More on Khasnaw, the Kurds, and Syrian Policy
Two new articles of interest have appeared, which treat the thorny question of the Kurds and what is going on in the Jazira. The first (copied below) is from the Economist. It claims that 50,000 Kurds demonstrated in Qamishli following the murder of Khasnawi, rather than 10,000, as Blanford and other sources stated in the first weeks after the demonstration took place. This higher number seems like an exaggeration, but we aren't sure. In other respects the Economist article is close to Blanford's. Notice the poetic image of "hot winds, twirling genies, and golden stubble of wheat" used to capture the feel and look of the Jazira in both articles! A good image is a good image.
Here is the Economist:
Hot winds scour the open plains of north-east Syria, whisking the chaff from a record wheat harvest into twirling genies and churning up dust clouds that seem to swallow whole villages of squat mud houses.Here is Blanford's earlier article:
The main road between Hasake and Qamishli cuts across a barren terrain of harvested wheat fields,... which have been part of this ancient steppe for more than 4,000 years. The hot wind creates spinning columns of dust which pirouette and sway gracefully across the fields of golden stubble.The economist claims that youth from the Bagara and Tayy tribes are itching to fight Americans. This seems reasonable. I wrote about this last week after talking to a member of the Bagara.
The economist adds an important detail about how the Syrian government used "Baathist youth groups" "to attack the Kurds and distributed pamphlets accusing "the Kurds of being “agents of Bush and Mossad”. But in the same paragraph it states that those who "pillaged the Kurdish-owned shops" were "a rabble of slum-dwelling Arabs." One wonders if "slum-dwellers" or "Baathist youth groups" attacked the Kurds? Maybe the "slum-dwelling" Arabs are Baathist youth groups? Maybe there was a division of labor? Not clear.
The Economist states that "Syria has no Kurdish ministers, generals, senior judges or Baath party officials." Can my readers confirm this fact? It is a bad sign if it is true. One has always pointed to the late Grand Mufti Kaftaro as the highest "government Kurd" and as proof that the government was solicitous of Kurds in general, but if there are no highly placed Kurds in the Government or regime today, it is significant.
Syria under Bashar Assad: One of the last survivors of a dying breed
Jun 16th 2005 ALEPPO, DAMASCUS AND QAMISHLI
From The Economist print edition - (Thanks to Jefferson Gray of the University of Virginia for sending this article to me.)
The regime shows no sign of collapse but under the surface all is not well. Hot winds scour the open plains of north-east Syria, whisking the chaff from a record wheat harvest into twirling genies and churning up dust clouds that seem to swallow whole villages of squat mud houses. Giant lorries ferry herd-loads of sheep to Iraq for sale, passing a returning stream of greasy tankers hauling smuggled petrol.
Away from the crush and intrigue of Damascus, Syria seems a peaceful and ruddily self-reliant if not prosperous place. Yet the appearance, like the cheap Iraqi fuel that tends to be diluted with engine-killing water, is deceptive.
Here in the north-east, a sense of ferment extends not only to the large and much-oppressed Kurdish population. Poor native Arab tribes complain of perks, jobs and guns granted to tribeless Arab outsiders, settled here under the ruling Baath party's policy of diluting the mistrusted Kurds. Youthful Bagara and Tayy tribesmen, who have cousins in Iraq, are restive for a different reason. Fired by stories of jihad, and with the livelihood of smuggling threatened by shoot-first American patrolling of the border, they are said to chafe at being kept from fighting the infidel intruder.
Such tensions do boil over. Earlier this month, some 50,000 Kurds gathered in the dusty centre of Qamishli, the main (largely Kurdish) town of the north-east, to protest against the mysterious murder of a popular reformist preacher, Sheikh Mashuq Khaznawi. When a smaller group tried to join, say the Kurds, police beat them back before parting ranks to allow a rabble of slum-dwelling Arabs to pillage Kurdish-owned shops. Pamphlets had earlier been distributed that accused the Kurds of being “agents of Bush and Mossad”. Kurdish activists say most of the looters appeared to be from Baathist youth groups.
