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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.

'Security threat'
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

Original article: Asia Times
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