Friday, April 29, 2005

Roots of the "Kurdish Problem"

Katherine Zoepf of the New York Times has written an excellent article on the Kurdish problem in Syria (copied below). Bashar al-Asad's long stated goal to resolve the painful problem of the 200,000-plus stateless Kurds in Syria has taken on particular urgency now that a larger bill on national rights sits before the parliament. It is designed to give all Syrians, not only men, the right to confer nationality. But before it can be acted on, the Kurdish question, a subset of the national law, must be resolved.

Solving the Kurdish question has become urgent not only because of the glaring inequality the stateless Kurds in Syria, but because of the radical changes to the status of the Kurds in neighboring Iraq and Turkey. Syria has always been able to boast that it treated its Kurds better than its neighbors did. That boast is now hollow. In the future, Syria's Kurds of the North-East will no longer be content to submit to the deprivations of old. The riots of last spring testify to this. If Syrians want the loyalty of the Kurds, they must accord them equal respect and rights. The plight of the stateless Kurds has long been a stain on Syria's claim to treat its people with equality and dignity regardless of ethnic or religious background.

The question of stateless Kurds in Syria began in 1962, when President Qudsi, passed a law that required that the inhabitants of the Governorate of Hasaka (the region of North-East Syria between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers) be counted in one day. Those who were found to have come into the country without proper papers were stripped of their citizenship in August 1962 along with any children born in Syria.

Based on the French archives, it is estimated that some 22,000 Kurds out of more than 200,000 living in Syria during the 1930s had fled into the country from Turkey where they faced persecution following Kemal Atatürk's brutal suppression of the Shaykh Said revolt of 1926. The descendants of those 22,000 now make up the stateless Kurds in Syria.

Why did Nazim al-Qudsi, ordinarily a liberal man with a long record of honorable political achievement who died only a few years ago in Geneva, pass such a discriminatory law? There can be little doubt that it was discriminatory, for none of the other minorities of the region who had fled or migrated into Syria were touched - not the Armenians, Assyrians, Syriacs, or the Arab tribes which continued to settle in the Jazira throughout the 1950s and 1960s and who come from Iraq, Jordan, or the Arabian Peninsula. Only the Kurds were targeted for suspicion.

The census was also arbitrary. A number of ministers and high officials were deprived of nationality by the half-hazard census takers. These included General Tawfiq Nizam ad-Din, Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army in 1955 and his brother who was a minister and parliament member, the family of Ibrahim Pasha Milli, who was a founder of the Syrian Parliament in 1928, and many other Kurds of high rank and long service in Syria. The powerful were able to retrieve their Syrian nationality, but the poor and less fortunate remained stateless.

As Sami Moubayed has recently written,

"the Qudsi regime came to power when Syria dissolved its merger with Egypt in September 1961, and was coming under daily fire by president Gamal Abd Nasser, who accused the new leaders of Damascus of being opponents of Arab nationalism.

To prove their Arab zeal, Syria's new leaders passed decree number 93, stripping about 120,000 Syrian Kurds of their Syrian citizenship. The argument of the authorities in 1962 was that the census was aimed at identifying "alien infiltrators" in Syria; those who had illegally crossed the border from Turkey. Kurds had to prove that they had lived in Syria at least since 1945, or lose any claim to Syrian citizenship. The census was rigged, and led to the fiasco of Kurdish "unrest" in Syria, which exploded in 2004.

The insecurity of the "infisal" (separatist) regime in the face of Nasserist and Baathist attacks goes a long way to explain the context of the decree stripping Kurds of Syrian nationality, as Moubayed suggests, but it should also be seen in the longer context of both growing Arabism and Communism in Syria as well as the ongoing attempts by the Western Powers to use the Kurdish tribes as a means to destabilize Syria and thwart Arab nationalism.

Citizenship laws were put into place in Syria beginning with the Lausanne treaty of 1924. French Mandate law established a "Syrian" citizenship based on birth on Syrian territory. After independence, citizenship was recast in terms of a "Syrian Arab" identity, where an Arab racial designation was introduced into the criteria for national privileges. Thus the present law, which has its roots in laws passed under Adib Shishakli (1949-1954), states that citizenship is enjoyed by those born to "Arab Syrians." There is no written legal status for non-Arab Syrians. Thus the law states that citizenship is given to those:
- من ولد في القطر أو خارجه من والد عربي سوري.
من ولد في القطر من أم عربية سورية ولم تثبت نسبته إلى أبيه قانونا.
"who are born in Syria or abroad of a Syrian-Arab father."

The question begged by this law is what happens if you are born to a Syrian-Kurdish father or to any non-Arab Syrian father.

The rise of the Communist Party, led by Khalid Bakdash, a Kurd, which had a considerable following among the Kurds in the North-East, also caused the enmity of Arab nationalists. Likewise, the US worried about the spread of the Communist Party in Syria. During the 1940s and 1950s, US diplomats in Damascus frequently recommended that the Syrians keep a close eye on and suppress the Kurdish led Communists.

When an American diplomat pressed Fuad Bey al-Halabi, the Director General of Syrian Tribal Affairs, in 1948 to explain why he was not worried about the Kurdish community situated on Syria's northeast boarder with Turkey and their pro-Soviet inclinations, the director replied:
The Kurdish tribes were in reality akin to feudal institutions. The tribal chieftains owned all the land and can control their ‘serfs.’ In turn the Syrian government can control the Kurdish leaders.

Practically without exception the principal Kurdish leaders are under death sentence in Turkey and were they to show signs of asserting too much independence of action or to disregard the wishes of the Syrian Government in any important matter they could be conveniently disposed of by arranging to have them fall into Turkish hands.

This quote comes from: US National Archives, James H. Keeley (Damascus) to Sec. of State (29 December 1948) "Comments of Fuad Bey al-Halabi, Director General of Syrian Tribal Affairs, Regarding Tribal Control Policy and Certain Special Aspects of the Kurdish Tribal Problem," 890D.00\12-2948.
Everyone, not just the Sryian authorities, tended to view the Kurds of the Jazira region as a problem and infiltrators who could be dealt with in the most humiliating and discriminatory fashion. It is this past, which Syria is now struggling to put behind it.

After Decades as Nonpersons, Syrian Kurds May Soon Be Recognized
By KATHERINE ZOEPF, April 28, 2005

AS 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 autocratic.

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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