Page 1 of 2 Jitters over Syria's Kurdish clashes
By Sami Moubayed
Mar 29, 2008
DAMASCUS - Clashes took place last week in the Kurdish district of Qamishly, northeastern Syria, between Syrian security and Kurds celebrating their Nawrooz new year. Three Kurds were killed, enraging both Masoud al-Barazani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan (a former ally of Syria) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
This might explain why Talabani will not be heading his country's delegation to the upcoming Arab summit in Damascus this weekend. Barazani said, "We strongly condemn the killing of the innocent people in Qamishly. These people were just celebrating the beginning of their new year and had committed no crime," calling on the Syrians to launch an investigation into the event.
Security forces had tried to disperse a gathering of 200 people, who had lit candles and a bonfire, celebrating a holiday that is not
recognized by the government. Syria has been governed by martial law since 1963, meaning no such gathering can take place without prior approval. The Kurds knew that, but went ahead with their festival, almost looking for trouble.
Syrian authorities claimed the police initially tried to disperse the demonstrators peacefully. When that failed, they resorted to force. Before that, young demonstrators had burned tires and thrown stones at riot police, enflaming the situation. A similar demonstration took place on the same day in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, attended by about a million Kurds. They, too, lit bonfires and Turkish planes hovered nearby, but did not disperse the demonstrators. In other parts of Turkey, however, the Nawrooz new year was banned - just as it had been for as long as anybody could remember - by Turkish authorities, in Hakkari, Urfa and Siirt.
This is very bad timing for a region on the verge of explosion. The Kurds (who number 25 million across the region) already feel victimized, after several incidents took place in 2007, cornering them into the defensive. One was postponement of a census in the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, as stipulated by Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. The census, followed by a referendum, was supposed to determine whether Kirkuk was going to be transferred to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Several measures had been taken in preparation, such as relocating thousands of Kurds into Kirkuk, to increase the city's Kurdish population, and uprooting an equal number of ethnic Arabs - with the same purpose. Shi'ite politicians allied to the Kurds, like Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, had supported implementing Article 140, but this was not the case with Sunnis, Turkmen and mainstream Iraqi Shi'ites. Syria, Iran and Turkey - the three neighbors who have a Kurdish problem within their own borders, were all equally opposed to such a measure, fearing that it would ignite the imagination - and ambitions - of their own Kurds.
As a result of problems within the Iraqi arena, the referendum was postponed until later in 2008. Equally disturbing were the recent Turkish raids into Iraqi Kurdistan, aimed at crushing the Kurdistan Workers' Party that has launched terrorist attacks on Turkey since 1978. Surprisingly for the Kurds, during his visit to Ankara, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Turkey had a right to defend itself against what it sees as a security threat.
More troubling for the Kurds than the raids themselves was the fact that they had been okayed by the George W Bush administration, a one-time staunch supporter of Iraqi Kurds. Within Iraq, the Kurds are grumbling about plans to replace current Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd. The move is aimed at pacifying opponents to Maliki, who want a new cabinet that is based neither on religious nor ethnic loyalties.
Then comes the latest showdown in Qamishly, a hotbed for Kurdish-Arabic tension, right ahead of the Arab summit in Syria.
Syria has been very clear and adamant about Syrian Kurds who are inspired by the propping up of Talabani as president of Iraq and the autonomy and prosperity that exists in Iraqi Kurdistan. But granting them concessions like their brothers in Iraq is an option that simply does not exist in Syria. Some Syrian Kurds may suffer because they lack a passport or an internationally recognized document, but that is no reason - the Syrians claim - for them to demand either autonomy or specific rights that have not been given to other minorities in Syria, such as the Armenians, Circassians and Jews.
There is no such thing as a "Syrian Kurdistan" - there never has been - or what the Kurds call "Western Kurdistan". Kurds are found in large numbers in cities like Qamishly, Ain Arab and al-Hassake, but their activities have never been tolerated, either by Assad or by any other Syrian leader since 1918.
