Kurdish rights and constitutional exclusion in Syria

Kurdish rights and constitutional exclusion in Syria
by Christian Sinclair

In my first column, I’m going to recap a talk I gave last weekend in Istanbul at a conference called “On the Way to a New Constitution.”

What events of Syrian history have helped contribute to the brutal repression of that country’s Kurdish population? As the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds in Syria make up approximately 10% of the country’s population and have long been denied the most basic expressions of identity in a ruthless push by the state to promote Arab nationalism and preserve its territorial integrity.  If we look at the evolution of Syria’s constitutions we may begin to understand the situation and how it has come to pass that Kurdish rights have been trampled on so thoroughly. Then, maybe, we can understand Kurdish calls for recognition under a new, post-Assad, post-Ba’ath constitution and ask what this long repressed group may need to feel like equal partners in a new Syria.

Since Syria’s separation from the Ottoman Empire, the country has experienced many constitutions, constitutional reforms, and constitutional setbacks. The nation’s 1920 constitution (its first) called the Syrian government an Arab government. This came on the heels of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the new nation became the “Arab Kingdom of Syria” under King Faisal, who announced that his would be an Arab government “based on justice and equality for all Arabs regardless of religion.” His government only lasted four months before the French took control.

In 1927 French Mandate Authorities set up a Constituent Assembly to begin drafting a new constitution. In the summer of 1928 a Kurdish delegation to the Constituent Assembly petitioned for political, cultural, and linguistic rights, including the use of Kurdish as a medium for teaching. However, worried about what was happening in neighboring countries and fearing nationalist aspirations, the French Mandate Authorities declined the Kurdish request.

Syria gained complete independence in 1946 and not too long after a major regional development would affect the long-term evolution of Syria’s many constitutions: the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In Syria’s constitution of 1950 the addition of an article stating that Syria is “a part of the Arab nation” was added for the first time. The can be seen as a direct, defensive response to the formation of the state of Israel.

In an article from the Middle East Journal in 1951, Majid Khadduri discusses the question of Syrian unity as an additional factor that influenced Syria’s constitutional evolution. The French had parceled up “Greater Syria” doling out chunks of land to neighboring countries and establishing Lebanon as an independent entity. This created a Syrian version of Turkey’s “Sèvres Syndrome.”

Part of preamble to 1950 Constitution

Khadduri also said that “[s]tability in government presupposes the development of constitutional traditions. Frequent changes of regime…hardly afforded an opportunity of developing the tradition of responsibility necessary for stable government.” So if the tradition of responsibility wasn’t developing, what was? A fear of territorial disintegration, rising nationalism, worries about political stability, and regional geo-political shifts outside the government’s control. In 1953 another constitution was declared which added (in Article 3) that the Syrian Republic should pursue the goal of a “United Arab Nation.” But that constitution didn’t last long and the 1950 Constitution was reinstated in 1954.

From independence and through the early 1950s, a large-scale Kurdish political movement emerged, culminating in Syria’s first Kurdish political party in 1957. Some of the demands of the movement were: constitutional recognition, Kurdish participation in the administration of the state’s affairs, Kurdish as an official language, recognition of Newroz, and, some form of administrative autonomy. These demands, however, were only seen as risks. They were viewed through the developing lens of rising Arab nationalism and a fear of territorial disintegration. The Kurds were slowly inching up the list as the young nation’s most dangerous threat.

From 1958-1961 Syria was united with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) and it was during this time that Arab nationalism flourished. The union provided the means and opportunity to implement assimilation policies to safeguard its existence. For example, Egyptian schoolteachers were sent to Kurdish regions in Syria to replace Kurds and to oversee the Arabic-only language policies. Syria withdrew from the UAR in 1961 and announced the formation of the Syrian “Arab” Republic. The union ended but the assimilation policies continued full force, including the now infamous census in 1962 that stripped 120,000 Kurds of their Syrian citizenship.

In April 2012 Rudaw interviewed the leader of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, who said: “The Kurdish history in the pre-Ba’ath era was different from that of the Ba’ath era. Kurds are not different from other citizens in Syria. This feeling emerged under the Ba’ath, because the Ba’ath Party really pursued a discriminatory, racist, and marginalizing policy against the Kurds.” He says that Kurds were part of the political and social landscape and there were no problems prior to 1963. Perhaps there were fewer problems, but he is whitewashing a discriminatory history. When the Ba`ath party came to power in 1963 it simply continued the existing policies of denying Kurdish identity.

In 1964 a temporary constitution stated in Article One that: “Syria is part of the Arab homeland. And the people of the Syrian Arab region are a part of the Arab nation. They work and struggle to achieve the Arab nation’s comprehensive unity.” Article 22 offered rights and freedoms only “under the condition of not endangering the national security” or “Arab unity.” This was a continuation of the constitutional exclusion and criminalization of non-Arab identities.

Another temporary constitution was announced in 1969, which included an article stating: “The educational system aims at upbringing an Arab nationalist socialist generation.” This reflected policies already in place. The Kurdish language had already been banned in public and in education. In 1967 school geography texts removed any mention of the Kurds. Yet other non-Arab minorities (Armenians and Assyrians in particular) had their own schools and clubs where their languages were taught. Why? They were not seen as a threat to the Arab nation.

Syria’s 1973 (and current) constitution is meaningless as the country’s penal codes supplant constitutional principles. These penal codes are used to prosecute Kurdish activists, politicians, and students, as Kurds are afforded no constitutional protections. They are charged with: “attempting to sever part of the Syrian territory to annex it to a foreign state” (Article 267); “involvement in cells seeking to weaken nationalist consciousness and to stir up racial sectarian strife” (Article 285); and, “involvement in an unauthorized organizations” (Article 288).

