March has been a month of contradictions in Syria. Protests and clashes have rocked the town of Dera’a in southwestern Syria, while Kurds are receiving positive, though not necessarily sincere, attention from the regime.
As Kurdistan Commentary wrote in early February, if protests were to occur in Syria, ‘given the regime’s penchant for non-tolerance of disobedience and ruthless repression of dissent, the other possibility is violent suppression of the protests.’ And the result ‘will be nothing short of mayhem.’
Protesters Dera’a, where the death toll is in the dozens, are demanding the repeal the Emergency Law adopted in 1963 when the ruling Ba’ath Party took power, the release of political prisoners, free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, and economic reforms to alleviate chronic unemployment and growing poverty in the country. It is not terribly surprising then that Dera’a, one of the poorest regions in the country, is at the epicentre of the protests.
While all the attention on Syria right now is focused on the clashes and killings in Dera’a and other nearby towns, Dera’a is probably the town furthest from Qamişlo (al-Qamishli in Arabic), the Kurdish centre of Syria.
The Kurdish minority in Syria, some 10% of the population, faces severe restrictions on cultural and linguistic expression, and systematic and pervasive human rights abuses by the Ba’athist regime. The state of emergency that has been in force since 1963, gives the security agencies virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge.
Given Qamişlo’s past, the Syrian regime hedged its bets and stepped up security there and other regional Kurdish areas. The Syrian military was deployed in force in Qamişlo just prior to Newroz (Kurdish New Year celebrated on the spring equinox) and thousands of soldiers were stationed in al-Hassakeh. It was reported though that the security forces in the Kurdish region were under strict instructions not to clash with the Kurds during Newroz, a time during which Kurds and Syrian security forces typically come to blows often resulting in deaths and mass arrests.
In a very interesting twist this year, SANA (the official state-run Syrian Arab News Agency) reported that Kurds in Syria celebrated Newroz. Syrian media never mention or acknowledge the Kurds. The SANA report emphasised ‘the state of amity binding all Syrians in a fabulous national mosaic.’ The report also said that Kurds celebrated joyously waving Syrian flags.
In Qamişlo, Kurds poured into the streets to celebrate Newroz. Though no clashes with the authorities were reported, speakers at the celebrations echoed calls for ending state of emergency, release of political prisoners, and respect for political freedoms. At night, celebrations turned to protests, with protesters filling the narrow streets of the city, shouting ‘Freedom, Freedom, Freedom’ and cars honked their horns.
A Kurd from a prominent dissident family in Qamişlo said: ‘I’ve lost my mother, sister, and brother, and I have nothing more to lose. At the same time, looking at what’s happened in previous years, I don’t even want to think what the reaction would be if we step out of line.’
In another gesture to the Kurds, the Syrian Ministry for Social Affairs and Labour announced on 07 March, that registered stateless Kurds in Syria (ajanib) would have the same status as Syrian citizens in all areas of employment. Until then, ajanib were not allowed to own a business or register one in their name. Nor did they have the right to work as a state employee (such as a teacher, judge, or doctor in a public hospital), or to practice law. The extent to which this decision will be implemented currently remains unclear. This decision does not affect the unregistered stateless Kurds, the maktumeen.
But just a few days later it was business as usual. Students at the University of Damascus were arrested for observing a moment of silence with other students at the university to mark the seventh anniversary of the ‘Qamişlo Uprising.’ It is not currently known which security service arrested the two students or where they are being held.
Clearly the regime in Damascus does not want confrontations with its Kurdish populations at the moment while it is violently repressing demonstrations in Dera’a. It is unfortunate though that the relative calm in the northeast comes only because of the harsh crackdowns in the southwest.
Yesterday, Bashar al-Asad’s political and media advisor, Buthaina Sha’aban, wished Kurds a ‘Newroz Mubarak’ or ‘happy new year,’ as she spoke at a news conference describing the ‘wonderful coexistence’ amongst Syrian people. More of the ‘fabulous national mosaic’ discourse. Sha’aban also said the government was drafting a law that would allow political parties other than the ruling Ba’ath party, would examine lifting emergency law, and loosen media restrictions.
Media restrictions are some of the most severe in the Middle East. In early February, however, the Syrian regime restored access to Facebook and YouTube, both of which had been long banned. Kurds have set up a Facebook page (Şoreşa Ciwanên Kurd/ثورة الشباب الكردي) that links to the other Syrian sites calling for change in Syria. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said however that ‘one month after allowing Facebook into Syria, Syrian forces are detaining those who dare to use it to communicate.’
Today, Friday, 25 March may well be a tipping point for protesters calling for reforms. Today is supposed to be a day of protests, dubbed ‘Dignity Friday’ by online democracy activists, and calling for rallies across the country.
With dawn breaking in Qamişlo, there are already reports on Twitter of gunfire, protests, and marches there, as well as pro-regime forces driving through the city beeping their horns.
Protesters chant ‘God, Syria and just freedom’ and then ‘freedom, freedom’, on 21 March 2011, as Kurdish flags fly in the background. The chant is a take on the Baa’thist chant ‘God, Syria and Assad.’ Video clip found at Alliance for Kurdish Rights website.
Blanford, Nicholas. Syria protests escalate, but could revolt really take root? MinnPost, 21 March 2011.
Malla, Hussein and Zeina Karam. Syria concessions fail to ease fears ahead of Dignity Friday. The Scotsman, 25 March 2011.
Damascus: Ajanib receive equal status in employment matters. KurdWatch, 14 March 2011.
Damascus: Students arrested after moment of silence. KurdWatch, 16 March 2011.
Syrian Revolution Digest, March 21, 2011. Damascus Bureau, 23 March 2011.
Syria: Security Forces Kill Dozens of Protesters. Human Rights Watch, 24 March 2011
أخبار: شعبان: دراسة انهاء العمل بقانون الطوارئ بالسرعة الكلية , تشكيل لجنة لمحاسبة المتسببين والمقصرين في أحداث درعا, زيادة الرواتب للعاملين في الدولة بصورة فورية , تعديل مرسوم 49 Welatê Me, 24 March 2011.