Dispossession and Poverty Afflicts Syria’s Kurds


A recent article in the Kurdish Globe highlighted the conditions of Syria’s Kurdish population, which numbers somewhere between 10%-15% of the general population. The Kurdish identity is denied by the Baath regime, the use of the Kurdish language is very restricted, Kurdish farmers face confiscations of lands as part of the regime’s “Arabization” policy, and any political dissent by Kurds is severely repressed. These policies have lead to increasing poverty among Syria’s Kurds as they are forced out of their ancestors’ lands to less fertile regions.

The Kurds from Syria at the crossroads of history

By Marie-Mediya Badini
The Kurdish Globe
June 20, 2010

The division of Kurdistan and the fate of the Kurds in different parts of the region differ to a large degree.

Thanks to a number of circumstances, Iraqi Kurdistan is in a better position than other parts of Kurdistan. In the 1990s, it obtained autonomy within Iraq. Many scientific and political publications deal with the development of this Kurdish region. There are also serious publications dedicated to the life of Turkish and Iranian Kurds. But the life of Syrian Kurds is not much discussed by the world community.

It was probably the bloody clashes between the Arabs and Kurds in the city of Qamishli and other regions in the Kurdish province of al-Jazira on March 12-14, 2004, that refocused the attention of many politicians. These clashes triggered an uprising in which 100 people were killed and 300 wounded. According to informed opinions, the March events were just an episode in the course of racial discrimination and national suppression of the Syrian Kurds by the government. To understand the true causes of large-scale discontent–the causes underlying the uprising of tens of thousands of people willing and demanding the Kurdish problem be solved–it is important to see the essence of the Kurdish issue and its components, which are the consequences of the anti-Kurdish policy of the Syrian Baath Party. The clearest manifestation of this is the fact that the official authorities have never recognized the fact of the existence of the Kurdish problem in Syria.

The policy of the Baath Party in respect to Kurds is described in a booklet entitled “Al-Jazira,” which was written by the chief ideologist of the Baath’s policy in respect to the Kurds–the chief of the office for political security of the region of al-Jazira–Col. Muhammed Talib Khilal. In particular, the author of the booklet says that Kurds are “people without history, civilization or language.” Moreover, according to the current Deputy Minister of Propaganda, Akhmed Khaj Ali, “Kurds and all other inhabitants of Syria are a part of the single Arab nation.” The authorities refuse to recognize Kurds as an independent ethnic group and grant them ethnic minority status, although legal grounds exist for it. According to unofficial data, today about 2.5-3 million Kurds live in Syria, i.e., Kurds account for 10-15 percent of the population of the territories where they live in a compact manner. The discriminatory policy of the Syrian authorities is also manifested in the fact that a number of Syrian Kurds are deprived of citizenship as well as the right to own property, work in state institutions, and be entitled to Social Security. It is worth mentioning that the citations from the above-mentioned booklet are of great interest because they demonstrate their approaches of the Syrian ruling Baath Party to the Kurdish problem and their choice of the means for solving this problem, which are virtually a program of the Baath Party in respect to the “nonexistent” Kurdish people. Since March 8, 1963–when the Baath Party came to power–this document has been systematically implemented.

The economic factor is one reason why Kurds remind authorities of the fact of their existence. When depicting the economy of the Kurdish regions, we can see that the roots of the poor economic conditions lie in the policy of Syrian authorities aiming at the “Arabization” of Kurds, including confiscation of Kurdish lands, the ousting of Kurds, and more and more Arabs obtaining formerly Kurdish lands through different measures–including forced measures–accompanied by cruel suppression of any discontent on the part of the Kurdish people. As a result, most of formerly Kurdish lands are currently in possession of Arab farmers or the government. In general, authorities create obstacles for the development of agriculture, although during centuries agriculture has been the major occupation of the Kurdish population. The bureaucratic machinery impedes the creation of agricultural enterprises, and sets obstacles to obtaining loans, seeds, and marketing products. This harmful policy leads to degradation of the Kurdish agrarian sector and gradual disappearance of husbandry, which has always been an important traditional occupation of Kurds.

Kurdistan is rich with natural minerals, and there exist preconditions for a flourishing agriculture and numerous industries while taking into account that in Syria, most of the oil is produced in Kurdistan, and there are many other sources for industrial development. However, today Syrian Kurdistan can be called a “pre-industrial” area in the country, or an “internal colony.” Kurdistan can also offer perfect opportunities for the development of tourism. However, despite the availability of huge resources during the 40 years of the Baath’s rule, the Kurdish areas are underdeveloped in comparison with other regions. In other words, the authorities make it necessary to “kill” the economic potential of Kurdistan and literally oust the Kurds from the areas where they traditionally lived, forcing them to move to “more favorable regions” or immigrate to Europe.

Aside from the grave economic situation in southwestern Kurdistan, one must depict the discriminatory policy of Syria in respect to the political, cultural, educational, and religious rights of the Kurds. On a daily basis, the Baath Regime prosecutes, represses, and arrests political leaders who actively seek to demand civil rights for Kurds. They use various allegations; for example, “the intention to break the unity of Syria.” The sector of education is also being Arabicized. In Kurdish areas, the number of schools is limited and the Kurdish language, which is regarded as a foreign one, is strictly prohibited in schools and higher educational institutions, even in oral form. There are no universities in Syrian Kurdistan. Kurds have neither official MPs in Parliament nor high-ranking officers in the Syrian army who could publicly say that they are Kurds; there are no Kurdish schools, television, radio, museums, etc.

It is crucial to understand how difficult it is for Syrian Kurds to obtain freedom and equal rights based on humanistic principles. Besides the desire of the Baath Party to retain power, there is an external factor: the response of the neighboring countries to the Kurdish movement aimed at self-determination, which has been manifested upon the declaration of the federal status of Iraqi Kurdistan. Ankara, Damascus, and Tehran, despite all controversies that exist in their relations, have suddenly and unanimously expressed their readiness for joint actors in order to preserve “the unity of Iraq.” However, in reality, the real aim of these measures is to create an alliance of former antagonists in order to prevent any transformations and creation of a new Iraq, which could be a showcase of civilized norms and rights in the East.

Today the situation in the region is difficult and hardly predictable. There is no clearness in respect to the near and remote future of Iraq, further U.S. actions, development of events in Syria and Iran, or many other problems existing in the Near East with its conflicts and collisions.