Syria's Kurds, 10% of the country's 18m people, are used to such things. Forty years ago, 100,000 of them were stripped of Syrian nationality. They and their descendants still have no right to passports, official employment or property ownership. In the 1970s, thousands more lost their lands when the state “Arabised” a 10km (six-mile) strip along the long Turkish border. Syria has no Kurdish ministers, generals, senior judges or Baath party officials. The country's dozen Kurdish parties that demand such things as language rights and fair parliamentary representation, are officially banned. Amnesty International lists Sheikh Khaznawi as the sixth Syrian Kurd to have died as a result of police ill-treatment in the past 15months alone.
Obviously, Kurds share the general scepticism with which other Syrians greet the talk of reform coming now from Damascus. Such talk grew loud in advance of the Baath party congress earlier this month. In the event, the rhetoric sounded musty as ever, and the announced changes looked puny. These included, among other things, a review of the emergency laws that have been applied since the Baathists took power in 1963, moves to disentangle the party from the state, and laws to lift some restrictions on the press and on the formation of political parties.
Many foreign commentators described Syria's government as having missed a last chance to improve its image at the congress. Noting mounting troubles, from Syria's recent humiliating exit from Lebanon, to American sanctions, to anger over Syria's alleged failure to stop jihadis crossing the border into Iraq, to falling oil sales, soaring unemployment and stirring unrest among Kurds, Sunni Islamists and liberal intellectuals, some predicted an early end to Baathist rule. The latest rumblings from Washington, moreover, indicate that the Americans, after some hesitation, have opted to isolate the Baathist government still more. They will blame Syria for any political violence in Lebanon. And they have hinted at plans to impose a no-fly zone or perhaps a security corridor on Syria's side of the Iraqi border.
Yet, perhaps because they are used to being governed very badly, knowledgeable Syrians seem less edgy than might be expected. Five years after he succeeded his ruthless father, President Bashar Assad, aged 39, has certainly not lived up to initial hopes for change. The early release of hundreds of political prisoners was followed by the rounding up of dozens more. Moves to liberalise the economy became mired in corruption and red tape. Often, Mr Assad seemed to have little control over fiefs carved out by his father's cronies.
But there is no sign that the younger Assad's grip is weakening. In some respects it may be growing stronger. This is not only because opposition to Baathist rule has failed to coalesce: witness the Kurds' 12 rival parties. Nor is it only because middle-class Syrians, wary of the messiness of their similarly sectarian neighbours, Iraq and Lebanon, tend to prefer the devil they know to ones they don't. (“Of course we all want change,” says a Damascus trader. “But when you ask at what cost, most of us shut up.”) Mr Assad remains peculiarly popular. This is hard for anyone who did not live under his father's regime to imagine. But simple things like allowing satellite dishes, letting the internet spread and cutting import duties have won him a great deal of goodwill.
Mr Assad has also, slowly but with increasing urgency, drawn the levers of power into his own hands. The Baath congress was less notable for action it failed to take than for Mr Assad's sweeping changes in his ruling circle. Sixteen of 21 members of the Regional Command, the party's governing body, got sacked. The new command, cut to 15 members, is dominated by younger types directly loyal to the president. Similar changes have overtaken the army and security forces. Even in private business, Mr Assad's close kin and friends, many from his Alawite sect that makes up a bare tenth of Syria's population, have elbowed themselves into dominance.
And there are signs that the president, despite speechifying over the glories of the Baath, will ignore the party if necessary. The recent appointment of a respected non-Baathist, Abdullah Dardari, as deputy prime minister with broad oversight of economic policy, suggests a will to push the limits of the party's new-found commitment to what it calls a “social market economy”. About time. Forty years ago, Syria was the second richest of 22 Arab countries. Now its ranking has dived.
Yet if Mr Assad has given himself better means to effect rapid change, he must act quickly. The world is watching closely. He has been humiliated in Lebanon. His people are disillusioned, restless and tired of isolation. The Americans want him out. Despite his grip on the organs of repression, his long-term prospects for turning his country round—and staying on top of it—look increasingly bleak.
