Monday, January 18, 2010

Syria's Kurdish Problem Raises Questions for Turkey's Kurds

MAP from

According to a November report issued by Human Rights Watch, an estimated 10 percent of Syria's population of approximately 20 million people are Kurds. While some sources place the number much lower, Kurds constitute a significant minority in Syria and in recent years have met with forms of repression similar to those faced by Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have faced. Long remiss to post HRW's most recent synopsis of Syria's own Kurdish problem, it goes without saying that Kurdish issues the region over are interlinked. This is increasingly the case in a globalized world where borders matter even less, but has always tended to be the case despite the historical narratives of these four states. With Iraq's autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) growing in power and influence, Kurds elsewhere in the region are all the more likely to at least demand basic minority rights long denied to them by the states in which they were placed after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

Below are excepts of the report's summary, aptly titled "Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria":
In March 2004, Syria’s Kurds held large-scale demonstrations, some violent, in a number of towns and villages throughout northern Syria, to protest their treatment by the Syrian authorities—the first time they had held such massive demonstrations in the country. While the protests occurred as an immediate response to the shooting by security forces of Kurdish soccer fans engaged in a fight with Arab supporters of a rival team, they were driven by long-simmering Kurdish grievances about discrimination against their community and repression of their political and cultural rights. The scale of the mobilization alarmed the Syrian authorities, who reacted with lethal force to quell the protests. In the final tally, at least 36 people were killed, most of them Kurds, and over 160 people were injured. The security services detained more than 2,000 Kurds (many were later amnestied), with widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment of the detainees.

The March 2004 events constituted a major turning point in relations between Syria’s Kurds and the authorities. Long marginalized and discriminated against by successive Syrian governments that promoted Arab nationalism, Syria’s Kurds have traditionally been a divided and relatively quiescent group (especially compared to Kurds in Iraq and Turkey). Syria’s Kurds make up an estimated 10 percent of the population and live primarily in the northern and eastern regions of the country.

The protests in 2004, which many Syrian Kurds refer to as their intifada (uprising), as well as developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, gave them increased confidence to push for greater enjoyment of rights and greater autonomy in Syria. This newfound assertiveness worried Syria’s leadership, already nervous about Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and increasingly isolated internationally. The authorities responded by announcing that they would no longer tolerate any Kurdish gathering or political activity. Kurds nevertheless continued to assert themselves by organizing events celebrating their Kurdish identity and protesting anti-Kurdish policies of the government.

In the more than five years since March 2004, Syria has maintained a harsh policy of increased repression against its Kurdish minority. This repression is part of the Syrian government’s broader suppression of any form of political dissent by any of the country’s citizens, but it also presents certain distinguishing features such as the repression of cultural gatherings because the government perceives Kurdish identity as a threat, as well as the sheer number of Kurdish arrests. A September 2008 presidential decree that places stricter state regulation on selling and buying property in certain border areas mostly impacts Kurds and is perceived as directed against them.
For the full report, click here.

Kurds in Turkey have long been more mobilized than Syrian Kurds when it comes to demanding space from the state. While these demands do not necessarily include secession, they do include the protection afforded by individual rights to speech, association, religion, etc., as well as protections for Kurds as a group, including rights to use the Kurdish language, receive education in the Kurdish language, celebrate Kurdish holidays and cultural events, etc. They often also include demands for decentralization, equating to more control over regional and local issues that affect Kurds, and which Kurds are often in the best position to legislate, implement, and administrate. Kurds in Iran and Syria demand similar rights, though in the case of the latter, as the HRW summary notes, political mobilization has been late in coming and fueled by what is no doubt a matrix of factors, including the KRG. Syria, like Turkey, should take this into account, realizing that the only way to prevent demands for secession is to accomodate Kurdish rights to self-determination in some scheme short of full statehood, meaning affording the Kurds rights protections and some degree of limited autonomy. Additionally, though the emergence of a well-organized, clearly articulated, cross-national movement demanding a unified Kurdish state and capable of mobilizing people across religious and ideological lines is unlikely to happen anytime in the near future, as long as Kurds in the KRG are getting what they want -- while Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria are not -- all three states are likely to experience increased demands for secession. Though a seeming majority of Turks already think this is the goal of most Kurdish activists, this is not and has not been the case; however, as Kurds mobilize in Syria and other places, it might well be.

Also, worth mentioning is Turkey's recent rapprochement with Syria. Though the two states had long been at odds, they have recently implemented an agreement whereby citizens of either country holding valid passports may cross the border and stay for 90 days without needing a visa. More importantly, in 2005 Syrian President Bashir al-Assad has recognized Turkey's claim to Hatay, which was incorporated into Turkey in 1939 following the collapse of the short-lived Republic of Hatay, as well as supported Turkey in its 2007 invasion of Iraq over international denunciations of its illegality. Syria stopped supporting the PKK in 1998, and then in 1999 Ocalan was captured and the PKK declared a ceasefire. Meanwhile, for its part, Turkey has helped bring Syria in from the diplomatic cold, Prime Minister Erdogan recently calling Syrians "brothers" and sponsoring mediations between Syria and Israel. Turkey's recent condemnations of Israel, including Erdogan's Nasser-like walkout at Davos and the Turkish government's postponement of a military operation in November, have certainly brought the Syrians closer to the Turks. But, how will this alliance affect the Kurds in Syria?

While articles from pro-government press, like this one from Today's Zaman, portray the growing relationship between Syria and Turkey as a positive development for Kurds in Syria -- pointing to reported Syrian plans to eventually give citizenship rights to stateless Kurds, count its Kurdish population, and accomodate minority rights -- only time will tell. If Turkey's Kurdish opening succeeds in legitimately accomodating demands for minority rights, representation, and devolution, the successful accomodation of any of these demands becoming doubtful by the day, it is possible that Turkey could have a positive impact in Syria; however, even should Syria give all of its resident Kurds citizenship rights, as Turkey has given its resident Kurds, sans some realization of these groups as national minorities with distinct identities, little will be accomplished. It is worth noting that though Syria denied Kurds "citizenship status," Syrian Kurds were much less violent than Turkish Kurds, all of which which enjoyed full citizenship rights as long as they assimilated themselves into the Turkish state. Syria did not pursue assimilation to the same extent, though long repressing political and cultural rights. Perhaps the best lesson Syria can learn from Turkey is that heightened repression of its Kurdish minority, "stateless" or not, will likely bear out serious consequences. For Turkey's part, its desire for peace with and in Syria does well indeed involve how successful it is in solving its own problems with Kurds, which, in the end, is a test not just for the government, but for the Turkish political system as a whole.

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