What do Kurds in Syria want today? Well, what have the Kurds been asking for since the French Mandate? Mother-tongue education in Kurdish, political freedoms, and de-criminalization of Kurdish identity through constitutional recognition. Demands have not changed much over time. What then needs to change for Kurds to achieve their long-sought-after goals? Syria needs to reconceptualize itself as a multi-ethnic, pluralistic democracy modeled on the idea of integration without assimilation and governance by the will of the people.

That notion of “the will of the people” as “the basis of the authority of the government” [Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] somehow got lost along the way in Syria’s history to a point where it is now “the needs of the state” functioning as the sole basis of the authority of the government. Who will form “the people” upon which the authority of a future Syrian government will rest? Does the Syrian National Council truly represent the people? With accusations of foreign influence and declarations from the SNC leadership that Kurds will not be given group rights, the answer is no. The SNC or any representative body requires a willingness to integrate rather than exclude in whole or in part. At some point a new constitutional will be drafted. However, a new constitution will not resolve the current issues without a total overhaul of the country’s political structures and a reframing of the national mindset.

(follow Christian Sinclair on Twitter: @sinclair_c)

New article on Kurdish politics in Syria

Have you ever read a news article that makes mention of Kurdish political parties in Syria? If so, you’ve probably been terribly confused by the many similar party names and who all the players are. Trying to sort out Kurdish politics in Syria is reminiscent of that great scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. You may remember all naming of all the parties…the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean Popular People’s Front, the Judean People’s Front, and so on.

Well, an article was just published that sheds some much needed light on Kurdish politics in Syria and was just released on Middle East Report Online. The article, The Evolution of Kurdish Politics in Syria, was written by Christian Sinclair and Sîrwan Kajjo. Sinclair is the assistant director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Kajjo is a Syrian-Kurdish journalist and human rights activist based in DC.

Together they’ve put together a piece that looks at historical origins of the parties, the fractious nature of Kurdish politics, an inside look at party membership, and a framework of how these parties relate to the regime in Damascus, and, now their relationships with the Kurdish youth movements.

You can find the article here: http://www.merip.org/mero/mero083111

Cartoon: Who’s doing what to topple the regime?

Click image to enlarge

Cartoon from Soparo perhaps represents the disagreements amongst some Kurdish political parties in Syria and the ‘Kurdish street.’ Bashar al-Assad, Syrian president, sits comfortably atop a chair. The Arab on the right is holding a sign that reads ‘The people want the fall of the regime’, which has become a common refrain in Syria in all parts of the country, and shows him standing with a Kurd, united in their call. The guy with the ax, maybe representing the Kurdish youth and their groups, is also trying to ‘topple the regime.’  But the cartoon shows some of the Kurdish political parties on the left who, according to some, haven’t yet put their full weight behind that slogan. Hence the impression that they are propping up the regime instead of helping to topple it. The sign held up by the man in grey reads ‘لجنة التنسيق’, meaning Coordinating Committee, which is a group of three Kurdish political parties in Syria: the Future Movement, Yekîtî, and Azadî. The PYD (Partîya Yekîtî ya Demokratîk or Democratic Union Party),  is closely linked to the PKK, hence Öcalan’s figure on the left.  These groups are the most anti-regime of the Kurdish political parties and the most actionist. Members of the PYD and the Coordinating Committee do support the protests and have been out protesting. So this cartoon is all about perceptions. If  you have any other interpretations of this, leave a comment.

Azadî Friday

Activists are calling for big rallies to be held tomorrow, 29 April, dubbed ‘Azadî Friday’, using the Kurdish word for freedom as a gesture of national unity. The poster on the left, in Arabic, reads:

29 April,

Azadî/Freedom Friday

all Syrians,

one hand.

The organisers are mostly Kurds (Kurdish Youth Uprising Movement, The Jezira Youth Movement for Civil Society, Coalition of Kurdish Youth Movements, etc), but the idea has been adopted by many Syrian Arab activists as well.

They say that the regime is becoming increasingly brutal in the way in which it is dealing with demonstrators and they are calling on Syrians of all backgrounds and from all over the country to show solidarity and to take part in demonstrations and sit-ins tomorrow.

Each successive Friday’s protest has grown larger than the previous one. And with it, increased brutality by the regime. We shall see how the regime responds to Azadî Friday and increased Kurdish participation in the struggle for freedom in Syria.

Death of Arabisation mastermind, Mohammed Talib Hilal

from Gemya Kurda

Mohammed Talib Hilal, author of the infamous 1963 Arabisation booklet ‘A Study of the Jazira Province from National, Social and Political Aspects,’ died on Wednesday (09 Feb) at the age of 80. Hilal’s ‘security report’ is one of the most racist documents ever produced by a Ba’ath party official. The report, published on 12 November 1963, contained a 12-point plan that was meant as a guide to action and a source of inspiration in the management of the Kurdish issue in Syria.

The twelve points of his plan, briefly, were:

1) the displacement of Kurds from their lands to the interior

2) the denial of education

3) the handing over of ‘wanted’ Kurds to Turkey

4) the denial of employment possibilities

5) an anti-Kurdish propaganda campaign

6) deportation of Kurdish ‘ulama (clerics) who would be replaced by Arabs

7) implementation of a ‘divide-and-rule’ policy against the Kurds

8) the colonisation of Kurdish lands by Arabs

9) the militarisation of the ‘northern Arab belt’ and the deportation of Kurds from this area

10) the creation of ‘collective farms’ for the new Arab settlers

11) the denial of the right to vote or hold office to anyone lacking knowledge of Arabic

12) the denial of citizenship to any non-Arab wishing to live in the area

Hilal’s plan was adopted in 1965 by the government and the Ba’ath Syrian Regional leadership. When the report became public in 1968 the government denied that it was an official government opinion and tried to assure to public that it was only Hilal’s personal opinion.

al-Hasakeh region

Hilal was the head of internal security in Hasakeh at the time. He said Kurds were violent by nature and destructive and described Kurdish as an ‘unintelligible language which was used to conceal treason and separatist plotting.’ He prescribed the total denial of Kurdish linguistic rights saying that the ‘Arabisation of education alone would not achieve full culture assimilation’ of the Kurds.

