Ana Maria Luca

Syria’s Kurds and the uprising

When the Syrians took to the streets following the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan uprisings – asking at first for reforms and then for the fall of the Assad regime, which ruled Syria with an iron fist for four decades – the Kurds did not join in.

While the Kurds rebelled against the regime in 2004 in Qamishli, few Syrians joined them, and their revolt was crushed by the authorities. At least 30 people were killed and another 100 wounded in the crackdown.

“It is true that [in 2004] not only did the Arabs not support the Kurdish uprising, but some of them cooperated in the suppression of the Kurdish people by the regime, and in destroying their aspirations for freedom. What happened at that time led to the rift between the Kurdish and Arab communities, and this naturally led to a lack of confidence between the two peoples because of the circumstances in the region,” Kurdish rights activist Khalaf Dahowd told NOW Lebanon in an email exchange.
“At first they were afraid, especially after what happened in 2004, when none of the Arab Syrians cared about what happened to the Kurds,” an activist from the Berlin-based rights watch KurdWatch told NOW Lebanon. “They thought. ‘Why should we go and demonstrate in solidarity with them?’ That was in the beginning.” She said that Kurdish political parties preferred to wait and see if the movement was strong enough to have a chance of bringing down the regime, because they didn’t want to be victims again.

“If Kurdish political parties would choose to mobilize for this uprising, I think more crowds would take to the streets,” said the activist, who preferred not to be named.

But while their political leaders have been relatively silent since the start of the protests, tens of thousands of Kurds have taken to the streets in the northeastern towns of Qamishli, Amudah and Darbasiyah, while hundreds of Kurdish activists from around Syria were arrested for participating in demonstrations.

But for the Kurds, there is more to the Syrian uprising than political rights.

“There is intense popular support among Kurds for the Syrian uprising, as issues of freedom and dignity are a matter of principle for us, and they define us all,” Dahowd said.

There are around 400,000 Kurds in Syria, making up around 10 percent of the population. About half of them are known as ajanib, or foreigners, and they have special ID cards and limited rights. The others are called maktoum, meaning people with no country, and have no proper IDs. Since 1963, when the ruling Baath party came into power, the Syrian authorities have refused to allow Kurds to register their children with Kurdish names, the Kurdish language has been forbidden in schools, Kurdish holidays and political parties have been banned, and shopkeepers have been threatened with closure if they display Kurdish signs in their stores.

On April 7, at the beginning of the uprising, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most influential Kurdish party in Syria, released a formal statement calling for Kurds and Kurdish parties to join the demonstrations, asking for "democratic Syria and democratic self-management for Western Kurdistan."
When the protests began to spread, “Bashar al-Assad decided to restore citizenship to ajanib Kurds, but not to maktoum. This leaves perhaps 200,000 people without citizenship, if in fact the ajanib people are given the citizenship they have been promised,” Dahowd said.

But although dozens of Kurds have been arrested and tortured for participating in the protests, and some Kurdish soldiers were shot in Daraa because they refused to kill demonstrators, activists say that the Syrian regime’s crackdown in Qamishli and Amudah hasn’t been as fierce as in the rest of the country because the full participation of the Kurdish minority in the uprising might reduce the regime’s chances of survival. The KurdWatch activist said the Syrian regime is seemingly trying to prevent the Kurds from taking to the streets.

“Simply, the Syrian authorities do not want to open another arena of fighting, and would prefer to avoid provoking us. They want a quiet northern front, and have previous experience with us in this regard. They know very well that if they take on the Kurds, the whole Kurdish community will rise up, and we have a presence in the capital Damascus, in Aleppo, Syria's major cities,” Dahowd said.

  • syriank2011

    @Majd, First, Bashar is already a loser and second, Turkey have given the Kurds the Political rights and they can speak in Kurdish and watch Kurdish TV. Bashar is just a ... of the dictator's off the Baath party. So please we don't need your dumb advice.

    June 19, 2011

  • Simon Hokayem

    So far, where is the arab?

    June 8, 2011

  • Kurds of Syria

    Syria has more than 20% Kurds; there are about 10% in Aljazeera region, and 10% in north of syria / Aleppo / Efrin / Kubani, Damascus's Kurdish quarter. Meaning we have around 4 million including the 500,000 stateless Kurds.

    June 8, 2011

  • ali daoud

    habibi Hemin, what will happen is that Turkie will take good care of you in case Bashar looses! and Bashar will never loose.

    June 7, 2011

  • Hemin Kurdi

    Syria's population is over 22 million. The Kurds make almost 10 % of the population, which makes over 2 million. (...) Kurds are among demonstrators and some of Kurdish (illegal) political parties have taken part in opposition meetings. However, the majority of them are expecting a more clear support from Arabs and opposition parties. What is going happen for the Kurds after Assad? Kurds expect assurance!

    June 7, 2011