From Damascus Street to Kurdistan


The resilience of the Kurdish people in the face of decades upon decades of oppression has awed many people around the world yet elicited no sufficient, if any, pressure from foreign governments. Living in what is described as an “invisible Kurdistan” in books, Kurds have suffered not so mythical massacres, violent oppression and hostility under the rules of Turkish, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi governments and the fallacious ideas instilled in their respective people through years of propaganda.

The unquenchable spirit of the Kurdish people has manifested into various forms of armed, political and social movements and organisations, today mainly dominated by PKK in Turkey, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and PJAK in Iran. Lacking popular support in their struggle for greater rights in four countries, Kurds have taken advantage of any opportunity that has come along the way to improve their situation.

Finally, the time came for Kurds in Syria.

Damascus Street in Qamişlo

The microblogging platform Twitter has since the beginning of the Syrian war been a gathering point for everyone with a connection to Syria. Since March 2011, I have read tweets by Syrian and pro-Syrian activists and analysts pointed out as prominent or representative. I read the comments to their tweets. I read whole discussions by searching keywords on Twitter and I read the articles they tweet because I also have a connection to Syria.

The place that I considered my home as a kid and interchangeably called Kurdistan and Syria became a complex question as I grew older. I spent my summers on Damascus Street in Qamişlo, a capital of western Kurdistan but a city in northern Syria.

For many years I did not distinguish between Syria and Kurdistan. Arabs spoke Kurdish and Kurds spoke Arabic. The voices of Fairuz and Oum Kalthoum filled our days, the voice of Mihemed Şexo our evenings. As I grew older, I came to learn that there was a difference between Arabs and Kurds and that Kurdistan was not a synonym for Syria. I learned that my family were victims of the Syrian government and unable to do anything about it.

My claim to a home became complex. But when the Syrian war began almost four years ago, it somehow became even worse.

Syria United

Syrian and pro-Syrian activists and analysts have a tendency to dismiss the Kurdish voice and importance in the war. It was especially the case the first few years but is still common. The dismissal happens by stating that Kurds and Syrians were equally oppressed under the al-Assad family’s dictatorship or that “now is not the time” for Kurds to form separate fighting units and establish a self-rule. It has been both implicitly and explicitly expressed that Kurds have an obligation to help Syria remain united.

But do they?

In hushed voices, my uncles would say that sure, they were tied on hands and feet but their situation in Syria was not that bad. My aunts were bolder, their voices urgent when they spoke of the community’s fear of the government and its security police and the lack of opportunities and rights. I remember my stays in Qamişlo as a mixed sensation of happy nights among fellow Kurds and gut-wrenching contact with people so powerless in society that it made them equally powerless in their own lives.

I have only witnessed the everyday life of my family and friends and heard their quick, vague replies to my questions about life in Syria, both coloured by the familiar, contagious mood of despair that has settled in me. But it has been enough for me to question the callous calls for Kurds to throw their support behind a Syrian armed opposition and to try and understand why Kurds were hesitant to join the Syrian opposition but not hesitant to take to the streets against the Syrian dictator al-Assad.

The Kurdish Cancer

In 1973, the Syrian government implemented a twelve-point plan drawn up by Lt. Muhammed Talab Halil in 1963 when he was the internal security chief of al-Hasakah governorate. The plan was part of the Arabization measures carried out in Syria and based on the ideas Halil had formed about the Kurdish people:

The bells of Jazira sound the alarm and call on the Arab conscience to save this region, to purify it of all its scum, the dregs of history until, as befits its geographical situation, it can offer up its revenues and riches, along with those of the other provinces of this Arab territory… The Kurdish question, now that the Kurds are organizing themselves, is simply a malignant tumour which has developed and been developed in part of the body of the Arab nation. The only remedy which we can properly apply thereto is excision.

The twelve-point plan illustrates the blatant racism that was implemented into Syrian governance in an attempt to relegate Kurds to an inferior status and to stem their aspirations of gaining a voice in Syria. Halil proposed that the Syrian government

  1. displace Kurds from their lands
  2. deny Kurds education
  3. return “wanted” Kurds to Turkey
  4. deny Kurds employment
  5. promote anti-Kurdish sentiment through propaganda
  6. replace Kurdish religious leaders with Arabs
  7. ensure Arab settlement of Kurdish areas
  8. implement a ‘divide and rule’ policy in Kurdish society
  9. establish an Arab cordon sanitaire along Syria’s border with Turkey
  10. establish collective Arab farms
  11. deny Kurds the right to vote and hold office to non-Arabic speakers
  12. deny Syrian citizenship to non-Arabs wishing to live in the region

Despite the fact that the Syrian government did not execute the Arabization measures completely and systematically, the anti-Kurdish discrimination and propaganda was just as damaging as had it been fully carried out. Arbitrary arrests and harassment by Syrian security police for decades have resulted in a state of constant fear of persecution and abuse that has physically and mentally restricted the lives of the Kurdish people.