Additionally, Hilal wished to create tension within Kurdish communities by suggesting that ‘some members [of the Kurdish community] were of Arab lineage.’ The plan for the anti-Kurdish campaign was ‘to condition [the Arabs] against the Kurds, then to undermine the situation of the latter and sow in the midst the seeds of distress and insecurity.’

An excerpt of the report shows the racist attitude towards the Kurdish population in Syria:

The bells of Jazira sound the alarm and call on the Arab conscience to save this region, to purify it of all this scum, the dregs of history unit, as befits its geographical situation, it can offer up its revenues and riches, along with those of the other provinces of this Arab territory… The Kurdish question, now that the Kurds are organising themselves, is simply a malignant tumour which has developed and been developed in a part of the body of the Arab nation. The only remedy which we can properly apply thereto is excision.

The Arab Belt policy was adopted, implemented and later abandoned by Hafez al-Asad in 1976. But remnants of Hilal’s ideologies are still seen today. The most recent example was the implementation of Decree 49, which requires state approval for the sale and lease of land in all border regions of Syria.


موت المجرم عراب السياسة الشوفينية بحق الكرد في سوريا محمد طلب هلال Birati, 12 February 2011.

الإعلان عن موت علي كيمياوي سوريا Sawt al-Iraq, 12 February 2011.

McDowall, David (2007). A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd ed. I.B. Tauris, London.

Paul, James A. (1990). Human rights in Syria. Middle East Watch.

Tejel, Jordi (2009). Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics, and Society. Routledge, London.

Yildiz, Kerim and Georgina Fryer (2004). The Kurds: Culture and Language Rights. Kurdish Human Rights Project, London.

Qaddafi stirs it up at Arab League


Dialogue at most recent Arab League summit:

Qaddafi (Libyan leader): There is also the Kurdish nation, a big nation and is neighbouring us. They have the right to unite and become independent.


Walid al-Mu’allem (Syrian foreign minister): We have no comment on Mr Qaddafi’s words except for the part of the Kurds, we are not in support of creating a Kurdish independent state.

Qaddafi: You claim to be a Ba’athist and your slogan is ‘Unity, Freedom, and Socialism’…If you do not recognise the freedoms of others, then you are not honest with your own principles.


Hoshyar Zebari (Iraqi foreign minister and a Kurd)  Applauded loudly for Qaddafi.

Walid al-Mu’allem (to Zebari) : Oh, you finally unmasked yourself.

Hoshyar Zebari: You are the one who unmasked yourself.


(excerpted from a story at Rudaw)

Kirkuk Deal on Saturday?


Cartoon by Qassem H.J. who is a newspaper cartoonist working in Iraq. The cartoon above appeared in the NYTimes on 19 August 2008.

The absolute deadline they said was yesterday. But the vote on Kirkuk has been postponed again…now until Saturday. Statements via Twitter and blog postings suggest an ‘acceptable’ resolution might pass this weekend. Four competing proposals have been ‘boiled down to a single text,’ said Kurdish deputy Khaled Chwani.

Another Kurdish MP, Mahmud Othman, said ‘up until now nothing has been agreed, but Saturday afternoon we hope to reach a deal and include it on the agenda.’ Othman posted yesterday on his Twitter page that ‘a solution for Kirkuk seems in sight. We are putting the final touches on a deal fair for all & hopefully pass the law on Saturday.’

AlSumaria reported that Kurdistan Alliance MP Abdul Bari Zebari told Al Hayat Newspaper that his party has accepted the legal committee’s proposal over the elections law which gives Kirkuk a special status.

According to AKnews, Tania Tal’at, another MP on the Kurdistan Alliance List, says that parliamentary blocs have reached a preliminary agreement to hold elections adopting the 2009 voter registry.’ She also suggested that they ‘will soon reach an agreement.’

Muhammed Tamim, a legislator from Kirkuk with the Arab Front for National Dialogue, said the current proposal has received support from Arabs and Turkomen, but no response yet has been given from the Kurdistan Alliance List.

However, the head of the Iraqi electoral commission, Faraj al-Haidari, announced yesterday that it is now too late to organise a general election as planned on 16 January after repeated delays by MPs in adopting an electoral law.

The final word on the timing of the election rests with parliament, which meets again this weekend. MPs may vote to push the date back towards the constitutional deadline of 31 January 2010.

MPs have long been deadlocked over the status of Kirkuk. At issue is ethnic representation and control of the city. While Kurds favour using current voter registration lists and keeping Kirkuk as one constituency, Arabs and Turkomen want 2004 or 2005 records to be used, or for Kirkuk to be split into two constituencies.

In the 1957 census it was estimated that Kurds made up 48.3% of the population in Kirkuk, Arabs 28.2%, and Turkomen 21.4%. The rest were Assyrian-Chaldean Christians and other smaller minority groups. Last spring the percentages were estimated at Kurdish 52%, Arab 35%, and Turkomen only 12%.

As a compromise measure the tentative agreement will assign one extra seat to the Arabs and Turkomen and the most recent voter registration records will be used. The proposal that was hammered out also suggests making the results of the election provisional, subject to an examination of the voter rolls to ensure accuracy.

If population counts from 2004 or 2005 were to be used, as Arab and Turkomen had wanted, percentages would favour these groups.

Recently elected Kurdish Prime Minister, Barham Salih, said back in 2004 of Kirkuk ‘We [Kurds] have a claim to Kirkuk rooted in history, geography and demographics.’

Arab Association for Kurdish Rights

logo_aakrOn 01 June a new initiative was launched by the Alliance for Kurdish Rights, the Arab Association for Kurdish Rights.

