On March 21, 2010, the Syrian security forces opened fire with live ammunition
on a crowd of 5,000 in the northern Syrian town of al-Raqqah. The crowd had
gathered to celebrate the Kurdish festival of Nowruz. Three people, including a
15-year-old girl, were killed. Over 50 were injured. Dozens of injured civilians
were held incommunicado by the authorities following the events. Some remain
incarcerated. This incident was just one example of the repression taking place
of the largest national minority in Syria – namely, the Syrian Kurdish
Kurds constitute 9 percent-10% of the population of Syria –
that is, around 1.75 million in a total population of 22 million. Since the rise
of militant Arab nationalism to power in Damascus, they have faced an ongoing
campaign for their dissolution as a community.
All this is taking place
far from the spotlight of world attention. The current US Administration
a general policy of considered silence on the issue of human rights in
East countries. The Syrian regime remains the elusive subject of
courting by the European Union and by Washington.
As a result, the Kurds
of Syria are likely for the foreseeable future to remain the region's
The severe repression suffered by the Syrian Kurds has its
roots in the early period of Ba’ath rule in Syria. The Arab nationalist
felt threatened by the presence of a large non-Arab national majority,
about trying to remove it using the methods usually associated with
In 1962, a census undertaken in the area of highest concentration
of Kurdish population in Syria – the al- Hasaka province – resulted in
120,000-150,000 Syrian Kurds being arbitrarily stripped of their
They and their descendants remain non-persons
They are unable to travel outside the country, to own property, or
to work in the public sector. People in this category today number about
– though no official statistics exist for them. They are known as ajanib
A large additional group of around 100,000 Kurds in Syria
remain entirely undocumented and unregistered.
This group, known as
(muted), similarly live without citizenship or travel
The bureaucratic struggle of the Syrian regime to wish away its
non-Arab population has been accompanied by practical measures on the
alter the demographic balance of the country.
In the 1970s, a campaign of
“Arabization” of Kurdish areas commenced, on the order of president
The intention was to create a “belt” of Arab population along the
northeastern borders of Syria with Turkey and Iraq, where most of the
Kurds live. The purpose of this was to prevent Kurdish territorial
Kurdish place names were changed to Arab ones, Kurds were deprived of
and instructed to re-settle in the interior. Kurdish language, music,
publications and political organization were banned. It was forbidden
parents to register their children with Kurdish names.
policy of Arabization later largely faded into bureaucratic torpor. But
while it produced the desired result – of a divided, demoralized,
largely silent population.
THIS SITUATION no longer pertains. In March
2004, following the recognition of Kurdish autonomous control of
something resembling an uprising began among the Kurds of Syria.
spark that ignited the wave of protests that month was the shooting dead
seven Kurds by the security forces following a clash between Kurds and
a football match in Qamishli, a city of high Kurdish population close to
Turkish border. Further shootings took place at the funerals of the
unrest spread across the Jazira, and as far as Aleppo and Damascus. The
moved into the Kurdish areas with heavy armor and air cover, and the
Despite conciliatory noises made by President Bashar Assad
following the 2004 unrest, nothing of substance has been done to change
conditions endured by Kurds in Syria. As a result, the situation since
been one of simmering tension between the Syrian regime and its Kurdish
subjects, with occasional flareups.
In August, 2005, and again in
October, 2008, and then again earlier this year, there were clashes
Kurdish citizens and the security forces in Qamishli, with some deaths
Syrian oppositionists speak of the emergence of a young,
increasingly nationalistic younger generation, estranged from the Arab
opposition in Syria as well as from the regime. As yet, no single
emerged to reflect this sentiment. Twelve different political parties
among the Kurds of Syria, a reflection of the peculiar divisiveness to
regional opposition movements in general, and Kurdish ones in
For a variety of reasons, the Kurds have difficulty making their
voices heard on the international stage. Their oppressors are fellow
rather than Christians or Jews, so the powerful alliance of Muslim
states on the
international stage is not interested. Arab states are by definition
or hostile to their concerns.
And with their regular lucklessness, they
now face a situation where the rising powers in the region – Turkey and
and their enthusiastic smaller partner Syria all have sizable Kurdish
populations and a shared interest in keeping them suppressed.
misfortune of the Syrian Kurds is compounded by the fact that contrary
accepted cliché, the enemy of their enemy is not their friend. This is
the enemy of the Syrian Kurds’ enemy is the west and the United States.
are today led by a philosophy which believes in accommodating, rather
confronting rivals. As a result, the systematic, half-century old
the Syrian Arab Republic to nullify the existence of its Kurdish
set to continue apace.
The writer is a senior researcher at
Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.
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