Syria Clamps down on Kurds
Syria has told leaders of unofficial Kurdish parties that the state will no longer tolerate their activities. Military intelligence officials summoned three leaders to tell them the news on Wednesday, according to a statement by a human rights activist.It is hard to know how this clamp down will effect Bashar's promise to naturalize 30,000 of the estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds in Syria. The Kurdish parties have been acting as the stalking horse for the larger civil society movement in Syria. Bashar may have hesitated to crack down on the Kurdish parties earlier in an attempt to keep the festering Kurdish question separate from the larger civil rights movement in Syria. Clearly this is another sign that Bashar will not allow political liberalization in tandum with economic liberalization.
If they do not cease, they were told they would be treated as if they were members of other "banned" parties. Syria's single-party rulers have freed political prisoners but still harshly repress any pro-democracy moves.
Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said Kurdish party leaders Fuad Aliko, Aziz Daoud and Saleh Kado had been summoned by the secret police, but the warning applied to all 14 Kurdish parties.
Correspondents say the latest move is being seen as a major setback by Kurdish groups, as relations with the state appeared to be on the mend again. Kurds have long complained they lack basic rights. Mr. Aliko said his Yekiti party would continue activity regardless.
"If they want to arrest us, let them arrest us," he said in remarks quoted by Reuters.
Citizenship laws in Syria are a nightmare and badly in need of reform. They are completely patriarchal. My son, who is half Syrian through his mother, cannot become Syrian under any circumstances, whether born in Syria or not. His nephew, whose father is Moroccan and mother Syrian and was born in Damascus, is also denied citizenship. The father being Arab does not help. Switzerland had similar laws until about 20 years ago!
Even registering my marriage in Syria turned into a Kafkaesque impossibility. I was willing to convert to Islam out of respect for my in-laws and not to make my wife a murtada or apostate in the eyes of Muslim society. But to register conversion in Syria, the mukhabarat demanded proof of the religion from which I was converting. They needed a baptism certificate. (This, I discovered, is to know whether I am Jewish and a potential enemy of the state.) But, being an atheist and never baptized, I didn't have baptismal papers, alas. Ultimately, I would have had to convert to Christianity in order to then convert to Islam. Oh dear. I became spiritually confused. I had to abandon the attempt after considerable effort.
This is an inkling of the nightmare that the 200,000 stateless Kurds live in. Many are great grand children of Kurds who fled into Syria from Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, when Atatürk was putting down the Sa'id rebellion and the French were welcoming. In Syria, it is necessary to have a ‘hawiyya” or I.D. in order to take a bus, stay in a hotel, get a government job, or go to secondary school or University. Kurds who don’t have I.D.s are often condemned to a life of penury and suspicion. Their only option is to start their own businesses or stay on the farm.
Some History on Kurds in Syria
I add the following minutes of a 1998 discussion panel on "Kurds in Syria" held at
The Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI)
KURDISH CONFLICT RESOLUTION FORUM:
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Syria Panel - General Discussion/Questions and Answer Period
WKI Conflict Resolution Forum
July 29, 1998
JON RANDAL: Aren't the Kurds without citizenship in Syria descendants of people who came from Turkey after Sheik Said's rebellion? Second, does the policy to create an "Arab belt" still exist? I thought it had been abandoned at some point. Also, could somebody address the fact that so many of the PKK in northern Iraq, at least when I visited three or four years ago, are young Syrian Kurds encouraged by Damascus to fight and die in great numbers?
OMAR SHEIKHMOUS: Well, the 120,000 Syrian Kurds that lost their citizenship were not really descendants of the Sheik Said rebellion. The government that came to power after the coup in 1961 that separated Syrian again from Egypt and the Arab Republic wanted to show its zealous Arab Nationalist profile by going hard on minorities in Syria.
The 1961 decree was taken by the former government, the first Ba'ath government, not the present one. They very randomly denied people, most of whom were suspected of being politically active Kurds. These people were affected by the decree.
I was a student even in Britain at that time. I was included in the decree as well. Some people had never even been to territories that belonged to Turkey. But they did very randomly include a large number of people based on ultimate identities or lack of ultimate identities and declared these to be refugees from Turkey and the Sheik Said rebellion and consequently took away their citizenship
The question of support for the PKK by Syria true. The Syrian intelligence organizations encouraged a large number of young Kurds from Syria. Actually, there were three categories of Kurds that joined the PKK.
