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    Middle East
     Jun 4, 2011

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Unrest in Syria inspires Kurdish activism
By Chris Zambelis

As the momentum of opposition demonstrations targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gains in the face of an increasingly violent crackdown by the state, questions are emerging as to the survivability of a regime widely considered to be among the most autocratic in the region.

Like others in the Arab world toiling under decades of authoritarianism, Syrians are protesting against the absence of democratic freedoms, the disregard for human rights and the corruption pervading their society. As legitimate grievances engendered over time define a discourse of dissent, underserved segments of Syrian society, including persecuted ethnic

minorities such as the sizeable Kurdish community, are also finding their voices.

Encompassing all corners of the country, the unrest in Syria has reached the northern and northeastern provinces where most of the country's ethnic Kurdish minority population reside, particularly in Aleppo, al-Raqqa, and, especially, al-Hasakah province, which borders Kurdish-dominated regions of Turkey and Iraq. Kurdish neighborhoods and towns across other parts of Syria are also witnessing displays of dissent.

The specter of Kurdish nationalism continues to haunt governments in the region that rule over restive Kurdish populations, namely Turkey, Iraq and Iran, as well as Syria. Initially, there was little evidence to indicate that Syrian Kurds were expressing their grievances amid the current uprising through an ethno-nationalist lens analogous to the calls for autonomy or independence by Kurds in Turkey and Iran, which are experiencing Kurdish insurgencies, or Iraq, where Kurds enjoy a quasi-independent status guaranteed through Iraq's federalization.

Most Syrian Kurds appear to be venting their ire against the state as Syrians, not as Kurds. At a rally in the town of al-Amouda, in al-Hasakah province, protestors chanted "God, Syria, freedom, and that's it", a play on a popular Ba'athist chant, "God, Syria, Assad, and that's it". Protestors also carried Syrian flags and banners reading "Respect for the heroes of freedom" and "We are all Syria".

Yet there have been instances where Kurdish grievances were articulated through a Kurdish nationalist discourse. At a March 20 rally during celebrations marking the festival of Nowruz (Persian New Year) that is traditionally commemorated by Syrian Kurds (though repressed by authorities) in the largely Kurdish city of al-Qamishli (also in al-Hasakah province), demonstrators brandished Kurdish flags while leading chants of "long live Kurdistan".

Given these trends, the manner in which political instability in Syria impacts the position and expectations of Syrian Kurds and, more broadly, the larger question of Kurdish nationalism in the Middle East, warrants closer examination.

Western Kurdistan
The Middle East is in the throes of a reinvigorated Kurdish nationalism following the establishment of what, in essence, represents a semi-independent Kurdish state that emerged under the auspices of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

Depending on the political leanings of the sources, demographic data regarding Kurdish minorities are often heavily politicized as many as 30 million Kurds live as marginalized ethnic minorities who experience social, cultural, linguistic, and political discrimination in a transnational territory spread over Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria or, as Kurdish nationalists like to call it, "Greater Kurdistan".

In this context, the territory occupied by Syrian Kurds is considered "Western Kurdistan" or "Syrian Kurdistan". The Kurdish population in Syria is estimated to number between 1.5 to 2 million out of a total of around 22 million Syrians, making it the largest non-Arab minority in one of the region's most ethnically and religiously diverse countries.

Kurds in Syria are forbidden to use the Kurdish language in education and other official venues. Other expressions of Kurdish identity are either prohibited or strongly circumscribed to satisfy the regime. Kurds also are also among the poorest communities in Syria and influential Kurdish figures are subject to arbitrary arrest and torture. Most Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but the community includes significant numbers of Alawites, Shiites, Christians and adherents of other smaller sects. Syrian Kurds also share ties with familial and tribal networks that extend over the borders into Turkey and Iraq, as well as a sense of transnational Kurdish identity.

Tensions between the Syrian state and the Kurdish community, while modest in scale compared with the experiences of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran in terms of the amount of bloodshed over the years, are nevertheless real. A series of incidents in recent years is illustrative of the hostilities simmering below the surface in Syrian society in regard to the position of the Kurdish minority.

For example, in March 2004 a heated exchange between rival Kurdish and Arab football fans in al-Qamishli took on political overtones as Kurds reportedly brandished Kurdish flags and chanted slogans praising then US president George W Bush and Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. Subsequent clashes between the fans prompted a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces that left 36 dead and hundreds injured, most of them Kurds.

The incident prompted Kurds to organize across Syria, leading to further clashes between Kurds and the security forces and attacks by Kurds against symbols of the state. This period of hostilities represented the largest display of domestic disorder witnessed in Syria in decades. Less dramatic displays of unrest among Kurds have also prompted clashes with Syrian security forces in Kurdish neighborhoods of major urban centers such as Damascus and Aleppo.

A question of citizenship
Kurdish immigrants from neighboring Turkey made their way to Syria from the 1920s to the 1950s to escape poverty and seek out the fertile but uncultivated farmland available in al-Hasakah province. In 1962, Syrian authorities revoked the citizenship of 120,000 Kurds in al-Hasakah on the grounds they were not born there.

The rise of Arab nationalism also placed Kurds in a difficult position in relation to the authorities in Damascus, with Kurds being viewed as a threat to Syrian unity and sovereignty. [1] Known locally as al-ajanib ("the foreigners"), the Kurds in Syria lacking citizenship number as high as 300,000. Treated as foreigners by the state, Kurds lacking citizenship are forbidden to own property, enroll in state universities, work in public sector jobs, or obtain a Syrian passport to travel abroad.

Some tens of thousands among this community, known as al-maktoumeen ("the hidden"), lack even basic identification cards, making it impossible to receive health care and other services available even to the Kurds who lack citizenship.

Seizing the opportunity to vent their frustrations amid the upheaval, Syrian Kurds remain in the forefront of anti-government demonstrations. Syrian Kurds in Lebanon (a popular destination for Syrian guest workers) have taken to the streets of Beirut and other cities in a show of solidarity with their fellow Kurds back home. In an effort to mollify Kurdish protestors, President al-Assad issued a decree on April 7 granting Syrian nationality to Kurds lacking the required credentials. In a related move designed to curry favor with the Kurdish community, 48 Kurdish political prisoners were also released from prison after being detained for over a year for political activities. 

Continued 1 2  

Turkey sees Kurdish threat in Syria unrest (Mar 31, '11)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jun 2, 2011 )


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