Their webpage says about the initiative:

We are a group of students, journalists, and activists from various Arab states who are concerned for and supportive of Kurdish human rights as well as the conservation of Kurdish history and culture. Due to injustices faced throughout the Middle East, many Kurds have found a home in neighboring Arab countries, where most Kurdish communities are entirely isolated. We are using this campaign in order to draw attention to not just their plight, but also to raise understanding of the Kurdish culture and allow them to be outspoken members of our communities.

We have utmost respect for our Kurdish brethren. It is unfortunate that they have faced censorship and discrimination for many decades. We are here to assure Kurdish communities within the Arab world that we will stand up for their human rights as well as their right to practice their culture freely in our societies.

Visit their website at: http://kurdishrights.org/arabs/

Click here to read an interview with the Director of the Alliance for Kurdish Rights about this new initiative. Interview by Deborah Ann Dilley of Global Voices.

Syria’s press laws and the Kurds

Syria’s press laws are unabashedly restrictive with the result of near absolute control over the media.  Last year Syria was ranked 159th out of 173 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.  It is number three in list of the world’s worst web oppressors.

The Ba’ath Party’s 5th congress in 1971 established the principle of a centralised media.  Under the current press law, adopted in 2001, journalists can be jailed if they ‘attack the state’s prestige or dignity, national unity or army morale (…) the national economy (…) or the security of the currency.’ To be able to operate, news media must apply for a license directly to the prime minister’s office.

Only recently has the government begun to legislate online news and Internet use.

A few of the more prominent incidents involving Kurdish journalists, writers, or bloggers include:

Mesud Hamid (2003)

Mesud Hamid

Mesud Hamid

One of the better-known cases of repression against Kurdish journalism occurred when Mesud Hamid, a then 29-year-old Kurdish journalism student, posted photos of a demonstration on the German-based Kurdish Website Amude. The demonstration took place outside UNICEF’s Damascus office.  Kurdish demonstrators, both children and their parents, were demanding respect for the civil and political rights of Syria’s Kurdish population. The police came and violently broke up the gathering, arresting seven of the parents.

One month later on 24 July 2003, public security officers arrested Hamid while he was taking an exam at Damascus University.  They handcuffed him and dragged him out of the exam room in front of the other students; a clear warning to future journalists taking the exam with him.

He was held in solitary confinement at ‘Adra Prison for one year before he was allowed to see either a lawyer or any family members.  During that time he was tortured and interrogators beat the soles of his feet with studded whips.

On 10 October 2004 the Supreme State Security Council sentenced Hamid to three years in prison after finding him guilty of ‘membership of a secret organisation’ and having ‘attempted to annex part of Syrian territory to another country.’  The are the charges most frequently levelled against detained Kurds in Syria.

Hamid is now living in France.

Muhamed Ghanem (2004, 2006)
Ghanem was arrested on 31 March 2006 and released on 01 October of the same year.  His charge was posting articles on his pro-Kurdish website, Suriyoun (Syrians). Ghanem has written many articles advocating political and cultural rights for Syria’s Kurdish minority.

According to the information received at that time, Ghanem was accused of publishing ‘false news about pretended violations being done against human rights in Syria’ on his Website, ‘weakening the nation’s spirit by publishing false news on Syria’s internal situation’ and ‘working to split the Syrian homeland.’

The second charge was linked with the articles and reports that Ghanem published on his website about corruption and repression in Syria, while the third accusation would be the result of his articles supporting the cultural and political rights of the Kurdish minority in Syria.  Ghanem is one of the Syrian Arab intellectuals who support the Kurdish community in Syria to get their political and cultural rights recognized.

In 2004 he was arrested following the publication of an article on violent clashes between Kurds, Arab tribes and security forces in Qamishlo.  He was held for 25 days by military intelligence.

Ghanem lives in al-Raqqa and was dismissed from the school where he taught for 30 years.

Ibrahim Zoro (2007)
Kurdish human rights activist Ibrahim Zoro, who regularly posts material on foreign-based opposition websites, was held for 23 days in April 2007 in Damascus.

Zoro is no stranger to Syrian prisons.  He spent seven years in detention (1987 to 1994) for belonging to the Syrian Communist Party.  He is also a member of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, Freedom and Human Rights in Syria.

Reporters without Borders said that the agents who arrested Zoro were ‘as always, acting quite illegally’ and his family had not been told why he was picked up or where he was being held. ‘It is more like a kidnapping than an arrest,’ the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

At the time of his arrest Zoro was helping to organise a seminar called ‘The Philosophy of Lies.’ He has posted many articles in Arabic on websites such as the blog Tharwa and Mengos.

Faruq Haji Mustafa (2009)
Mustafa, a Syrian Kurdish journalist and writer, was ordered to visit the political security office in Aleppo on 05 April 2009 where he was arrested by political security officers, according to the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKeyes), a Lebanon-based regional press freedom watchdog, and regional news reports.

Before his arrest, Mustafa told SKeyes that he had met with a German journalist and directly following that he had received multiple summonses to go to the political security office.  Mustafa has not been heard of since his arrest, a colleague, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, told the Committee for the Protection of Journalists.

His detention and the secrecy surrounding it violate his basic right to access to legal council.

Mustafa has written for regional media outlets such as the Syrian Al-Watan, the London-based pan-Arab Al-Hayat, and the Lebanon-based Al-Safir.

Click photo to see France24 video

Click photo to see France24 video about Hoşeng

Hoşeng Osê (2009)

This Kurdish journalist has been hiding somewhere between Syria and Lebanon for months.  He has been harassed and threatened by Syrian security forces.  From his hideout, and with the help of his brother, Hoşeng is able to send two articles to Kurdish and Lebanese newspapers every week.

