Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Syria’s War on the Kurds

by Eric Bruneau

Tensions are increasing in Syria. Despite the efficiency of its internal security services, President al-Assad’s Ba’ath regime faces growing dissent from the Kurds. Although they have been successfully silenced during decades, a series of events recently attracted the attention of the outside world to their fate.

There was the case of the thirty-three Kurdish demonstrators who occupied the Syrian embassy in Brussels in 2005; then there was the spectacular odyssey of the one hundred and twenty-three Syrian Kurds who landed in Corsica on November 22, 2010, and the controversy following their handling by the French Government. There has also been the month-long protest held in front of Cyprus’ interior ministry by one hundred and fifty or so refugees to obtain status, and a hunger strike in front of the Danish Parliament in October by Kurds fearing deportation. Their different experiences – from court hearings to trials, from detention centres to shelters, the botched legal actions from authorities or the evacuations by anti-riot police – come as profound reflections of the repression they endure in their own country.

During the last five years or so, the increasing marginalization of Kurds seems to have become a matter of national security in the eyes of the Syrian regime. The emergence of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq is seen with anxiety by the neighbouring countries, themselves entangled in conflicts with their own Kurdish populations, and Syria feels threatened by a risk of contagion.

“Things definitely worsened after 2003,” confirms M. al-Youssef, an exiled member of the Syrian Kurd Unity Party (PYKS). “The Kurds and their political parties are now accused of being separatists, and so this makes them the prime target of the Arab nationalim at the core of Ba’ath ideology.” The Qamishli massacre in 2004, the countless reports of arbitrary arrests and brutalities perpetrated by the internal security patrols in the Kurdish provinces, are many examples of an increased repression.

Are we witnessing a new repressive campaign aimed at the Kurds, along the lines of the 1962 “special census,” or the building of the “Arab belt” along the Turkish border? Some new dispositions have been adopted recently. The Presidential Decree no.49, passed on the November 10, 2008, places the al-Hasakah province, where most of the Kurds are living, under military rule. To buy or sell a property, a license must now be obtained from the military security directorate and the political activities department.

According to Kurd opposition representatives and human rights activists, the procedure is not applied in the Arab provinces, and has been designed exclusively for the Kurdish areas. It not only prevents Kurds from establishing themselves in their native province, but also prevents any kind of investment and development. The economic breakdown so engineered pushes Kurds to leave the province, were they are replaced by Arab colonialists. They will find themselves isolated in Arab-populated parts of Syria, where their identity will be progressively dissolved.

But why is there a new phase in repression, especially now? It looks as though the Ba’ath regime is now facing a new generation of militants, more radical and more militant than their predecessors. Some of the Syrian Kurdish political groups are not asking merely for the Kurds to be granted full citizenship who were ostracized by the 1962 “special census.” They are demanding more. At the time M. al-Youssef was giving the interview, in the last days of December 2009, three members of the PYKS executive committee were arrested alongside a prominent activist. They were arrested after a Party conference during which they called for autonomy. The Democratic Union Party – PYD recent Congress in October, was held under the theme “Forward with Autonomy.” Messages were passed to jailed PYD members, with promises that Party members would not be arrested if the Party lowered its demands, and the arrest of Central Committee member Issa Ibrahim Hesso just after the October congress, demonstrates the regime’s concerns with the re-vindication of “autonomy.”

In this context, the new developments in Turkey, with the prolongation of the ceasefire and the rumors about opening of negotiations, are not good news for the Syrian government. As long as the war lasts, Syria remains a useful ally for the Turks. Their strategy of encirclement, aiming at isolating the PKK rebels in their mountains, requires Syrian co-operation. A press release from an Anatolian news agency (mentioned in Today’s Zaman online edition from the 17/06/2010), talking about military operations by the Syrian army in the Kurdish provinces and resulting in the death of 11 PKK fighters, has been dismissed as a manipulation. The journalist Newaf Khalil, who spoke to the BBC the July 1, 2010, said that the idea was to entice Syria to join the ongoing offensive against the PKK and PJAK, and to assimilate the Syrian Kurdish political activists into the insurgents, so making them legitimate military targets. The promises of amnesties and regularization of status that have been made at several opportunities by President al-Assad, appear as attempts to encourage the one thousand six hundred Syrian Kurds fighting in the PKK’s army to desert ranks and so break the organization’s military force.

Worryingly for Damascus, numerous Syrian Kurds have previously joined the PKK (Fehman Huseyin, commander of the PKK army, is a Syrian). Would those well-trained men and women be tempted to take back the weapons they laid down and resume the fight in Syria rather than in south-eastern Turkey? Nothing indicated anything like this, and representatives from the PYD, who share with the PKK a common ideology and similar goals, insist on their determination to achieve their objectives by peaceful means. Nonetheless, this supposed “threat” can be used as a pretext for a new step in repression.

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Eric Bruneau

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