The Kurds of Syria

Kurds protesting against their lack of rights
Kurds protesting against their lack of rights

It was estimated that approximately one million Kurds lived in Syria before that country’s civil war broke out in 2011. Currently, an estimated 200,000 or more have fled to and become refugees in Turkey. Though the population of Kurds in Syria is much less than that of their brethren in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, it is no less significant. This is true especially now as it seems that Kurdish groups in Syria have been the only ones to resist both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and hard-line Islamist militant groups such as ISIS.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, they live in segregated areas of northern Syria. Most of these areas are underdeveloped and have been neglected by the Syria government for decades. For many years the Syrian government of Hafez al-Assad sought to maintain an “Arab belt” between its Kurdish population and those in Turkey and Iraq. This uprooted many Syrian Kurds, taking away their homes and depriving them of their livelihoods. In addition, the al-Assad regime denied many Kurds citizenship, classifying them as ajanib, or foreigners who were not allowed to vote. This also forbid them from many government jobs and owning property and also denied them of many civil rights. Their cultural centers, bookshops and really any activity or media that espouses Kurdish identity was strictly prohibited under the al-Assad regime. A government law in 1992 even prohibited parents from giving their children Kurdish names. 1

Map of Syria and Kurdish areas
Map of Syria and Kurdish areas

However, things began to change in the early 2000s with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in neighboring Iraq and more autonomy and US protection of Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. This inspired many Kurds to protest more against the injustices of the Syrian regime. In 2005, rioting broke out in Aleppo after the killing of the outspoken and anti-regime Kurdish cleric, Maashouq al-Haznawi. With post-Saddam Iraqi Kurdistan gaining more influence in the region, Kurds in Iraq also began to stand up for their Syrian brethren. In June of 2005, the new President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, demanded that the Syrian regime give their Kurdish population the human and civil rights that they had been denied for generations. Also in 2005, other groups in Syria, from communists to Arab nationalists and even Islamist groups, put out a five-page document known as the “Damascus Declaration.” This document also included provisions for greater freedoms and civil rights for the Kurds and was supported by various Kurdish groups in Syria who demanded “a just democratic solution to the Kurdish issue in Syria, in a manner that guarantees the complete equality of Syrian Kurdish citizens, with regard to nationality rights, culture, learning the national language, and other constitutional…rights.” 2

Beginning in the spring of 2011, the most recent Syrian uprising against the al-Assad regime presented opportunities for Kurds, which now it appears have also brought great danger to Kurdish populations in Syria. With the al-Assad regime weakening and focused on fighting opposition groups in other parts of the country, the Syrian Kurds were more or less able to govern themselves. Indeed, they provided one of the more stable areas in Syria until the arrival of ISIS, or the group that calls itself Islamic State. Currently as of this writing, Islamic State has captured scores of villages and surrounded the Kurdish city of Kobani, literally just a few hundred meters from the Turkish border. Though US and other allied forces have been conducting around-the-clock airstrikes, this has not halted the ISIS advance and it seems that they currently control nearly half of the city. 3 So far, the Turkish army on the other side of the Syria border has done nothing to stop the ISIS advance.

More news from a Kurdish perspective about what is going on with Syria Kurds:

ARA News

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