During the years 1946-1962, however, they were allowed to teach their language at schools and publish their own periodicals. Even Syrian presidents who happened to be Kurds, such as Husni al-Za'im (1949) or prime ministers like Muhsen al-Barazi (1941, 1949) did not dare promote - or tolerate - Kurdish nationalism in Syria. This is something the local population will not hear of.
Syrian Kurds claim that due to a controversial 1962 census, which stripped more than 100,000 Kurds of their citizenship, they want identification documents rather than autonomy like their brothers in Iraq. In 1962, the pre-Ba'ath government issued decree number 93, stripping about 120,000 Kurds of their citizenship unless they had proof they had been living in Syria since 1945. The argument was to identify "alien infiltrators" who had illegally crossed the border from Turkey, evading the dragnet of the Turkish government. They had settled in cities like Amuda and Qamishly, growing in size until they become the majority there.
Another reason was to prove the Arab character of Syria against the daily provocations of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser, who accused the Syrians of betraying Arabism by dissolving the Syrian-Egyptian Union in 1961. A third reason - perhaps more convincing than all the above - was the discovery of oil in the Kurdish regions.
The oil fields in Qarah Shuk were discovered in 1956 and in Suwaydiyah in 1959, explaining why the government of president Nazim al-Qudsi might have become too worried about Kurdish separatism in 1962. This explains why nearly 40% of all the confiscation of land that took place from 1960 onwards (the start of official socialism in Syria) targeted the al-Jazeera region, which is inhabited by Kurds.
Citizenship to independence
Syrian authorities - and the mass public - do not believe the "only citizenship" argument, claiming it will be "citizenship first, autonomy second, independence third". They cite how in March 2004, inspired by the newfound privileges obtained by Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian Kurds rioted throughout Syria, vandalizing private and public property. The event took place before (not during or after) a football match in Qamishly where, according to Kurdish sources, Syrian Arabs provoked them by carrying photos of Saddam Hussein, the man who had gassed Kurds to death in Halabja in 1988.
That was hard to believe, since no Syrian would raise photos of Saddam in 2004 at a time when nearby forces in the US were accusing Syria of harboring members of the ex-Iraqi president's recently toppled regime. On the contrary, the Syrians claimed that these Kurds came to the football match carrying photos of Talabani and Bush. Violence ensued, and 14 Kurds were killed, setting off violent responses throughout Damascus, Aleppo and certain Kurdish regions around Syria.
Some Syrian Kurds after all do not feel Syrian. Ask them about their nationality and they would say Kurdish. This is dangerous, given that they constitute up to 8% of Syria's 18 million. It is also unacceptable for a nation that gave birth to Arab nationalism during World War I and has been ruled by a party that preaches Arabism since 1963. Ordinary Syrians were not outraged at what the government did in 2004. They claimed the Syrian police were keeping order, although it was unfortunate and certainly wrong that people would die in the disturbances.
Assad did make some gestures towards the Kurds, releasing 300 and addressing their issue at the Ba'ath Party conference of 2005. The government promised to deal with this matter and end it for good, but a variety of regional upheavals prevented them from doing so. Assad even visited Kurdish districts, being the first president to do so since Husni. A new industrial city will be created in Deir ez-Zour, the main northeastern city on the
Page 2 of 2 Jitters over Syria's Kurdish clashes
Euphrates River, at a cost of 5 billion Syrian pounds (US$100 million), which will include various kinds of chemical, food, textile and engineering industries. This among other investment projects aims at developing regions inhabited by Kurds.
The number of Kurds unregistered in Syria varies from one source to another. Kurdish sources put it at 25,000, with another 225,000 registered as "foreigners" with red identification documents, no passports, granted by the Ministry of Interior. There are restrictions on their travel and property rights. The Western and Kurdish media magnify the restrictions, saying they prevent parents from giving Kurdish names to their children and that they are discriminated against at schools, in hospitals and in government agencies. Human Rights Watch says they are
prevented from starting their own businesses. That is incorrect. They are of course prevented from using the Kurdish flag in Syria. The Syrian government, however, puts the number of problematic Kurds at 67,465.
