Syrian Kurds May Soon Be Recognized

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Apr 29 15:42:42 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,
April 28, 2005

After Decades as Nonpersons, Syrian Kurds May Soon Be Recognized

RAS EL AIN, Syria - Saleh Osso, a Kurdish plumber, has tried to live as
far outside the reach of the Syrian government apparatus as possible.
Since Mr. Osso, 34, is stateless - one of perhaps 200,000 Kurds living in
Syria who are denied citizenship - that has been fairly easy to
accomplish. He has no right to own property, to travel abroad or to send
his four children to high school. Officially, Mr. Osso scarcely exists.

It was a surprise, therefore, when the mayor of Mr. Osso's district
visited him at home two weeks ago and began to ask probing questions about
his family. "He asked how many children I had and about whether my
brothers were married or not," Mr. Osso recalled. "He stayed for about
half an hour, asking so many questions and writing everything down. "I
finally asked him, 'Why are you counting us?' " Mr. Osso continued. "He
said, 'It's so that you people may become citizens.' "

Though there has been no official announcement, and Syrian officials would
not comment on the subject, speculation that President Bashar al-Assad is
planning to do something about the "Kurdish problem," as the issue of
Syria's stateless Kurds is known, has been circulating widely in recent
weeks. It has generated discussion among foreign diplomats and human
rights activists and cautious hope among the nation's marginalized Kurdish
population. Now, reports that government officials in the heavily Kurdish
northern province of Haseke on the Turkish border have been quietly taking
a census of stateless families seem to be adding heft to the rumor.

Stateless Kurds in three towns inHaseke - Ras el Ain, Tell Tamir and Amude
- told a reporter that government agents had been going from house to
house in recent weeks, gathering information about Kurdish residents'
registration status. In some cases, stateless Kurds said, there have been
two visits: one from a local official collecting census data, followed
days later by a visit from a political security agent who verified the
information. The reports come at a moment when international pressure has
pushed Syria into withdrawing its troops from Lebanon and the United
States is challenging it, along with other Arab governments, to be less

Meanwhile, Kurds across Syria's eastern border, in Iraq, are coming into
political power in the new government there, while Kurds to the north, in
Turkey, are being granted new rights under pressure from Europe. About 1.5
million Kurds live in Syria as the country's largest ethnic minority, and
also its most historically troublesome. Their very difference presents a
living challenge to the militant Arabism of the dominant Baath Party.

Kurdish parties, although illegal, are among the country's best-organized
opposition groups, a fact that became clear in March of last year when,
within hours, the parties organized a series of demonstrations across
Syria to protest what they called police brutality against Kurds
demonstrating in the northeastern town of Qamishli. In 1962 the government
stripped thousands of Syrian-born Kurds of their citizenship. They and
their descendants carry laminated orange identity cards that testify to
their statelessness. International human rights groups estimate their
numbers at 200,000; tens of thousands of other Syrian-born Kurds lack even
the orange cards and are known as maktoomin (those who are muted).

But the estimates are rough. Syrian Kurdish leaders say the total number
of stateless Syrian Kurds is about 300,000. The government says the number
is about 150,000. In the past the government has repressed expressions of
Kurdish identity in a variety of ways, forbidding the publication of books
or newspapers in Kurdish, for example, and jailing Kurdish leaders without
trial. But recently Syrian policy has seemed to ease.

On March 30, 312 Kurds who were imprisoned after the demonstrations last
year in Qamishli were released under a presidential amnesty. On April 6,
when the Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was chosen as president of
Iraq, Kurds living in Damascus played the Kurdish national anthem without
official interference in a street celebration, an act that Syrian Kurds
say would have been unthinkable a year ago. But giving citizenship to
stateless Kurds would be far more meaningful.  Some experts on Syria
believe that President Assad may be contemplating doing so as a good-will
gesture, a way to partly pre-empt the international pressure to
democratize that is likely to follow Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.

"There are people close to the president who would like to see the Kurdish
problem resolved quickly," said Joshua Landis, a history professor at the
University of Oklahoma who is living in Damascus. "They know it makes
Syria look bad." The Syrian state is clearly doing its research first,
because giving citizenship to the stateless Kurds could open up a host of
practical problems. Kurds who were denied degrees because of their
stateless status, for example, or whose family property was seized in 1962
might well begin clogging the courts to seek compensation.

But Ammar Abdulhamid, the director of the Tharwa Project, an organization
based in Damascus that monitors minority rights issues in the Arab world,
said he had conducted a survey and believed that most Syrian Kurds were
willing to accept a clean-slate approach: citizenship without immediate
reparations. "The Kurds just want basic rights," Mr. Abdulhamid said.
"They're not thinking about accountability for the past. Ideally, along
with citizenship, the government would set up a committee that would
systematically look into some of these other demands."

Despite the possibility of technical problems, Mr. Abdulhamid added, the
Syrian government has compelling political reasons to offer citizenship to
stateless Kurds. The government fears that a domestic Kurdish separatist
movement may be growing, he suggested, and that disenfranchised Kurds
could be manipulated by outsiders to destabilize Syria. "The situation for
the Kurds has really eased in Iraq and Turkey," a Western diplomat said.
"The Assad regime probably realizes that the best way to weaken any
separatist sentiment is to give the Kurds more of a stake in the country."

But according to Faisal Badr, a Kurdish lawyer based in Damascus whose
wife is stateless, most Syrian Kurds harbor no separatist ambitions and,
citizenship decree or no, their leaders will continue to push for change
within Syria. "The vast majority of us want our problems to be solved
within the framework of the Syrian nation," Mr. Badr said. "Giving
citizenship to the Kurds would be a positive step, but it's still very
partial. We want to see democracy in Syria."

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