Recent Developments
In an effort to reach a peace deal between Syria and Israel, the United States and most European countries have toned down their criticism of Syria’s human rights record and curbs on freedom of expression.  As a result Syrian authorities have tightened their grip on the media and Internet.

In 2005 Syria’s Ministry of Communications imposed new rules on Internet café owners, ordering them to obtain identification from all computer users, and to submit customer names and their times of use to the authorities at a regular basis.

‘With Syria breaking free from its isolation, the need is greater than ever to ease the mighty censorship and grip over the media, which have only contributed to spreading ignorance and corruption,’ Mazen Darwich, head of the Syrian Media Centre, told Reuters.

A new report entitled ‘Syrian pens fall silent’ shows that 225 Internet sites were blocked last year (2008), up from 159 in 2007.  The sites include several Arab newspapers and portals, Amazon, Facebook and YouTube.  Twenty one percent of the sites banned were Kurdish and 15 percent are run by Syrian opposition groups.  The Websites of Kurdish political parties and organisations are extensively blocked.

Reporters Without Borders’ concerns about online free expression in Syria have increased as a result of an informal meeting on 10 May 2009 of the committee tasked with drafting a new press law. While the press law would continue to be subject to the criminal code, the proposed changes would extend its penalties to Internet users.

The press freedom organisation added: ‘We call for the withdrawal of this proposed reform which, if adopted, would reinforce the marked decline in the Syrian media, and we reiterate our call for the decriminalization of press offences.’


New study documents the world’s ten worst web oppressors
, Menassat, 04 May 2009

Kurdish cyber-dissident held in secret for nearly a week; two others still in prison, IFEX, 11 April 2007

Syrian journalist held incommunicado, another on trial, Committee to Protect Journalists, 22 April 2009

Oweis, Khaled Yacoub, Syria tightens control on media, Internet, CIOL News, 05 May 2009

Proposed press law reform poses new threat to Internet, Reporters without Borders, 19 May 2009

Al-Bunni, Akram (2008). Syria’s Crisis of Expression, (.pdf report), Arab Insights.

Pro-Kurdish website editor freed after six months in prison, Reporters without Borders, 10 March 2006.

False Freedom: Syria, 14 November 2005,  Human Rights Watch.

Judicial proceedings – SYR 002 / 0406 / OBS 046.1, 11 April 2006, FIDH

And Kirkuk?

Last weekend’s elections in Iraq were “hailed by both Iraqis and the international community as a success and a sign of the country’s growing stability” (McLain).  But will that stability reach (and sustain itself) in the three provinces that bridge the Kurdish-Arab ethnic lines?  These provinces are Nineveh, Ta’mim (formerly Kirkuk province), and Diyala.  Kirkuk did not participate in the recent elections.


Striped areas show provinces of mixed Kurdish/Arab/other ethnicities. source: NYTimes

The tensions along the Kurdish-Arab line mirror a much larger, and potentially more destabilizing division.  That of the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

At the forefront of the debate is Kiruk and oil.   There is no clear consensus on who controls the KRG’s natural resources.  The constitution is incredibly vague on this issue and it has led to ever-hardening battles over the oil reserves.  The province of Kirkuk (Ta’mim) sits on 13% of Iraq’s oil.

But oil is not the only friction there.  Kurds (and other groups) were ethnically cleansed from the province under Saddam’s Arabisation policies.  Arabs from the south were relocated to the area.  Subsequently, Kirkuk has become a de facto symbol of oppression against the Kurds.  It is a city that has strong emotional attachment to Kurdish identity in the region and Kurds will continue the fight to incorporate it into the KRG.

However, Prime Minister al-Maliki  and his centralisation policies have been strengthened by the elections and he may take that as a mandate to reign in local governments.  At the same time, the Kurds see wins in Kurdish districts (smaller units of the provinces) as proof of voters’ desire to become part of the KRG.

But the complications are not just domestic.  Turkey has warned that it would not tolerate a Kirkuk governed by the KRG.  It views a Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk as a threat to its national security.

The KRG has scheduled provincial elections for 19 May.  No date has yet been set for Kirkuk.


What Iraq’s elections will mean for the crucial oil sector, The Daily Star, 06 February 2009,

Carpenter, S. Surprises from Iraq’s Provincial Elections, Policy Watch #1472, The Washington Institute, 06 February 2009, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3008

McLain, S.  You have to solve Kirkuk, The National, 07 February 2009, http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090207/FOREIGN/47173813/1011/NEWS

Update on Iraqi Elections

Early tallies show that al-Hadba, the Sunni Arab nationalist group formed in 2006, has a strong lead in Iraq’s Nineveh province. If these results are confirmed, the party would gain a major role in the government of that province which includes Mosul, Iraq’s third largest and most diverse city, ousting many of the Kurdish representatives elected there in 2005.

Al-Hadba’s primary aim is to challenge Kurdish expansion in the region.  Their party candidates tapped into Sunni complaints of ineffective government and resentment over Kurdish efforts to incorporate parts of the province into their self-governing region which borders Nineveh.

“Hadba should halt the role of Kurdish forces,” said Ziad Khalid, a 32-year-old clerk at Mosul University. “That will lead to the end of violence in the province and the defeat of al-Qaida as well.”

Mahdi Herky, a Kurdish council member seeking re-election, expressed confidence the vote would show support for the Kurdish regional government.

“There’s good evidence these places belong to the KRG,” he said. “We expect some tension. But we expect there will be understanding.”

With all signs pointing to victory, al-Hadba leader Atheel al-Nujaifi called on the Kurds to give up their territorial ambitions.

“People want to change the situation in the province,” he said in a telephone interview. “I guess violence will be halted except the areas that are under the Kurdish control, because this needs a Kurdish political decision to abandon their gains in this area.”

Al-Nujaifi said he expected opposition from the Kurds “but they can’t affect our work.”

“The Kurdish leadership should learn how to deal with the new situation and consider the Arabs after these elections,” he said.