Activist's death galvanizes Kurdish community in Syria
BY HANNAH ALLAM
Knight Ridder Newspapers: Posted on Fri, Jun. 17, 2005
DAMASCUS, Syria - (KRT) - Sheik Mohammed Khaznawi, one of Syria's most prominent Kurdish activists, had become so concerned about the plainclothes intelligence agents who shadowed his every move that he began to call his sons every half-hour, just to let them know he hadn't been arrested.
When he didn't check in on May 10, his sons feared the worst. They were right.
Three weeks later, Khaznawi's body turned up in a shallow grave near the Turkish border - bruised, with broken teeth and a dislodged nose. The authorities didn't allow an autopsy, so the cause of death is unknown.
The Syrian government blamed Khaznawi's killing on a criminal gang, and quickly produced two suspects whose confessions aired on national television.
But to Syria's 1.7 million Kurds, the country's largest minority and an important component of the opposition to President Bashar Assad, Khaznawi's murder was no whodunit. In massive protests that Syrian authorities quashed, Kurds accused the government of silencing one of their most vocal advocates.
"One of the security reports against him called him a symbol of unrest that needed to be removed," said Mourad Khaznawi, the sheik's oldest son. "These `suspects' are security agents, working for the government."
Khaznawi's death was the latest spark in the incendiary relationship between the Syrian government and the nation's Kurds, who for decades have been denied political participation and cultural expression.
Emboldened by the rise of Kurdish leaders in neighboring Iraq, where the president is Kurdish, Syrian Kurds say they'll no longer stay silent in the face of governmental transgressions against their community.
"The sheik's death made us want to explode," said Feisal Badr, a Damascus-based leader of the Kurdish Yekiti party, which operates underground because it's banned in Syria. "It made us realize how very deep our oppression is."
A report that the Human Rights Association in Syria issued in 2003 detailed the "gross denials" of most basic rights to Kurds, especially the estimated 300,000 who are effectively stateless because the Syrian government refuses to recognize them as citizens. The Syrian government puts the number of stateless Kurds at about 150,000, but there hasn't been a reliable census in years.
Kurds without Syrian nationality can't vote, travel outside the country, own property or hold government jobs. Many are refused treatment in public hospitals, attorneys and human rights activists say, forcing them to use expensive private clinics.
Khaznawi had angered the regime by playing host to foreign diplomats in the mostly Kurdish region of northeastern Syria. Many here say the sheik's fate was sealed in February, when he traveled to Belgium and met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party that's the archenemy of the Syrian regime. He'd been working to bring Islamists and secular dissidents together for a unified opposition front.
Fayez al-Sayegh, the editor of the state-run newspaper Al Thawra, said Kurds were just using the sheik's death to air their oft-repeated demands and were ignoring evidence that Islamic militants targeted Khaznawi because of his tirades against extremism. One of the sheik's last sermons condemned suicide bombings as a means of resistance.
"There were confessions. There was evidence. That's it," al-Sayegh said, displaying the photos his paper ran of the suspects. "We lost a good sheik, a peaceful man. He was conveying positive messages that the government supported."
The Damascus regime, under international scrutiny and feeling the pressure of Kurdish power in Iraq, has promised a solution to "the Kurdish problem." The regime "is scared of the Kurdish movement now," said Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who represents 110 jailed Kurdish dissidents.
But he and other observers were disappointed this month when the ruling Baath Party's national conference ended with no definite measures for stateless Kurds and no solid plans for expanding Kurdish rights.
"A certain number of them are going to have the Syrian nationality, but are we hearing something specific? No," said Riad al-Daoudi, an adviser to the foreign affairs minister. "It's a very volatile situation that could go in any direction."
In a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of the Syrian capital, residents said they'd noticed small improvements to their lives in the past two years. They're now able to assert their identity with Kurdish music blaring from car stereos and Kurdish-language signs on storefronts. And there's less governmental interference when they celebrate cultural holidays.
But these small victories are a long way from ending what they described as four decades of oppression.
"We're foreigners here. I work hard at my studies, but for what? I'm not going to find a job," said Hindareen Abdulrahman, 18, a stateless Kurd who spoke to a reporter even after her mother warned her not to criticize the government in public. "Look at Sheik Khaznawi, who was killed for asking for the rights of the Kurdish people. If he can be assassinated, what about me?"