The strong anti-Kurdish sentiments grew out of a fear of not being able to unite all of Syria. David McDowall writes in his book “A Modern History of the Kurds” that “Arab nationalists had good reason to be paranoid about internal and external enemies. Nowhere was the Syrian Arab cause less assured than in the north where so many non-Arab communities lived, particularly in al-Hasakah governorate.”

In 1937, the Kurds were double the number of Arabs in the Jazira region (roughly al-Hasakah governorate) and the number was only rising with each passing year. In an effort to prevent losing control of the region, the Syrian government decided to carry out the infamous decree no. 93 in October 1962 that stripped 120,000 Kurds and their future generations of their Syrian citizenship.

According to McDowall, the interrelationship between Kurds and Syrians prior to the 1950s was heavily influenced by actions, policies and ideas of individuals and groups from both sides.

Kamuran Ali Bedirxan, the brother of the Kurdish journalist and political activist Celadet Bedirxan, is highlighted as an example of why the Syrian nationalist movement was wary of Kurdish political groups. Kamuran was a political activist and a representative in Europe who was allegedly also working for Israel although the Israeli government paid little interest to Bedirxan’s observations. McDowall argues Kamuran Bedirxan was the face of Syria’s fear that “the Kurdish community was untrustworthy and might prove a Trojan horse.”

“A popular programme of anti-Kurdish sentiment was launched which invoked Arabism against the Kurdish threat, and hinted at a connection between Kurdish nationalism, Zionism and Western machinations, connections that were certainly true for in the case of Kamuran Ali Badr Khan [Bedirxan], who continued to act for Israel in the 1950s and 1960s.” (McDowall)

But does pro-Israeli feelings among some Kurds really provide a sufficient basis for Syrians to consider Kurds a threat, a notion still perpetuated and expressed today?

From Damascus Street to Kurdistan

If Syrians saw Kurds as a threat to territorial integrity have they then not been playing a role in helping a possible division on its way by making Kurds second-class citizens and therefore given them reason to become an enemy? While the leader of the strongest Kurdish party in Syria has denied that Kurds will detach Rojava, the Kurdish self-ruling region in north, from rest of Syria, is it not understandable if they did?

McDowall writes that in the second half of the 1950s

Arab nationalist feeling and the excitement engendered by the idea of strength through pan-Arab unity left little room for non-Arab minority groups within the political order. In 1957, in an event that seems to have been inspired by ethnic hatred, 250 Kurdish schoolboys perished in an arson attack on a cinema in ‘Amuda. Having been largely tolerated since 1946, Kurdish publications were formally forbidden in 1958.

That year Syria formed a union with Egypt as the United Arab Republic (UAR). Egypt’s monopoly of power drove Syria to secede in 1961, but the union ushered in a period of intense Arab nationalism which led to heightened discrimination against the Kurds.

Every year Kurds commemorate the massacre of the 250 children and every day prior to the Syrian war they lived the consequences of a discriminating regime. Every Arabization measure, every word of propaganda is still influential today because the discriminating laws are still in effect but also because the memory of oppression is kept alive by both perpetrators inside Syria but also through bearing witness to the suffering of fellow Kurds in Turkey, Iran and formerly Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.

It is important to understand the present relationship between Kurds and Syrians in the context of their history. The Arabization reforms are not ancient but the opposite. Calling on Kurds to abandon their own ambitions and join a united Syrian opposition without in turn acknowledging and addressing the grievances of the Kurds is like someone telling a person with PTSD to snap out of it.

It is as if territorial integrity is valued higher than human rights. From the countless articles, tweets and discussions I have followed, the premise seems to be that regardless of what has happened in the past, the Kurds have no legitimacy to separate themselves from the rest of Syria but should understand its obligation to “preserve Syria” as it was. But is old Syria worth pining for?

Not for the Kurds.

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