Kurdish unrest highlights internal and external problems facing Syria

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.S. Ahmed

Safar 11, 1425 2004-04-01

Occupied Arab World

by M.S. Ahmed (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 2, Safar, 1425)

The recent flare-up of ethnic violence involving Syria’s Kurdish minority (apparently inspired by the constitutional gains made by the Kurds in Iraq) and the growing US pressure on Damascus to sign a peace deal with Israel and "end its occupation" of Lebanon, indicate the increasing threats to the stability of a country that is already undermined by the enduring alliance between the ruling Asad dynasty and the Ba’ath party...

The recent flare-up of ethnic violence involving Syria’s Kurdish minority (apparently inspired by the constitutional gains made by the Kurds in Iraq) and the growing US pressure on Damascus to sign a peace deal with Israel and "end its occupation" of Lebanon, indicate the increasing threats to the stability of a country that is already undermined by the enduring alliance between the ruling Asad dynasty and the Ba’ath party. An obvious way of countering those threats is to introduce urgent political and constitutional reforms to end the hegemony of Ba’athist and dynastic rule. But the mere fact that the party’s 40th anniversary was recently celebrated, and that calls for an end to its monopoly of power were suppressed, suggest that any hope for such reforms must remain unfulfilled.

The celebration marking the anniversary on March 8 were kept low-key this year. The authorities wanted to avoid drawing attention to the parallel between the Syrian Ba’ath party and its Iraqi counterpart, also founded in 1963, despite the fact that the two had no close links. But the manner in which those demanding an end to the emergency law (introduced by the party 40 years ago) were dealt with shows clearly that the low-key nature of this year’s celebration does not mean that official support for the party is beginning to flag. The reason is that president Bashshar al-Asad (like his late father, Hafez al-Asad, before him) owes his grip on power to the unflinching backing of Ba’athists in the party and in the army. In fact it was the party’s military wing, led by Hafez, then lieutenant general, that seized power in a bloodless coup in November 1970. In March 1971 Hafez al-Asad was elected president, and remained in power until his death in June 2000. Enjoying the same Ba’athist support, Bashshar succeeded his father as the only candidate to the presidency.

Reflecting the Syrian people’s anger at the state of emergency, declared in 1963, that has since suppressed their civil liberties, human rights organisations arranged a sit-in in front of the Syrian parliament on March 8, despite strong pressure to cancel from the army and intelligence agencies. According to the emergency law, official permission must be obtained before any public gatherings are held, but Aktham N’aysseh, the head of the Committee for the Defence of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria, which arranged the sit-in, was defiant. "We will not be intimidated, we are not afraid of going to prison if we have to," he said in a newspaper interview, published in London on the eve of the anniversary.

But N’aysseh’s defiance was rhetoric, and the relentless crackdown on the organisers and other activists meant that only 20 people took part in the sit-in, which was overseen by much larger numbers of intelligence officers (not police), who arrested even journalists covering the event. Analysts were quick to point out the efficacy of the emergency laws to discourage public defiance of the Syrian authorities. As one of them explained on March 9, "the emergency law has meant the total destruction of Syria’s civil society, and people have been afraid for years."

But the popular discontent set off by the violence on March 12 was not so restricted. The violence followed a football match on the same day in the predominantly Kurdish town of Qamishli. The match – between al-Fatwa, a Syrian Arab team, and al-Jihad, a mainly Syrian Kurdish team – was engulfed by scuffles after al-Fatwa fans waved pictures of former president Saddam Hussein of Iraq, thus enraging the Kurds. At least 19 people were killed and more than 150 injured, most of them Kurds, in Qamishli and the other north-eastern cities of Hassakeh and Amouda. The unrest spread to Damascus and Aleppo, and Kurdish students took to the streets to protest in the Kurdish regions.

Kurds living abroad were also angry and arranged demonstrations, some of them violent. In Geneva, for instance, 20 demonstrators occupied the offices of the Syrian mission to the UN. In Germany 500 Kurds marched to the British and US embassies to appeal for international backing for their cause. Britain and the US are the main partners in the coalition in Iraq that is responsible for having removed Saddam Hussein and for laying down the foundation for the constitution that gives Iraqi Kurds unprecedented rights. It is not, therefore, an accident that the Kurds in Germany should choose to appeal to the US and British embassies for support for Kurdish efforts in Syria to achieve similar rights and status. Indeed, some Kurdish leaders abroad and in Syria itself do not bother to hide the fact that they are encouraged by the developments in Iraq.

Abdul Baqi Youssef, secretary of the Kurdish Yakiti party, in a newspaper interview on March 16, said: "Syria’s Kurds were heartened by the positive developments in Iraq with the signing of the Iraqi constitution, which gives Kurds their rights and recognises Kurdish as an official language." He added that Kurds in Syria felt it was disappointing that Damascus was determined to continue to deny them their rights. The 1.8 million Syrian Kurds are certainly justified in feeling aggrieved. Almost 200,000 of them do not have Syrian nationality, and therefore cannot vote, own property, hold government jobs or go to state schools. But they are still required by law to serve in the military. This is outrageous and unacceptable, and the Kurds are right to demand to be treated as equals with other Syrian citizens.

But demanding to have a state of their own and appealing to the US to help them achieve their goal plays into the hands of the Ba’athists, who will accuse them of being anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and pro-US; the last in particular is a serious charge when the US government is blackmailing Syria and other Muslim countries in the Middle East to sign friendship treaties with Israel. There is little doubt that if the issue of Kurdish rights in Syria is not complicated by the involvement of anti-Muslim countries, the Syrian rulers could be isolated and the Kurdish struggle would receive support in the Muslim world that it now lacks. There is also hardly any doubt that Arab Syrians can scarcely exercise their acknowledged constitutional rights under the current system. Both Arab and Kurdish Syrians will, therefore, gain from working together to overthrow the Ba’athist-dynastic dictatorship. Their task will be made easier if they highlight their common bonds as Muslims, rather than their roots as Arabs and Kurds. A useful preliminary step might be taken by merging– or even just establishing ties between–the disparate Islamic, Arab and Kurdish organisations.

The Syrian regime will no doubt try to secure support from other governments in the region, such as Turkey, Iran and Iraq, to suppress efforts to obtain equal status for Syrian Kurds, arguing that the encouragement of Kurdish nationalism could destabilise the Middle East. But giving equal rights to Syrian Kurds is more likely to defuse Kurdish nationalism, and Syria’s neighbours will gain from persuading Damascus to grant those rights. There are those who will argue that any pressure from neighbouring countries, or alliances between Islamic groups in Syria, will drive Damascus to yield to US blackmail to obtain protection. But evading a vital public duty to avoid US intervention is the easiest way of guaranteeing the success of Washington’s blackmailing ploys, and encouraging the US to greater arrogance and greed in the future.

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