Some youngsters in the universities and secondary school or high schools, patriotic Kurdish nationalist reasons, did join the PKK, but only in small number. Others were specifically encouraged by the Syrians security organs. They were allowed to skip doing military service in Syria if they did the service with the PKK.
As for the Arab belt, the policy of Arab resettlement in Kurdish was abandoned in 1978 by the government of Syria. Kurds were rarely deported from this ten kilometer belt along the borders between Syria and Turkey all along the border. Rather, the government settled Arabs into this ten kilometer belt in areas that were more fertile agriculturally. They dug artesian wells for them. They gave them support. They even armed them. These were mainly people from Raqqa area displaced from their land because of the Assad Dam and the waters that cover their villages and lands.
Of course, the government had a policy of Arabizing that area, but the Kurdish villages were not destroyed. Arab villages were placed next to them and there was very clear discrimination against the Kurds. The Syrian's even instituted land reform policies directed against Kurdish landlords. They never gave land to Kurdish persons, only to Arab peasants settled in those areas.
MAHMOOD OSMAN: The Syrian Kurdish question is very important and delicate. From what I have heard, and information is very scarce and only comes out in pieces. I personally, and many other Iraqi Kurds have a lot of relations with Syrian Kurds, their parties and with the Syrian government. One has to be careful to distinguish between the internal policies of Syria towards the Kurds and the external policies focused on the Kurdish question in general. As for internal policies, the Syrian constitution maintains no mention of Kurds. There is no existence for the Kurds. No allowances are made for schools, language, anything.
Everything is done in the name of the Arabic Republic, Arabic people. Everything is Arabic in Syria. But practices of oppression against the Kurds were bad before the Alawites came to power. Before the Alawites, the Sunnis, in the name of the Ba'ath party, and even before, during Nasserite period, were very chauvinistic. They treated Kurds very badly. Even talking in Kurdish on the street could result in detention. You couldn't give children Kurdish names.
Since the Alawites came to power, one has to say practical treatment of Kurds is better because the Alawites themselves are a minority. They seized power in a coup from the Sunnis and need other minority support like the Shurkas, the Kurds, the Armenians, Druzes and others.
And so that's why the practical treatment of the Kurds, the daily treatment of the Kurds is better. They are not so much persecuted. They are not so much captured or oppressed. But the constitution remains to deprive them of cultural and political identity. Nothing has changed officially. Language is officially outlawed.
The second point about Syria's external Kurdish policies. The Syrian government has been very cleverly dealing with the issue, much more clever than Iraq or these other governments we know. They have always exported their Kurdish question over the past 20 years, even to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The government of Syria allows Iraqi Kurds in Damascus and helps the Iraqi Kurdish parties, KDP, PUK, all the parties actually.
They always encourage Syrian Kurds to support the Iraqi Kurdish parties against the regime of Saddam Hussein. They supported the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq very cleverly, directing attention to Saddam Hussein so that problems in Syria will be forgotten or seem less critical.
Now, they have directed their Kurds, in the past years against Turkey through the PKK and its supporters. Again, cleverly, they direct attention towards helping PKK struggle against Turkey. Many Kurds in general are against Turkey because it's government is anti-Kurdish.
Anyway, despite being deprived of their rights, the Kurds of Syria have not taken up an armed struggle against the government. Because they don't have an armed struggle, the Syrian government hasn't taken extreme measures against Kurds as has been the case in Iraq and Turkey. If they had risen in arms, God knows what would happen to them. One has to put it in that context.
Now, the final point that I want to make is that Syria had a very negative position on Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991. When we made elections in '92 and we had the Kurdish entity which stayed for two years, immediately Syrian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers got together to plot how to destroy this entity. And they met five times, in Ankara, in Teheran, Damascus, and Istanbul. Only after the Kurds began fighting with themselves have the ministers stopped meeting. So, on the issue of the Kurdish entity, their position was just like Iran and Turkey and the others.
HAZHIR TEMOURIAN: Is it proper to speak of Syrian Kurdistan? Is there a region in the country where there is an identifiable majority Kurdish population?
