Syria's one-and-a-half million ethnic Kurds have been struggling for years in the face of official repression. Their demands for rights and ethnic identity have grown recently as they watch their counterparts in Iraq take a significant role in government and society.
In eastern Syria, there are people who have been working the land and filling towns and villages, as their ancestors did, for ages. But despite their long presence and labors, these people have been told that they are, in official terms, not there, and that they are not entitled to the benefits of the nation in which they live. They are Kurds.
Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party has created an official singular Syrian identity as an Arab state. To achieve that identity, ethnic minorities like Syria's Kurds have been supressed, often brutally.
Joe Stork, with Human Rights Watch in Washington, outlines how many Kurds have been deprived of citizen rights. "The main points of discrimination have to do with their legal standing," he says. "Many of them don't even have identification cards, which are essential for getting necessities like education, like health care and so forth. This is accentuated by the fact that they are the largest ethnic minority in the country."
Kurds make up some 8% percent of Syria's population and live mostly in the eastern part of the country toward the border with Iraq.
For Many, Not Citizens at All
In November 1962, the Syrian government declared that 100,000 of its Kurds were not citizens. Damascus claimed that their ancestors were not listed on Ottoman civil registration records dating before 1920. Also stripped of citizenship were politically active Kurds who spoke out against the government. Since then, the number of stateless Syrian Kurds has grown to more than 200,000 people.
The suppression of Kurds and other minorities increased markedly when Haffez al-Asad, leading the Ba'ath Party, became president of Syria in 1970. Syria's Ba'athists began a program of 'Arabization' about the same time that Iraqi President and Ba'ath Party leader Saddam Hussein launched a similar program.
Erasing Ethnic Identity
Pary Karadaghi, Director of Kurdish Human Rights Watch in Washington, says one of the most basic ways of showing Kurdish identity was taken away. "The campaign of 'Arabization' actually replaced the Kurdish names," she says. "People could not have Kurdish names on cities, buildings [and] businesses. Children's names could not be Kurdish."
Syria's Kurds struggled for years to survive despite government oppression on many fronts. They closely watched their Iraqi counterparts, who achieved a measure of autonomy in the 1990s, and pressed Damascus for their own rights. Their demands were ignored or sometimes met with waves of repression.
In March of last year, Syrian Kurds exploded in violence. A brawl at a football [soccer] game in the town of Qameshli between Arab and Kurdish teams turned into five days of rioting that left at least 25 people dead and many more injured. Damascus responded to the clash by rounding up and jailing a number of Kurdish activists. Karim Hassan, with an expatriate group called the Council of Syrian Kurds, says the confrontation sparked a new spirit of resistance among Kurds.
"After the uprising of March 12, 2004, from the Kurdish perspective there have been positive developments because the Kurds are no longer afraid of Syrian state security. But from the government side, things still are not good, because there have not been any changes despite promises from the President, Bashar al-Asad."
Clashes erupted again in Qameshli this past June after a prominent Kurdish cleric was found dead. Kurds insist he was tortured and killed by Syria's state intelligence service.
Minimal Government Response to Rights Demands
In the wake of these confrontations, the Ba'ath Party Congress announced that it would establish a "Security Committee" to investigate the situation. Karim Hassan at the Council of Syrian Kurds says this committee has held limited meetings with Kurdish tribal leaders. But he says the Ba'athists are avoiding discussions with Kurdish political parties to avoid acknowledging their separate political identity.
VOA has contacted the Syrian Embassy in Washington in an attempt to get official statements regarding the status of Kurds and other minorities in Syria. The embassy has not provided that information.
A Call for International Action
International humanitarian organizations want direct access to Syrian Kurds and other minority groups to asses their plight and begin assistance. One such organization is Refugees International in Washington. The group's Research Director, Maureen Lynch, says that it is also time for the United Nations to get directly involved on behalf of Syria's minorities.
"The UN High Commissioner for Refugees," she says, "does have a particular responsibility to be assisting in reducing the number of stateless persons. And this would include these Kurds in Syria. And once there's that international attention through a body such as the UN, governments sometimes will respond in a more favorable way than they've done on their own."
Reverberations from Neighboring Iraq
Along with international attention, there is another dynamic in play that could pressure Damascus to respect the rights of Kurds and other minorities. Pary Karadaghi at Kurdish Human Rights Watch points to significant advances in Iraq.
"It is very hard for the Kurds in Syria to be immune to what is going on in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish population in Syria has been watching for years. Many have been working very closely with the Kurds of Iraq to achieve the same level of success that the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan have achieved," she says.
Awaiting Change in Damascus
But while pressure for change by the Syrian government has been growing, Damascus has taken only minimal steps toward ending its denial of ethnic identities and human rights. Many observers say Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party sees such changes as a threat to their grip on the country. But other observers say that Damascus has no choice but to change in the face of international pressure, though that may not happen until the Ba'athists from the era of Haffez al-Asad who still influence his son, current president Bashar al-Asad, are gone.
Meanwhile, Syria's Kurds say they are tired of waiting.
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