The uprising against the rule of Bashar Assad in Syria is continuing to grow.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are now taking part in the protests. As
the month of Ramadan approaches, the forecast is intensified
Still, serious fissures have yet to appear in the regime, and the
Assads show every intention of fighting on. This opens up the prospect of a long
period of violence ahead.
One of the signs of the unflagging strength of
the uprising is the broadening involvement of different sections of the
population. An example of this is the Kurdish minority, which in the last weeks
has begun to play a greater part in the protests. The role of the Kurds is
complicated, however, by indications that elements of the Syrian opposition are
determined to preserve the overtly Arab self-definition of the country, even
following the hoped-for downfall of the Assad regime.
Last week saw the
regime’s first major attempt to crack down on Kurdish support for the
uprising. Syrian police and militiamen loyal to the authorities used
batons and tear gas against demonstrations in Qamishli, a Kurdish-majority city
in the Northeast. In the Kurdish neighborhood of Ruknuddin in Damascus,
meanwhile, two protesters – Zardasht Wanli and Khezwan Safwan – were killed and
dozens more injured.
Demonstrations by Syrian Kurds in Qamishli, Hassake,
Amouda and the surrounding villages have been steadily increasing in size over
the last month. The Kurds were slow, however, to join the uprising against the
Assad regime. This was not out of any sentiments of loyalty to the dictatorship,
but because of wariness and skepticism regarding the Arab
This skepticism was the product of experience. In March 2004,
a small prelude to the current uprising in Syria took place. Kurdish citizens,
encouraged by the toppling of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, rose up against the Assad
regime. The revolt was swiftly and brutally crushed, and 36 Kurds were
Hoped-for support from the country’s Arab opposition did not
emerge. As such, the Kurds were reluctant to join the current revolt until it
became unmistakably clear that the rebels were in earnest.
There is no
remaining doubt in this regard. Still, the regime has done its best to induce
the Kurds to stay on the sidelines in recent months by offering a series of
The nature of these gestures highlights the
depths of systematic brutality that characterize the Assad regime, because of
the details they reveal regarding life under Assad.
Since the Arab
nationalist Ba’ath party came to power in Syria in 1963, Kurds have suffered
systematic discrimination in all areas of life.
Numbering between 10
percent and 15% of the population, they are the largest non-Arab minority in the
country. Within this community, there are some half a million Syrian-born Kurds
who lack citizenship, deprived of even the most minimal entitlements from the
state under whose rule they were born. They have limited access to education and
health provision, and no ability to acquire a passport.
is further subdivided into two groups: “maktoum” (people of no country), who
lack all citizenship rights, and “ajanib” (foreigners), who have ID cards and
some limited rights.
The Ba’ath regime systematically depopulated Kurdish
areas, attempting to create an Arab population belt along the border with
Turkey. The use of the Kurdish language and Kurdish names for children were
banned, as was the celebration of Kurdish festivals.
In an act of
characteristic cynicism, as the uprising against his rule began to spread, Assad
on April 7 announced the provision of full citizenship rights to those Syrian
Kurds known as ajanib.
Activists say that this promise has yet to be
In any case, it leaves around 200,000 remaining Kurds lacking
any status. But it was the first evidence of the regime’s determination to keep
its most oppressed minority out of the circle of dissent.
Further gestures followed. For the first time this year, Kurds were permitted to
celebrate their Nowruz new year’s festival. Then representatives of 12 Kurdish
parties were invited to meet with Assad (they declined).
This attempt to
placate the Kurdish population now seems to have been
Increased Kurdish participation as the revolt gathered steam
may have led the Assad regime to conclude that any further gestures were
irrelevant. The default option of unambiguous repression has
For Syria’s Kurds, unfortunately, there have recently been
discouraging signs of Arab nationalist sentiment among the opposition as well.
Kurdish organizations withdrew from participation in a “National Salvation”
conference of Syrian oppositionists held in Istanbul earlier this month. They
did so to protest the fact that the conference was held under the title of the
“Syrian Arab Republic.” The Kurds want to see the name of the country changed to
the “Syrian Republic” to reflect their own status as a national
This symbolic issue reflected deeper concerns regarding Turkish
backing for the emergent opposition leadership, and the prominent role of the
Muslim Brotherhood within it.
Shirzad al-Yazidi, a Syrian Kurdish
opposition activist, told Asharq Alawsat newspaper that “the alternative to the
ruling mob in Damascus must be a democratic one that is agreed upon by all
Syrians, both the Arabs and the Kurds, and not a tyrannical alternative that is
tailored to well-known regional standards.” Should such an alternative fail to
emerge, Yazidi added, Syrian Kurds will look to the recent declaration of
“democratic autonomy” in the Kurdish region of Turkey as a model for their own
Far from the media attention afforded the Arab Spring, the
past months have been eventful and dramatic ones for the region’s Kurds, too.
The declaration of democratic autonomy in Turkey, and Iranian attacks on Kurdish
guerrillas in northern Iraq have combined with the dramatic events in Syria to
produce a sense of ferment, flux and imminent change. The Kurds of Syria remain
divided into 16 different political factions. They are nevertheless genuinely
determined this time to ride the wave of change, rather than be crushed once
more beneath it.