Protesters marched through the streets of Washington Sunday, condemning the Syrian government for its treatment of ethnic Kurds. The demonstration came after a week of violence between Kurds and Syrian security forces left dozens of people dead. The protesters denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and called for an end to Kurdish oppression in the Middle East.
Standing in front of the Syrian embassy, some 200 protesters waved Kurdish flags and banners condemning the treatment of Kurdish people in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
Syria, Syria you can't hide, we charge you with Kurdish genocide. Syria out of Kurdistan. Syria out of Kurdistan.
Protesters gathered outside the Syrian embassy before marching several kilometers to the White House. They said the violence last week in Syria has sparked a show of Kurdish solidarity, with similar demonstrations in Europe, Syria and a protest in northern Iraq by thousands of Iraqi Kurds.
"All of our families now in Syria currently and we have to give support to let the world know that the Kurds, whether they're in Syria or other parts of the world, we are one voice we are with you and we have sympathy for all the Kurds who have been terrorized in Syria," says Dara Delbin, who traveled from Boston to join the march.
The violence in Syria began after a riot erupted between Kurdish and Arab fans at a recent soccer match, killing nine people. During the past week Kurds and Syrian police clashed several times in the northeast of the country, where most of the country's Kurdish community lives.
Dozens of people died in the violence and a Syrian Kurdish leader says despite the recent release of 1,200 Kurdish men detained by police, Kurds remain fearful of further persecution by security forces.
The Syrian government has blamed the clashes on what it calls politically-motivated troublemakers. However 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.
Mehmet Akbas said the violence is just the most recent incident in a long history of Kurdish oppression in Syria. "The Syrian regime it's an oppressive regime, it's a criminal regime," he says. "There's no difference whatsoever between Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein or the government policies - the same Baath party that was in Iraq now we have the same thing in Syria."
Banners at the protest linked Syrian President Assad with deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, saying Saddam is gone, Assad is next. Protesters said they want Syria to be accountable for crimes against Kurds, and want oppressive policies in the country to end.
Large Kurdish communities exist in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq - and demonstrators here say the fall of Saddam Hussein, who ordered a chemical attack that killed 5,000 Kurds, is the first step in liberating the group in the entire region.
Kary Karadaghi, the executive director an organization lobbying for Kurdish independence, spoke to the crowd of demonstrators gathered outside the White House.
"Kurdish people in Syria are the most oppressed people, after our brothers and sisters in Turkey and our brothers and sisters in Iran. We have pretty much liberated Kurdistan of Iraq," she said. Don't you agree with me? Now is the time to free Kurdistan of Turkey, Syria and Iran. And nobody can do it except us and them. We have to be united, we'll do it together."
Kurdish people share a common language and culture and many want to establish an independent nation called Kurdistan. More than 26 million Kurds live in the Middle East and altogether they form one of the world's largest ethnic groups without a country. Governments in the Middle East with large Kurdish populations view Kurdish identity as a threat to national solidarity.