Syria’s Kurds: pawns or actors?

This analysis from Lebanon’s Daily Star, July 12, online at Kurdish Media, makes clear the dilemma of the Syrian Kurds. The fact that they are disenfranchised by the Damascus regime makes them a convenient football for White House hawks. And their demands for basic political rights are all too likely to be used as a lever for “neoliberal” reform: privatization, austerity and the rest. Or, if tensions finally explode in Syria’s corner of Kurdistan, for actual “regime change” in Damascus. Apparently the issue was grappled with at Syria’s recent Baath Party congress.

More than ever, the Syrian regime is feeling the heat of U.S. foreign policy choices and of the changing strategic situation in the Middle East. Domestically, the matter of Syria’s disenfranchised Kurds has risen to the top of the agenda, with the community showing growing confidence. The importance of the Kurdish question was particularly evident at the recent Baath Party conference, when participants agreed to address the demands of the discriminated-against Kurds. The regime of President Bashar Assad knows that the Kurds, if they choose to collaborate with the policies of the United States, can seriously threaten the regime’s authority.

Under Assad, Syria has seen the introduction of some economic reforms and a modest, though sporadic, loosening of political controls, even as genuine and broad liberalization has yet to materialize. While the Baath conference promised to resolve the issue of the stateless Kurds, estimated at 150,000-200,000 from a total Syrian Kurdish population of some 1.5 million, there remains a possibility that little real change will occur, at least not enough to fend off Syrian Kurdish pressures against the Baath regime, or those of the hawks in the Bush administration.

The matter of Syria’s Kurds has long been overshadowed by the fate of their brethren in Turkey and Iraq. However, in a constantly shifting Middle Eastern political landscape, this is now beginning to change; Syrian Kurds are in the spotlight largely because of the example of the Kurds in Iraq. Free from the grip of Saddam Hussein and thanks to years of self-rule and prosperity, Iraq’s Kurds have gained a new prominence. They became virtual kingmakers after the Iraqi elections in January – which also allowed for the election of a Kurdish regional Parliament – before seeing one of their own, Jalal Talabani, named as Iraq’s president.

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds continue to face decades-long restrictions, including on the use of their language. Since the advent of Law 93 of 1962, the Syrian government has classified some 160,000 Kurds as ajanib, or foreigners. They cannot vote, own property or work in government jobs. Another 75,000 or so are simply unregistered, and are known as maktoumeen, or “concealed,” having almost no civil rights. Syria had for some time sought to form an “Arab belt” between its Kurds and those in Iraq and Turkey, mindful of the cross-border influence between the communities. However, this desire was considerably undermined by the influence of Kurds from Iraq, so the Syrian Kurds are today increasingly feeling encouraged to demand more rights.

Since Kurdish rioting broke out in Qamishli in March 2004 at a football match, the atmosphere in north-eastern Syria has been tense. The mood was little improved after rioting again broke out in Aleppo last month, following the news that an outspoken Kurdish cleric, Maashouq al-Haznawi, had been killed. The Kurds blamed the Syrian government, which denied any involvement. Following the forced Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and amid intense international pressure, this was hardly a welcome addition to Assad’s agenda.


The Syrian regime is slowly realizing that successfully tackling the Kurdish problem is crucial for domestic stability and the country’s long-term prosperity. If unchecked, the developing situation regarding the Kurds has the potential to provoke a severe backlash. Will Bashar Assad’s regime be able to lower Kurdish expectations and dodge another bullet?

See our last post on Syria, and Syria’s Kurdish question.