Turnout in the Nineveh province was higher than most provinces in Iraq, reaching 60 percent. Overall Iraqi officials reported that turnout was 51 percent.  Official results are expected midweek.

In one part of Nineveh province, in an area under Iraqi government control but which the Kurds claim as part of Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a large population of Yazidis.  This ancient religious community based in northern Iraq is considered Kurdish by the Kurdish parties who court their votes.

Christian Science Monitor)

Sinjar: Yezidi community voting (photo: Christian Science Monitor)

The Yazidis themselves, whose villages were widely destroyed under Saddam Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds, are split over whether they consider themselves Kurdish and could be a crucial swing vote group in the region.

“The Kurds are very good to us – they help us with salaries, they provide services,” says Khalaf Khatha Khalaf, waiting to vote for the first time.

In Diyala province it was reported that some 80,000 Kurdish names were not included on the voter registration lists, which may result in a loss of at least three seats on the provincial council.

Future elections are slated for the following dates:

*19 May 2009: the three Kurdish provinces of KRG will vote
*June 2009: district elections due to take place, with referendum on the US-Iraq agreement
*December 2009-January 2010: proposed general election expected to take place

Arraf, J. Iraqi vote expected to bolster Maliki. The Christian Science Monitor, 02 February 2009.  http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0202/p01s01-wome.html

Gamel, K. Sunni party likely big winner in northern Iraq, Associated Press, 02 February 2009.  http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5g6DUXCJFehUSuMOcewSA1ghMHgFAD9633A300

Haynes, D. Confusion over registration restricts turnout in Iraq poll to 51%.  The Times, 02 February 2009.  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article5632929.ece

Londoño, E. In Iraq’s North, Vote Will Define Loyalties, Disputes. Washington Post (Foreign Service). 02 February 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/01/AR2009020102087.html

Thousands of Kurdish votes missed.  Kurdish Aspect.  01 February 2009.  http://www.kurdishaspect.com/doc020109KS.html

تغييرات في الخارطة السياسية بالنتائج الأولية للانتخابات بالعراق Al Jazeera.net, 01 February 2009, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/8BB2ABC8-CE60-4FB7-9FA2-5679690E46B8.htm?wbc_purpose=Basic%2CBasic_Current

Kurds and the Iraqi elections

With provincial elections tomorrow in Iraq, several flashpoints are in the headlines and worth watching. Newspaper reports abound with headlines and references to “Kurdish-Arab tensions” and the “Kurdish fault line.”

There are 18 provinces in Iraq. Three of them (Dahuk, Irbil, and_41227090_iraq_provinces3_map416 Sulaimaniya) form the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Three others, which border the KRG to the south (Nineveh, Tamim, and Diyala) have substantial Kurdish populations concentrated in the northern borders.

The KRG provinces will not be voting in tomorrow’s election. Nor will Tamim province, with its disputed capital city, Kirkuk.

The two provinces of Nineveh and Diyala (capitals are Mosul and Baqouba, respectively) are the areas in which the “Kurdish-Arab tensions” exist and are under close scrutiny.

In 2005 Sunni Arabs boycotted the Iraqi elections giving the Kurds more local control than otherwise would have happened. For example, Kurds comprise 30-35% of Nineveh’s population of 2.6 million. However, they currently hold 31 of 41 seats on the province’s regional council.

Nineveh’s governor, Duraid Kashmoula, is an Arab but ran for office back in 2005 with the Kurdish coalition. Many refer to him as a puppet of the Kurdish parties and consider his Kurdish deputy, Kasro Goran, the real power in his government. Both will be out of office after the election results come in, about three days after the polls close. Final results, however, must be verified by international observers.

Over the past four years the Kurds have consolidated their hold on Nineveh, Iraq’s most diverse province, with Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, and Turkmen. Some have accused the Kurdish security in the region of harassing non-Kurdish minorities resulting in more regional divisiveness. Kurdish leaders have denied this and point to the more than 2,000 Kurds that have been killed in Mosul (capital of Nineveh) in the past few years.

One of the political contenders now in Nineveh is the Al-Hadba party, a Sunni Arab nationalist movement made up of many former Ba’athists. One of its senior leaders, Sheikh Abdullah Humaidi Yawar, labels the Kurds “racist like the former regime” and his party hopes to displace as many of the Kurdish candidates as possible. Its platform is purely anti-Kurdish and aims to roll back Kurdish power and influence in the governorate.

Another Sunni faction in the north, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), while less extreme than Al-Hadba, has similar aspirations. Yahya Abdul Majoud of the IIP has said when they “have the ability to protect these areas, we will ask Kurdistan to leave them.” He also wants to see Iraqi army units replace Kurdish ones.

Turnout in Nineveh and Diyala is expected to be high amongst both Arabs and Kurds. The Sunni Arabs will want to reverse the results of the 2005 elections and boost their representation in local government; Kurds, wishing to counter the Arab surge in votes, will also turn out in high numbers.

In Diyala province, the northern “arm” of the governorate is predominantly Kurdish. Security in the region on election day will be provided by a joint force of Iraqi army regulars and Peshmerga forces. U.S. troops will be present as well. Security is tight all over Iraq, with borders closed, transportation bans in effect, and nighttime curfews.

Even with the added security, the lead up to the elections has not been without incident. Car bombs are less frequent, but still happen. Political assassinations are ever present. Just yesterday gunmen killed three Sunni Arab candidates. One, Hazem Salem Ahmed, a National Unity List party candidate, was shot outside his home in Mosul. Another, Abbas Farhan with the National Reform and Development Party, was shot and killed in Mandili, a small town in Diyala province near the Iranian border.

But the country is very different today than it was when Iraqis went to the polls four years ago. Fear has abated and given way to open debates over candidates and their qualifications. Still UN special representative to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, is anxious about the results of the elections, wondering if Iraq can move “from bullets to ballots” and maintain stability.