There are some Kurds with problems in Syria, but certainly not all of them. This is a picture the Syrians have failed to convey to the outside world. Under the French Mandate (1920-1946), Syria did welcome many Kurds fleeing from Turkey. The French did not turn anybody down and granted everybody seeking citizenship a Syrian passport. But even the French frowned when the Kurds set up a nationalist movement in the 1920s, called Khoybun, which lobbied for cultural and political autonomy.
It called for the establishment of Kurdish-language schools, recognition of the Kurdish language and appointment of Kurdish officials in Kurdish areas. So angry were the French that they banished one of the movement's founders, the poet Othman Sabri, to the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. In addition to ex-president Za'im and former prime ministers Muhsen Barazi, the long-time Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Hassoun (who called on people to fight the Americans in Iraq), was Kurdish.
The former head of the Shura Council in Syria, Abdul Rahman Pasha al-Yusuf, was Kurdish, and so was his son Said Bey, who became governor of Damascus in 1949. So was the long-serving secretary general of the Communist Party, Khalid Bakdash. He was the first communist to win a parliamentary seat in the Arab world and it was the Kurds of Damascus - not the communists - who brought him victory in 1955. There was the veteran Ali Buzzo, a fine Syrian nationalist who combated the French and became several-times minister of interior, agriculture and justice in the pre-Ba'ath years.
The Muslim Sultan Saladin - highly celebrated in Syrian history books and mass media - was Kurdish. The Kurds are respected in the commercial districts of Syria, with some being affluent businessmen, in the arts and are free to use their own language with one another.
Even these Kurds who were at the helm of power in the 1950s did not tolerate or authorize the founding of the first Kurdish nationalist party in 1957. This was the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, loyal to the Kurdish leader Mullah Mustapha al-Barazani. They refused to license it and in 1960, under the Arab nationalist union of Nasser, the government persecuted its members for preaching Kurdish nationalism.
By 1965, another party had emerged called the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party - supported by Talabani, who himself went on to found the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 1975 - also, ironically in Syria. Talabani himself remained very close to the Syrians and worked with a Syrian passport until the downfall of Saddam in 2003. He returned it "with gratitude" to Syrian authorities shortly before becoming president of Iraq.
Gifts for Kissinger
The Syrians claim the Kurdish problem in Syria is being fanned by the United States, the occupation of Iraq and the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan. They remember only too clearly how former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger fueled Kurdish aspirations in Iraq in 1974 to create trouble within Iraq to prevent the Iraqi government from supporting Syria in the aftermath of the October war of 1973 and the fallout between the Syrians and Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat.
Kissinger was very generous with the Kurds, prompting Mustapha al-Barazni to send him expensive rugs as a token of appreciation and a gold necklace for his bride on the occasion of Kissinger's marriage in March 1974.
According to Patrick Seale, the veteran journalist specialized in the Middle East, some Kurds had gone to Israel for training in sabotage attacks as early as the 1950s. Seale adds that Rafael Eitan, who was Israeli chief of staff from 1978-82, also once visited Kurdistan Iraq. This scandal was revealed, among others in the Watergate investigations in the US in 1976, in what came to be known as the Pike Report. The testimony said that Kissinger had armed and financed the Kurds to prevent the Ba'ath regime in Iraq from "adventurism", where Kissinger adds, "Our clients [the Kurds] who were encouraged to fight, were not told of this policy."
Another story that comes to mind, worth mentioning with regard to Syria's history with Kurdish separatism, is when the French bombed Damascus in May 1945 with the aim of arresting president Shukri al-Quwatli and speaker of Parliament Saadallah Jabiri. They spread a rumor in the Kurdish neighborhood that the president had been killed and the government had fled to Jordan, prompting them to raise the Kurdish flag and begin plans for Kurdish autonomy.
They did not abandon their plan until visited - and pacified - by prime minister Jamil Mardam Bey. The incident, downplayed by most Kurds, is an example how some - certainly not all - can be manipulated by outside forces.
Fouad al-Halabi, the head of Tribal Affairs in 1945, remarked, "If they [the Kurds] show signs of asserting too much independence of action or of disregarding the wishes of the Syrian government in any important matter, they could be conveniently disposed of by having them fall into the hands of Turkey."
This is a feud that will carry on long - longer than most people expect.