Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Kurds, Syria Bucking the Trend

Human Rights Watch has just issued an interesting and thorough report about the repression of Kurdish political and cultural life in Syria (Kurds make up about 10 percent of the population there). While Iraq's Kurds are getting closer and closer to something approaching statehood and Turkey is discussing significant changes in how to approach its Kurdish minority, Syria appears to be heading in the other direction. From the report, entitled "Group Denial":
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.
(You can read the full report here.)

The situation of the Kurds in Syria (which I imagine is reflective of how political opposition in the country is treated in general) certainly has implications for Turkey. The success of Turkey's new "Kurdish Opening" -- a series of democratic reforms which could ultimately lead the disbanding of the PKK, which includes Syrian Kurds among its members -- depends, to a certain extent, on the other countries in the region with large Kurdish populations (Iraq, Iran and Syria) also taking conciliatory steps on the issue. The question for Ankara, it appears, is can it use its rapidly improving ties with Damascus to push the Syrian regime to start taking those steps?

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