kurdish language. It also restricted the publication of books and other materials written in Kurdish, Kurdish cultural expression, and, at times, the celebration of Kurdish festivals. The Government tacitly accepted the importation and distribution of Kurdish language materials, particularly in the northeast region where most of the Kurds in the country resided.

In March 2004 riots took place throughout Hassekah province, as well as in Aleppo and Damascus, in reaction to Syrian police opening fire on a crowd at a soccer match following clashes between Arab and Kurdish fans. The Government's discrimination against the stateless Kurdish minority resulted in a series of riots in March centered in the Hassakeh province which spread to other parts of the country during which more than 30 persons were reportedly killed by security forces and more than 1000 arrested.

Security forces opened fire with live ammunition on Kurdish citizens during civil disturbances and demonstrations, killing 30 civilians in Hassakeh province on March 12 and between 5 to 8 Kurdish demonstrators in Aleppo on March 16. The following day, crowds rioted in Qamishli and the security forces again opened fire on the crowd. Subsequently, riots and demonstrations spread throughout the towns and villages of the Hassakeh Province as well as to cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. On April 8, media sources reported that Hussein Hamak Nasso, a 26-year-old Kurd, died after being tortured by security forces in the town of Afreen. Security forces reportedly then forced Nasso's family to secretly bury him in their presence. Human rights organizations and Kurdish groups reported that 1,000-2,000 Kurds were detained in the aftermath of the March riots. Most were freed after a few months detention; however, 200-300 Kurds remained in custody at year end.

By 2006 there were twelve Kurdish domestic political parties, each with varying levels of organization and membership. While officially illegal, the government tolerated the parties' existence (like their Arab counterparts) to varying and sometimes dangerously unpredictable degrees. Two loose coalitions exist, the Kurdish Democratic Front (which is aligned with Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud Barzani) and the Kurdish Democratic Alliance (aligned with Iraqi Kurd leader Jalal Talabani) . In addition, there were four independent parties: the Azadi Party, the Yekiti Party, the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union, and the recently formed Kurdish Future Movement. While the two coalitions signed the Damascus Declaration, the Azadi, Yekiti, and Future Movement parties held out, complaining of the emphasis on the Arab and Islamic identity of Syria. Compared to the independent parties, the two coalitions, however, were not nearly as popular in the Kurdish community, as the coalition parties are politically inactive, small, and close to the authorities.

Pro-PKK protests by Syrian Kurds in Northeast Syrian city of Qamishli were met by heavy police repression. On 02 November 2007, Syrian police opened fire in Qamishli on 300 dmonstrators at a rally in support of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) organized by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD - the PKK's political affiliate in Syria. Over 1000 more Kurdish residents of Qamishli joined the orginal PYD demonstration in response to the police shooting. Consequently, approximately 30 minutes later the police opened fire again. The ensuing crackdown caused multiple injuries and the death of at least one Syrian Kurd. There were also several arrests at a pro-PKK rally in the northern border town of Ein al-Arab and security services prevented a pro-PKK demonstration in Aleppo. In the wake of the incident, all major Syrian Kurdish parties released a joint statement that condemned both the Syrian and Turkish governments. Although the Kurds have regularly held rallies in the Northeast of the country since the massive riots of March 2004, the rallies do not usually result in this level of violence.

Restrictions on Kurdish property ownership date back to the 1952 issuance of Legislative Decree 193, wherein Syria created a series of bureaucratic licensing hurdles meant to obstruct Kurdish access to agricultural lands. In order to acquire a license of ownership, an individual submitted requests to the Ministry of Agriculture, which then referred the request to the Ministry of Defense for approval. If approved, the request continued its journey to the Ministry of Interior (MOI), where it passed into the hands of intelligence authorities for review. Refusals of licensing requests were absolute, and no legal recourse of appeal existed. In 2004, Syria issued Article 41 to replace Decree 193. While the new article retained most of Decree 193's obstacles to land ownership, it added that anyone circumventing the licensing process could be sentenced to up to two years in prison and/or fined up to 100,000 Syrian Pounds.

Syria issued a legislative decree in September 2008 that restricted property ownership, acquisition, and other land-use rights along Syria's borders. While Syria claims the law applies to all Syrian borders, there is mounting evidence of selective enforcement targeting Kurdish businessmen, landowners, and laborers in northern and northeastern Syria. Kurdish contacts believe this decree is part of a larger Syria n Arabization effort in the region. Syrian police squelched a Kurdish public protest against the law.

While Kurds were quick to enunciate clear goals on resolving the issues of citizenship as well as linguistic and cultural freedoms, they also demand, somewhat more circumspectly, the granting of "national" rights. The definition of "national" rights remained amorphous, focusing more on the need to overcome Arab preconceptions about the Kurdish population of Syria. The Kurdish claim of a long-term historical presence of all Kurds in Syria was debatable; even some Syrian human rights activists found the Kurdish claim exaggerated. The Qamishli riots of 2004 forced the Arab opposition for the first time to pay attention to Kurdish problems and the power that Kurdish forces have.

Arab activists voiced their frustrations with their Kurdish counterparts, whose commitment to achieving democracy seemed consistently overshadowed by Kurdish demands for autonomy, if not outright separation. Arab activists were particularly troubled by Kurds' unwillingness to address the presence of a large Arab population in the Kurdish heartland of Hassekeh Province. Indeed, Syrian Kurds exacerbated these Arab fears by continuing to discuss their ideal of outright independence, while simultaneously throwing back (justifiable) Arab criticisms of these ideals as hateful and xenophobic.



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