It remains to be seen how each side will perceive the election outcomes in the Nineveh and Diyala provinces. Any allegations of fraud or misrepresentation could lead to ethnic clashes and more violence.


-Claude, P. Les élections provinciales, test de la stabilité de l’Irak, Le Monde, 30 January 2009. http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2009/01/30/en-irak-le-test-des-elections-locales_1148514_3218.html

-Hauslohner, A. Iraq’s Election Fuels Tension on Kurdish Fault Line, Time, 28 January 2009. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1874451,00.html

-Iraqis to vote in Al Qaeda’s last stronghold, Khaleej Times Online (Reuters), 29 January 2009. http://www.khaleejtimes.com/DisplayArticleNew.asp?section=middleeast&xfile=data/middleeast/2009/january/middleeast_january552.xml

-Kami, A. Casting a vote against fear in Iraq, Reuters Blogs, 29 January 2009. http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2009/01/29/casting-a-vote-against-fear-in-iraq/

-Londoño, E. In Iraq’s North, Ethnic Strife Flares as Vote Draws Closer. Washington Post (Foreign Service), 28 January 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/01/27/ST2009012703537.html

-Parker, N. and U. Redha. Arabs, Kurds take their fight to polls. LA Times, 25 January 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-fg-iraq-mosul25-2009jan25,0,2818213.story

-Poll candidates killed in Iraq, Al Jazeera, 30 January 2009. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/01/2009129175338701596.html

-Susman, T. Iraq voters cast early ballots in provincial elections. LA Times, 29 January 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iraq-elections29-2009jan29,0,5353439.story

Syria’s Kurds

Syria’s total population stands at just under twenty million. The Kurdish population within the Syrian Arab Republic is estimated to be 9% of the total population. This comes out to roughly 1.8 million Kurds living in Syria. This number, however, is anything but accurate as the Syrian government does not keep figures. Also the definition of ‘Kurd’ in Syria is open to debate [1] . Regardless of exact numbers, Kurds are by far the largest ethnic minority in the country, but without legal recognition as such [2].

There is a definite dearth of literature that deals primarily with Kurds in Syria (in Kurdish this region is sometimes referred to as Kurdistana Binxetê, meaning ‘below the line’ [3]). Most published works on the Kurds deal with Turkey and Iraq. Two recent works that focus specifically on Kurds in Syria are by Kerim Yildiz (The Kurds in Syria) and Jordi Tejel (Syria’s Kurds: History, politics and society).

Kurdish population centres in Syria

Kurdish population centres in Syria

Geographically, Kurds in Syria live mostly in non-contiguous regions of the country—as is apparent on the map. Around 30-35% of the Kurdish population live in the highlands northwest of Aleppo, known as Kurd Dagh (Çiyayê Kurd in Kurdish), meaning Mountain of the Kurds. The major urban center is Efrîn (‘Afrin in Arabic), with an urban population of approximately 80,000. The city of Efrîn and the surrounding region have a population of close to 500,000. This group traces it lineage to this region for many centuries.

The Kobanî (‘Ain al-Arab in Arabic) region, where the Euphrates enters Syrian territory, is home to roughly 10%.

And 40% live in the northeastern half of the Hasake governorate, with Qamişlo (al-Qamishli in Arabic) being the largest city of that region with an urban population of 83,000 (more than 200,000 in the greater Qamişlo area). Many in the Hasake governate are descendants of Kurds who arrived from Turkey between 1924 and 1938 to escape forced reform programs being implemented by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk).

The remainder is settled in urban neighbourhoods around the country, such as the Hayy al-Akrad (Quarter of the Kurds) suburb of Damascus, accounting for 10 to 15 percent of the population. Kurds here are said to have been settled in the twelfth century by the families of Kurdish warriors under the command of Salah al-Din (a Kurd) during his battle against the Crusaders [4].

Depending on where they live and what their history is, they may or may not speak Kurmancî, northern Kurdish. Older generation Kurds living in Damascus are more likely to be far more Arabised than their younger counterparts. This group often only speaks Arabic.

Most Kurds in Syria are Sunni Muslim. There are also small numbers of Christians, Alawis, and Yazidis.

Kurds, while a relatively large portion of the country as a whole, are mostly an excluded group in Syria. Syrian independence from France was won in the context of ‘Arab’ nationalist discourse. As Kurds are not Arabs, their de facto exclusion was institutionalised with the creation of the Syrian Arab Republic. Kurds are not the only non-Arab minority in Syria, but are perceived as the gravest threat to the state given the history in Turkey and Iraq. Beginning in 1956 a succession of Arab nationalist regimes came to power in Damascus and began suppressing the Kurdish minority.

Unless the Kurds in Syria are prepared to become Arabs [5] they will remain an excluded group in all social, economic, and political aspects of life. They must give up Kurdish in favour of Arabic and accept Arab cultural and political values and goals. This is very much like the circumstances surrounding their forced assimilation in Turkey or the Arabisation policies under Saddam Hussein.

Anti-Kurdish repression grew harsher after the demise of the UAR in 1961. The following year, the government carried out a special census in Jazirah and revoked the citizenship of some 120,000 Kurds who could not prove that they had been resident in the country since 1945. A media campaign was launched against the Kurds with slogans such as Save Arabism in Jazira! and Fight the Kurdish threat! [6] An overtly racist example of the tone back at that time is exemplified in Lt. Mohamed Talab Hilal’s writings on the ‘Kurdish Threat.’ Hilal was head of the Secret Service in Hasake in the early 60s before becoming Governor of Hama and later Minister of Supplies. This is just one example of his racist writing and when taken as a whole is clearly a call for genocide:

Such then is the Kurdish people, a people with neither history nor civilisation, neither language nor ethnic origin, with nothing but the qualities of force, destructive power and violence, qualities which are moreover inherent in all mountain people [7].

