Gains by Kin in Iraq Inflame Kurds' Anger at Syria

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 24 15:15:15 UTC 2004

>>From the New York Times,

March 24, 2004
Gains by Kin in Iraq Inflame Kurds' Anger at Syria

QAMISHLIYE, Syria, March 22 The larger-than-life statue of the late
president, Hafez al-Assad, that towers over a traffic circle here stands
hidden beneath a blue and red striped tarpaulin, which residents say hides
the fact that antigovernment protesters knocked off its head. In Malikiya,
a nearby town, two gilded plaster busts of the elder Mr.  Assad and his
son, President Bashar al-Assad, the main dcor inside a culture center,
were also decapitated and the building was set on fire.  Someone scrawled
"Kurdistan" in bright red spray paint across an interior wall of the
gutted Water Authority building there, too.

Antigovernment protests are extremely uncommon in Syria, where grim
memories are vivid of thousands of Islamic militants mowed down by
government troops in the early 1980's. But grievances simmering within the
Kurdish minority for decades over their difficulties in obtaining
citizenship, the ban on their language, their poverty amid rich farmland
finally boiled over in the last few weeks. Kurdish Syrians, 2 million of
Syria's 17 million people, say that watching rights for Kurds being
enshrined in a new if temporary constitution next door in Iraq finally
pushed them to take to the streets to demand greater recognition. In their
wake is a toll of blackened government buildings, schools, grain silos and
vehicles across a remote swath of the north.

"What happened did not come out of a void," says Bishar Ahmed, a
30-year-old Kurd whose cramped stationery shop sits right next to a
cluster of blackened buildings in Malikiya. "The pressure has been
building for nearly 50 years. They consider us foreigners; we have no
rights as citizens." Clashes on March 11 between fans from rival soccer
teams set off the sudden squall, which officially left 25 people dead and
dozens wounded.  But the raw emotions shocked Syrians and left officials
painting a sinister picture of foreign plots to partition the country.

To a man, local officials all suggest that the Kurds were motivated by
infiltrators from Iraq. "They came from outside the country, from the
east, and they have been paid in U.S. dollars supplied by Bremer and his
gang," said Ahmed al-Salah, an employee of a burned-down government feed
warehouse in Qamishliye, some 400 miles northeast of Damascus. He was
referring to L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator of Iraq. For
their part, Kurdish residents claim the government responded to what they
call peaceful protests with violence as an excuse to say Syria remains too
unstable to introduce the kind of democratic reforms that are helping
their brethren in Iraq.

"We want democracy like the others," said Hoshiar Abdelrahman, another
young shopkeeper in Malikiya, 60 miles east of Qamishliye.  The question
of minorities remains a highly sensitive, largely unspoken topic in Syria,
particularly because one small group, the Alawites, dominates the
government. "Unity" has been their rallying cry. Already edgy about the
possibility Iraq will split on sectarian lines, Syrian officials see the
Kurdish riots as another step in an attempt to partition all Arab states.

After the first few demonstrators were killed, Kurdish areas throughout
Syria bubbled over with years of repressed grievances, local residents
say. In Malikiya, a town of one and two-story buildings, the tide of angry
voices at the Saturday market eventually led to a march on city hall. As
the crowd approached, troops opened fire, killing a 17-year-old and a
20-year-old, residents said. The government version is that the Kurds
starting setting fire to buildings first and the government fired on them
to protect its property.  "If we were attacked by an Israel missile, we
would respond with all means possible," said Salim Kabul, governor of
Hassakeh Province, where Kurds are concentrated. "So what do you expect
when we are attacked from inside?"

He put the toll in his province at 20 dead, including 14 Kurds and 6
Arabs, among them two policemen. Kurds suspect the toll is far higher. The
area produces significant amounts of oil, wheat and cotton, and yet,
residents say, they get little development money. Instead, they complain,
for the past four decades the government has been slowly moving more Arabs
into the area, trying to form a belt 10 miles wide and 165 miles long to
sever the Kurds from ethnic kin in Iraq and Turkey.

Village and even mountain names have been Arabized and the Kurdish
language banned, although most families teach it at home. Worse, tens of
thousands of Kurds are denied citizenship. (Kurdish groups say more than
200,000; the government says 100,000.) The government says Kurds denied
citizenship are the offspring of illegal immigrants who came over the
border from Turkey to find jobs and stayed. "My grandfather was born here,
yet my father is considered a foreigner, I am a foreigner and my
3-year-old son has no nationality," said Mr.  Abdelrahman, the shopkeeper.
Both he and his wife's identification cards read "single"; their marriage
is not recognized.

He pulls out a tattered orange identification card that reads, "Foreign
Records Department, Hassakeh Governorate," and notes that the bearer
cannot travel outside Syria. Suddenly every young man in a crowd that has
gathered starts waving similar cards and shouting against the government.
It was a brazen, unusual display of discontent, considering that the
Ministry of Information had organized the recent tour for a few
journalists, who were escorted by security officers.

Syrian officials deny that the Kurds face any discrimination or have any
real basis for their complaints. They note that the young President Assad
visited the area in 2002 and pledged greater development, which will come.
After the riots, the Kurdish Democratic Party in Iraq issued a statement
suggesting that Damascus do something to end the problems in "Syrian
Kurdistan" peacefully. Shock waves rippled through the government here.

Hoshar Zubairy, Iraq's Kurdish foreign minister, made his first official
visit to Syria, partly to try to smooth ruffled feathers. At a news
conference on Monday, where Mr. Zubairy was peppered with questions that
fell just short of calling him an American stooge, he said Iraq had enough
trouble with instability to want to create any here. Of course, not even a
riot in the Middle East seems complete without invoking some historical
precedent, in this case, Saladin. This Kurdish warrior, who is buried in
Damascus, evicted the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187.

Syrian officials asked aloud this week how a country that enshrined
Saladin could mistreat his descendants. "We want a political dialogue
because our nation is for all," Ahmed Haj Ali, a consultant to the
minister of information, said on Al Arabiya satellite television. But
Abdul Baqi Youssef, a Kurdish opposition figure in Qamishliye, said that
by drawing all the warriors and intellectuals out of the Kurdish area to
battle the Crusaders, Saladin left it buffeted by overlords to this day.
"The Arabs should consider him a saint, but he brought devastation to the
Kurds," Mr. Youssef said.

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