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,, (English-language), 24 July 2004,

[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),

We don’t need no (Atatürkist) thought control

As we already knew, many in Turkey would not at all happy with the emergence of a Kurdish-language TV station. In Today’s Zaman an article was posted entitled “Atatürkist Thought Association decries Kurdish-language TV.” The Atatürkist Thought Association [Atatürkçü Düşünce Derneği in Turkish (ADD)] is more often translated as the Association of Kemalist Ideology. However I do like the sound of the Atatürkist Thought Association. Sounds more like what it is…a thought-control association.

ordu-goreveThe photo accompanying the article shows an ADD protest. The signs in Turkish (Ordu Göreve! Atatürk Gençliği) can be translated (roughly) as Army take responsibility! Atatürk Youth. To wit, they’re saying it’s time for a military crackdown.

The official ADD statement was just released and reads:

[The ADD] strongly condemns the move by the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation [TRT], an official institution of the Turkish Republic, in establishing a separate channel called TRT to broadcast in Kurdish, and calls for authorities to immediately end the broadcasting.” The statement notes that the official language of the republic is Turkish and says the tie between citizens and the state stems from everyone being a Turk.

Learning Turkish, speaking Turkish and being educated in Turkish is a citizen’s responsibility. With the Kurdish broadcast channel, the TRT will play into the hands of those domestic and international powers who want to divide and ruin our country. We invite our people and administrators to see that Kurdish broadcasting, Kurdish language and literature departments, the Kurdish Institute, an autonomous region, a federation and an independent Kurdish state are all phases of a game. We strongly decry attempts by the [Higher Education Board] YÖK to establish Kurdish language and literature departments even as there are serious higher education problems in our country. The ADD will forever remain bound to the secular, democratic, social republic that the great leader Atatürk established, the unitary structure of the state and its indivisible entirety, and we will continue the ideological battle for this purpose. How happy is he who calls himself a Turk.

Yes, happy indeed. And the others who refuse?

How can the linguistic repression (one of many human rights violations) of a nation be democratic?

You can see the original article here:

Review of Hakan Yavuz: Five Stages of Construction of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey

Published in 2001, this is one of many articles Yavuz has published about Kurdish issues in Turkey. While not unfamiliar with Yavuz’s other work, I had somehow not seen this one before. I just read it a couple weeks ago and feel the strong need to comment. This article provoked me in ways that others haven’t for a while. If you’ve read it, please post your thoughts, too.

First, a little about Hakan Yavuz. At the present time, Yavuz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Ankara in Turkey and his MA and PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the US. He has written a book entitled Islamic Political Identity in Turkey and has more than two dozen articles and scholarly papers on topics such as Turkey, Islam, identity, and nationalism.

So, the article. Yavuz provides a chronological framework for understanding the development of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. He tries to answer the question of how Kurdish nationalism developed by examining different stages of history, which range from the late Ottoman Empire to the emergence of the modern Turkish republic and through to shortly before the publication of the article.

What I read is a carefully crafted essay, weaving fact and supposition. The undercurrent is emotional rhetoric, innuendo, a juxtaposition of facts, and blame shifting.

Just for sake of time and space, I’m just going to cover the emotional language and innuendo. The others I’ll mention but briefly. Read the article for yourself and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Let me start with what really got me going in the first place. On page 15 Yavuz writes, “The 6th PKK Congress authorized its military arm the Peoples Liberation Army of Kurdistan (ARGK) ‘to wage a war that will make the Turkish state tremble’ and called for a serhildan (Kurdish intifadah).”

So what’s the issue here? For me it was the way in which Yavuz decided to highlight the Kurdish word serhildan. Serhildan means rebellion or revolt. By inserting the Kurdish word into the text and linking it to the concept of intifadah, he mystifies and politicizes it, injecting implications that would otherwise not be there. Could he not have simply stated “…and called for a revolt?” Revolt, after all, is what serhildan means. Why not use the actual translation?

Next is his choice to use the term “identity entrepreneurs”. Nationalism “is always constructed by identity entrepreneurs” (p 3). “Identity entrepreneur” is another loaded term. The phrase “identity entrepreneur” is one often associated with the military and terrorism. It is used in intelligence lingo when speaking of violent non-state actors (VNSAs), another military term, who rally nationalist feelings. So then the underlying implication here is that the Kurds are VNSAs? The Turks are fighting a war on terror against the Kurds?

Yavuz’s words throughout the article gloss over Turkish wrongdoing and continuously politicize Kurdish actions. Example: Yavuz writes that the Turkish government since 1984 has “displaced and vacated a total of 4,000 villages and other hamlets, and approximately one million people were relocated to cities for security reasons” (p 14). Other literature when referring to the same events uses language such as “raze” (for vacate) and “forcibly deport” (for relocate). His cleansed version of events sounds almost pleasant.

Additionally, his tendency throughout the article is to negate or downplay the responsibility of Turkish nationalism in the formation of Kurdish nationalism. Neither does he acknowledge the Turkish state’s denial of Kurds and Kurdish culture. He claims the “Republic did not deny the existence of the Kurds.”

When discussing Atatürk’s modernization projects in education, urbanization, and communication he deems them “relatively successful.” But how does he measure success? And for whom? The “success” left the Kurdish regions of the country underdeveloped and without minimally functioning educational systems.

Yavuz concludes that this “relatively successful” modernization is what mobilized ethnic Kurdish consciousness and radicalized Kurdish nationalism. Then it was the Kurdish nationalism, in turn, that politicized and popularized Turkish nationalism.

Nationalist conceptions in Turkey wield tremendous influence on perspective and discourse of the Kurds living within its borders. The relationship between state and Kurdish minority has been forged through ethnic tensions therein.

Turkey, since its inception in 1923, has created clear, exclusionary political boundaries based on ethnicity and it was made very clear that there was no room for minority groups or other ethnicities. Turkey has routinely denied the existence of the Kurds in an attempt to destroy Kurdish ethnicity through forced assimilation. Kurdish nationalism in Turkey has responded to the circumstances of the state, shifting in its ideology and strength, parrying state attempts to wipe it out.

Yavuz blames fragmented Kurdish identity on the Kurds. “The sources of these divisions [within Kurdish identity] are socio-historical, and they prevent the emergence of a full-fledged Kurdish identity.” While these divisions certainly affect the ability of a cohesive national identity, Yavuz’s research would be furthered by more in-depth exploration of other factors involved in this fragmentation.

His arguments regarding the development of Kurdish nationalism reflect an almost polar opposite of accepted norms or even theories of nationalism. Where the normative is that state nationalism triggers stateless nationalism, Yavuz has shifted blame to the Kurdish minority.

Yavuz actually does admit that a problem exists within the Turkish state, “Turkey needs a new social contract.” But then he adamantly declares in his conclusion that the “Kurds need to recognize that there is no territorial or political room in the Middle East for an independent state of Kurdistan.”

While the article itself only speaks of Turkey, he suddenly expands his geography to include all of the Middle East in what appears to be a stern warning to Kurdish nationalists about an independent state. Is this scholarly research or the author advocating a position? Perhaps he himself does not desire a solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey. In fact, the penultimate section of the article is entitled “How to Manage Turkey’s Kurdish Problem.” Manage as in “regulate or maintain control over”?; definitely not “solve or resolve.” If such is the case that his opinion is that there is no room in the Middle East for a Kurdish state, then this statement should not have a place in this article.

This article, in my mind, should be called the “Five Stages of Construction of Turkish Mythology in Kurdistan.”