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Syrian-Kurdish Clashes Present Syrian President with Political Crisis - 2004-03-20

Deadly clashes between Syrian security forces and ethnic Kurds in the past week have presented President Bashar al-Assad with his worst political crisis. The clashes have also intensified fears of separatist tendencies in countries with large Kurdish populations. Kurdish leaders themselves are trying to quell talk of regional instability.

Smoke is still rising from barns set on fire last weekend during Kurdish riots that started as a fight between supporters of two football teams in the town of Qamishli.

The next day, violence spread to other cities in northeast Syria, as Kurds set fire to government buildings.

The Syrian government put the death toll at 25 on Thursday, but Kurdish sources say dozens more were killed, hundreds wounded, and hundreds more Kurds were arrested.

An expert on Syria at Washington's Middle East Institute, Murhaf Jouejati, says the violence is spreading fears in the region because of the considerable autonomy that the Kurdish population in Iraq already enjoys.

"One of the major fears of Syria before the outbreak of war in Iraq, and this is one of the reasons why Syria opposed the war in Iraq, is that it may whet the appetite of Kurds in Syria and those in Turkey and in Iran to emulate their Iraqi counterparts in demanding autonomy. So this is a great fear but it is not isolated to Syria, it is shared by regional neighbors, such as Turkey," he said. The president of the Washington Kurdish Institute, Najmaldin Karim, says those fears are unfounded. "Some people have been trying to advance this fear factor, [that] granting the Kurds of Iraq any rights will extend to other places, whereas all Syria, Turkey and Iran have to do is grant their Kurdish population basic rights to be able to be educated in their language, participate freely in their elections and be able to have political association, then they don't have to worry about anybody separating from the country or establishing an independent state," he said.

Kurds make up less than 10 percent of Syria's population of 18 million. More than 15 million Kurds live in Turkey, and another 11 million Kurds live in Iraq and Iran. All counted, Kurds form one of the world's largest ethnic groups without a country.

Kurds in Syria are not allowed to study Kurdish language or form political parties, and more than 150,000 have been denied Syrian nationality.

The U.S. government has criticized the Syrian government for the handling of the riots and accused Damascus of not only killing demonstrators, but cracking down on the Kurdish minority in places where there was no rioting.

The Syrian government, which is under threat of U.S. sanctions, has pledged to investigate.

The chairman of the Syrian Human Rights Association in Damascus, Haitham al-Maleh, says the Syrian government is unlikely to ease pressure on the Kurdish minority, which it perceives as threat to national unity.

"The government here in Syria says we are afraid, we are under danger, so we have to continue to use force, or to continue to use emergency law to finish any case," he said. "The USA has no right to push their nose in our problem. The Kurds are part of the Syrian people. We have one land. We have one country. We want to discuss all our problems together."

Meanwhile, amid Kurdish protests in Europe and Iraq, Syria sealed off its border with Iraq to prevent Kurdish sympathizers from trying to join forces with their fellow Kurds in Syria.

Mr. Karim says Kurdish leaders in Iraq are walking a fine line between supporting their counterparts in Syria against the oppression of the Syrian Ba'athist regime, and renouncing violence as a tactic.

"The Kurdish leadership in Iraq has really never called for an uprising in any other parts of Kurdistan and they are very careful because their own situation is very tenuous and we don't believe that violence is a way to solve the Kurdish issue in any place," he said.

Mr. Jouejati from the Middle East Institute says Arab leaders, who remained silent on the events in Syria, tend to support a policy of non-interference in neighboring countries. He says they oppose U-S support of ethnic minority rights in Iraq because it could draw more attention to non-democratic policies they maintain at home.

"Arabs want Iraq to maintain its national unity and its territorial integrity so that the Pandora's Box will not be opened," he said. "There are ethnic minorities throughout the Arab world, not only the Kurds. The region is fearful that external forces would be fishing in these muddy waters in order to make certainly what is a bad situation even worse."

But Arab governments are quick to make a distinction between Kurds, whose desire for statehood they don't support, and Palestinians, whom they give full backing.

Former secretary-general of the Arab League, Esmat Abdel Meguid, explains. "Palestinians are entitled to have their own country because part of it is under Israeli occupation. But the other side, these (Kurds) are citizens of a country. So why should we start to divide them by their origin and so on? I don't think this is something normal," he said.

The repression of Kurds in Syria has a long history, dating back to the 1960s when tens of thousands of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship. Few observers in the Middle East expect the Kurds' human rights situation to improve anytime soon.