Kurds in Syria


Paper presented at Kurdocide Watch Conference

Robert Lowe, Middle East Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science
The popular demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt in the last month have dramatically expressed the deep discontent felt by millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa. Unrepresentative government, corruption, human rights abuses, inequality and poverty occur in most countries in the region. Syria would feature near the top of a list of states in which these are prevalent and its Kurdish population is among the most disadvantaged and oppressed groups in the Middle East. Despite this, there is little immediate prospect of the Kurdish situation improving, rather it is continuing to deteriorate.
The problems affecting Kurds in Syria date back nearly a hundred years to the creation of the modern state of Syria under the French Mandate. This artificial construct included within its borders Kurdish people who became cut off from other Kurds living in what became Iraq and Turkey. The central difficulty for Kurds in Syria has always been that they are an ethnic minority of sufficient size to attract discrimination from the Arab majority, but of insufficient size to stand up to this discrimination (as with the Kurdish populations in Iraq, Iran and Turkey). This discrimination has been especially malignant because the ruling elite in Syria turned to Arab Ba’thist nationalism to forge a collective national identity. This identity denies legitimacy to non-Arab Kurds.
Hence, for over half a century, the Syrian government has created and maintained special discriminatory practices against its Kurdish population. This reached severe and absurd levels in the 1960s and 1970s when the government enforced repressive legislation to impose Arabization on the Kurds and even denied the existence of Kurdish people in Syria. The most serious state attack on Kurds was the politically-motivated census in 1962 which removed citizenship from over 100,000 Kurds and also applies to their descendants. Kurdish land and villages in the Kurdish-majority region areas of the Jazira and around Kubani and Afrin was taken by the state and given to Arabs who were resettled in a plan to create an ‘Arab Belt’. As Hafez Asad later became more entrenched in power, the attacks eased off in the 1980s and 1990s, although there was no repeal of the discriminatory legislation.

The last decade has witnessed significant developments. The ‘Damascus Spring’, following the accession of Bashar Asad, created a brief moment in Syria in which political opposition and civil society groups, could operate. Kurdish political and cultural activity, which had been heavily repressed, slowly developed. The discernible increase in confidence among Kurds was visible through more prominent political activity, notably public statements and demonstrations. Newroz became a critical annual period for Kurdish expression and accompanying tension with the Syrian authorities.
The gains made by Kurds in Iraq following the fall of Saddam further encouraged Kurds in Syria and in March 2004 when shootings of Kurds by Syrian security forces triggered large protests and riots. These were of a level never previously seen among the Kurdish communities and the most serious challenge to the Syrian regime since the Muslim Brotherhood rising was crushed in 1982. Some Kurds refer to these events as the serhildan (uprising) and it is clear that this was a momentous event: a genuinely popular expression of discontent that occurred in all Kurdish areas of Syria and which for the first time provides Syrian Kurds with a distinct ‘national’ marker.

The regime was embarrassed the events of 2004, and 2005 when further Kurdish demonstrations followed the assassination of Sheikh Mashouq Khaznawi. In response it made a few conciliatory public noises, while maintaining and indeed increasing its tight stranglehold on Kurdish expression. While the underlying legislation and practices of the various arms of the state are deeply prejudicial towards Kurds who maintain their identity, there is an ebb and flow to the state’s actions. A certain amount of cultural or political activity is at times allowed, but to no great extent and the state’s repression remains arbitrary and firm. High levels of arrests of Kurdish for political or cultural practices in recent years indicate no improvement in the regime’s attitude.

A number of Kurdish political figures, leaders and lesser known activists have been jailed or are undergoing a long round of trials. For example, three senior members of the Yekiti Party, including Hasan Saleh, have been held incommunicado in detention for over a year. Their trial is repeatedly postponed and Amnesty describes them as ‘prisoners of conscience’. Abdulrahman Omer, a Kurdish folk singer, was reportedly arrested in January and his whereabouts are unknown. Kurdish conscripts in the Syrian army continue to die in mysterious circumstances. Around 50 have died in the last seven years.

The key problems facing the Kurdish communities in Syria today have changed little in the last few decades. Many of these problems are common to all Syrians who endure severe authoritarian government, but state repression of Kurdish people takes special forms not applied to any other ethnicity in Syria. In brief summary, these are: the ban on the Kurdish language, restrictions on Kurdish cultural practices, the illegality of Kurdish political representation or cultural organisations, unequal opportunity in employment, the denial of citizenship and restrictive legislation affecting property rights in the Kurdish areas of Syria.

The latter two issues are the most immediately serious. Perhaps 200,000-300,000 Kurds are deprived of citizenship for no legitimate reason and suffer great hardship as a result. Decree 49 of September 2008 appears to be the latest legal attempt by the Syrian regime to weaken the Kurdish presence and identity in Kurdish-majority areas through encouraging poverty and migration. The decree extends earlier legislation which places restrictions on the sale, transfer or modification of land in a border area of Syria. Changes to the ownership and leasing of land require permission. This affects both agricultural and urban land. The legislation affects all border areas of Syria but in practice it appears to be applied most strictly in the northern Kurdish areas along the border with Turkey. Indeed, Kurdish areas which are not adjacent to the border, such as the city of Hasakeh, are also included. Sources state that the application of the decree is inconsistent and it is notably more difficult to gain permission in Kurdish areas, especially if the applicant is Kurdish.

The absence of data means it is difficult to quantify the effects of Decree 49 but it is clear that the restrictions have badly hit the construction and real estate industries. In Hasakeh and Qamishli, many Kurds rely on these sectors as there are few other employment opportunities, especially for the unskilled and those denied citizenship. Poor harvests caused by climate and irrigation problems have worsened the precarious economic situation. Migration from the Jazira has increased as a result. It is not possible to know to what extent, but some Kurds state that large numbers are leaving and fear the dilution of the Kurdish community within its most populous area.

The economic hardship in the Jazira and other Kurdish areas, the denial of citizenship, the lack of Kurdish identity and cultural rights, and the repression of political activity are the major problems affecting the Kurdish population in Syria. The Syrian government shows no sign of addressing any of these and there is little Kurds can do to force change. In response to the events in Tunisia and Egypt, Bashar Asad said that Syria’s rulers were ‘very closely linked to the beliefs of the people’ and that there was no need to change policies. There are rumours of one concession: the ban on Facebook will be lifted.


See for example, ‘Decree 49 – Dispossession of the Kurdish population?’, KurdWatch Report 6, July 2010; http://www.kurdwatch.org/pdf/kurdwatch_dekret49_nivisar_en.pdf


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