OMAR SHEIKHMOUS: The border between Syria and Turkey was established in 1921. They took the Orient Express Line as the border without any consideration of geographic, ethnic, or natural boundaries. And that's why you find three enclaves of Kurds in Syria. One is in the Kurdish mountains north of Aleppo and Kobanyi and the Deir ez Zor. The cessation of Alexandretta to Turkey created geographically equal form and shape that's extended into the territories of Turkey on the Derik area along the Iraqi and Turkish border. It's really because of these drawing of lines and maps and so on and so forth you have three enclaves that are extensions of Kurdish territories into Syria from Turkey and Iraq. So they are not geographically continuous or connected with each other. But these are majority Kurdish areas.
NAJMALDIN KARIM: I believe most Kurdish political parties have been penetrated by one or the other government in one form or another. Whether the penetration is deep and makes the ultimate decision, we don't know. But I'm sure there is penetration. Not just within the PKK, but also with other Kurdish political parties in Iraq and Iran.
KENDAL NEZAN: This is just a piece of information. I read a recent UNHCR report on refugees which states that there are 200,000 Syrian Kurds deprived of their citizenship. That is an official estimate of the UNHCR, which has sent a mission to Syria. The report also talks about refugee camps of Iraqi Kurds in Syria. About 800 people in such camps are prevented by the Syrian government from going abroad.
BAKHTIAR AMIN: The United Nations General Assembly has adopted several resolutions regarding nationality and citizenship. I believe it is in the best interest of the Kurds to internationalize and publicly raise the question of the citizenship now that it falls under the mandate of the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. We should contact the United Nations High Commission of Refugees and encourage them to resolve this issue.
OMAR SHEIKHMOUS: Anyone interested in the situation of Kurds in Syria who have lost their citizenship in Syria can obtain a report by Human Rights Watch issued in 1997. It is a detailed study based on field research in Syria for more than three years. I would recommend that you look at that.
The last two points -- the Syrians are very refined in their methods in intimidating all sorts of opposition. They are not vulgar like the Iraqis and the Iranians. And they have managed and succeeded, unfortunately, in splitting all of the opposition forces in Syria and they infiltrate into them.
And then, as far as the Syrians are concerned, again, as long as you play this cat and mouse game in a very refined way, and as long as the opposition does not take a very serious form, they are tolerated by the authorities.
But once it reaches the level of seriousness, they are very harshly suppressed like the Muslim Brotherhood and other groupings in Syria.
Syrian Government attitude to Kurds of al-Jazira area in 1948
When the French left Syria in 1946, the Syrian government did not grant many Kurds of the region passports because they had been born in Turkey. This gave the Syrian government an easy means to control them. When an American diplomat asked Fuad Bey al-Halabi, the Director General of Syrian Tribal Affairs, in 1948 to explain why he was not worried about the Kurdish community situated on Syria's northeast boarder with Turkey, the director replied:
The Kurdish tribes were in reality akin to feudal institutions. The tribal chieftains owned all the land and can control their ‘serfs.’ In turn the Syrian government can control the Kurdish leaders.This quote comes from: US National Archives, James H. Keeley (Damascus) to Sec. of State (29 December 1948) "Comments of Fuad Bey al-Halabi, Director General of Syrian Tribal Affairs, Regarding Tribal Control Policy and Certain Special Aspects of the Kurdish Tribal Problem," 890D.00\12-2948.
Practically without exception the principal Kurdish leaders are under death sentence in Turkey and were they to show signs of asserting too much independence of action or to disregard the wishes of the Syrian Government in any important matter they could be conveniently disposed of by arranging to have them fall into Turkish hands.
A good report on the stateless Kurds in Syria can be found here
Also, for thoughtful commentarty on the Kurds, see the Damasccus based writer, Ammar Abdulhamid, and his article: Syria and the Kurds - cool heads must prevail of March 25, 2004 on the recent troubles.
The Daily Star reports that during Asad's visit to Spain, he stated that Damascus was "prepared to contribute to all international efforts to eliminate factors of unrest" in Iraq. Syria would take part in wiping out "tension, in stabilizing Iraq and in rebuilding it, and in improving the situation of the Iraqi people."
Asad took a cool attitude toward the new Iraqi government:
Assad insisted it was not for Damascus to judge the merits of Sunni tribal leader Ghazi al-Yawar, the newly named president, or Iyad Allawi, Iraq's new prime minister, who will assume power on June 30 when the US-led coalition returns sovereignty to Iraq prior to general elections to be held by early 2005.Both Asad and the Spanish King agreed that no progress on Israeli-Syrian negotiations could take place before elections in the US.