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.

Endnotes:

[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

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