Today, an estimated 225,000 Kurds in Syria are classified as non-citizen foreigners (ajanib) on their identity cards and cannot vote, own property, or obtain government jobs (but are not, however, exempt from obligatory military service). In addition, some 75,000 Kurds are not officially acknowledged at all and have no identity cards. The so-called maktoumeen (unregistered) cannot even receive treatment in state hospitals or obtain marriage certificates [8].

The situation worsened after a 1963 coup brought to power the Ba’ath Party, which had been militantly anti-Kurdish since its inception in Syria in the mid-1940s. Ba’athist ideology is based on socialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism and offers no space for a strong, non-Arab minority group. Consequently the party put into effect draconian Arabisation policies.

Kurdish land was seized, the government began replacing Kurdish place names with Arabic names, and they resettled thousands of Arabs into Kurdish areas bordering Turkey and Iraq.


[1] Lowe, R. The Syrian Kurds: A People Discovered. Chatham House Briefing Paper, MEP BP 06/01, January 2006.

[2] Abbas, S. Plight of Kurds in Syria, KurdistanObserver.com, (English-language), 24 July 2004, http://www.worldpress.org/Mideast/1902.cfm

[3] Ekici, D. Kurmanji Kurdish Reader, Dunwoody Press, 2007, pg 115, Binxet: an expression used by Kurds to refer to the political border between Syria and Turkey so while binxet (below the line) refers to Syrian Kurdistan, serxet (above the line) refers to Turkish Kurdistan. Also, Chyet, M., Kurdish-English Dictionary, Yale University Press, 2003, pg 657, binê xet “below the line”: Syrian Kurds refer to themselves as the Kurds “below the line,” referring to the line drawn on the map, i.e. the railway line, arbitrarily separating Syria and Turkey.

[4] Gambill, G. The Kurdish Reawakening in Syria, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, April 2004, vol 6, no. 4.

[5] Lowe, R.

[6] Vanly, I.C., “The Kurds in Syria and Lebanon”, In The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, Edited by P.G. Kreyenbroek, S. Sperl, Chapter 8, Routledge, 1992, p151

[7] ibid, p153

[8] Syria: The Silenced Kurds, Human Rights Watch, October 1996, vol 8, no 4 (E), http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/1996/Syria.htm

Article 140

In 1972 Iraq nationalized its oil industry giving the state new, unrestrained power over the local population. Government power became state suppression.

Ba’athists claimed they would “assimilate Kurds into a crucible of the Arab nation and if necessary, by force.” And force they did use.

It was the beginning of the scorched-earth policy in Kurdistan. Kurdish villages were razed and families were forcibly relocated to other parts of the country—most notably the southern desert areas. At the same time thousands of Arab families from the south were moved to Kirkuk. The Arabization of the Kirkuk region was under way.

With Arabization came the ethnicization of oil-rich Kurdish territories, particularly Kirkuk, changing the face of Kurdish identity. The petroleum debate centered the perception of Kurdishness (Kurdayetî) on the ethnic origins of Kirkuk.

The 2005 Iraqi constitution states that the executive authority shall undertake the necessary steps to complete the implementation of the requirements of all subparagraphs of Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL).

Article 58 of the TAL, without going into all the details, provides for the return of and compensation for forced migrants and for the resolution of

disputed territories including Kirkuk through arbitration. Basically it tries to remedy the injustices of the coercive Arabization policies of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which also included the redrawing of administrative borders to include more Arab towns in the region.

There is a referendum afoot that will decide if the Kurdish portions of four provinces (Ninevah, Ta’mim [Kirkuk], Salahuddin, and Diyala) will become part of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Kirkuk Referendum is a part of this larger referendum procedure. See map of Iraq provinces. There are three provinces now in the KRG: Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniyeh.

Before the referendum is carried out however there must be a reversal of the Arabization policies. A last-minute provision to the 2005 constitution, Article 140 provides for that. It states that, Article 58 of the TAL shall extend and continue to the executive authority elected in accordance with this constitution, provided that it accomplishes completely (normalization, census, and referendums in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens) by a date not to exceed December 31, 2007.

Swedish diplomat and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) Staffan de Mistura, proposed extending this deadline by six months. The Kurdish regional parliament agreed to his proposal. Now almost a year later it still has not been implemented.

Some say that with the original deadline past that there is no longer a constitutional obligation for Iraq to hold a referendum on Kirkuk or any other disputed territory. Kurds vehemently disagree.

The KRG is now lashing out at de Mistura for his delaying tactics accusing him of favoring the old Arabization policies. De Mistura had promised to issue a package of recommendations in September or October (of 2008) to cover eight areas in dispute.

Said de Mistura, “I don’t want to enter into polemics with the Kurdish leaders but I decided to postpone until next year the announcement of my proposal to avoid creating tensions before the provincial elections.” The elections are slated for 31 January 2009.

It will certainly add to the tensions between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq. If the Iraqi Constitutional Court rules in favor of implementing Article 140, regardless of timeframe, then the UN will continue its work in implementing normalization efforts. If the court rules against the implementation of Article 140, differences between the KRG and Baghdad will take a turn for the worse.


-Janabi, Nazar. Kirkuk’s Article 140: Expired or Not? The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, PolicyWatch #1335, 30 Jan 2008, www.washingtoninstitute.org
-Kurds Upset over U.N. Article 140 Report. Middle East Times, 12 Jun 2008. www.metimes.com.
-Kurds Push for Article 140 Passage. UPI.com, 09 Oct 2008
-Article 140 and the Future of Iraq. 09 May 2008. Washington Kurdish Institute, www.kurd.org
-Iraqi Kurds Accuse UN of Delaying Report on Disputed Areas. Easy Bourse, 30 Nov 2008. www.easybourse.com
-Natali, Denise. The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005.