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)