Kurds in Syria

Ethnic decomposition map of Syria, Kurdish inhabited areas are shaded in pink, in 1976

The Kurdish population of Syria is that country's largest ethnic minority,[7] comprising between 7% and 10% of the country's population according to most sources.[8][1][9][10][7]

The northeastern Kurdish-inhabited region covers the greater part of Hasakah Governorate. The main cities in this region are Qamishli and Al-Hasakah. Other regions with significant Kurdish populations are Kobanî (officially known as Ayn al-Arab) in the north and Afrin in the northwest, along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Human rights organizations have accused the Syrian government of routinely discriminating and harassing the Syrian Kurds.[11][12] Many Kurds seek political autonomy for the Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria, similar to Iraqi Kurdistan in Iraq, or outright independence as part of Kurdistan. In the context of the Syrian Civil War, Kurds have established a self-governing region,[13][14][15] in northeastern Syria.[16]

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, and make up between 7 and 10 percent of the Syrian population as of 2011—between 1.6 and 2.5 million people.[17][2][9][10][1] The Kurdish population in Syria is relatively small in comparison to the Kurdish populations in nearby countries, such as Turkey (14.4–16 million), Iran (7.9 million), and Iraq (4.7–6.2 million).[1] The majority of Syrian Kurds speak Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect spoken in Turkey and northeastern Iraq and Iran.[18]

It is estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century around 12,000 Kurds lived in Damascus; an unknown number of Kurds lived in the Kurd-Dagh region; 16,000 Kurds lived in the Jarabulus region; and an unknown number lived in the Jazira province where they were likely the majority.[19] In the 1920s after the failed Kurdish rebellions in Kemalist Turkey, there was a large influx of Kurds to Syria's Jazira province. It is estimated that 25,000 Kurds fled at this time to Syria.[20] According to Stefan Sperl, these Kurdish newcomers constituted no more than 10% of the Kurdish population of Jazira at the time and all were granted citizenship by the French mandate authorities who recognized their agricultural skills.[21] However, the French official reports show the existence of at most 45 Kurdish villages in Jazira prior to 1927. A new wave of refugees arrived in 1929.[22] The mandatory authorities continued to encourage Kurdish immigration into Syria, and by 1939, the villages numbered between 700 and 800.[22] Sperl's estimation also contradicts the estimates of the French geographers Fevret and Gibert,[23] who estimated that in 1953 out of the total 146,000 inhabitants of Jazira, agriculturalist Kurds made up 60,000 (41%), nomad Arabs 50,000 (34%), and a quarter of the population were Christians.[23]

Even though Kurds have a long history in Syria, the government has used the fact that many Kurds fled to Syria during the 1920s to claim that Kurds are not indigenous to the country and to justify the government's discriminatory policies against them.[24][25]

Kurds mostly live in a geocultural region in Northern Syria. This region covers the governorate of Al Hasakah (formerly the Jazira province), a region also inhabited by many Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians and Chechens. The main cities in this region are Qamishli and Al-Hasakah. It also covers most of the northern part of Aleppo governornate. There is a big Kurdish population in the Kurd Dagh (Kurd mountains) area, located in the northwestern part of Aleppo governorate. This region extends both ethnically and culturally to the Turkish regions of Kilis, Islahiye and Kirikhan. The region of Kobanê (Ayn al-Arab), located in the eastern part of the Aleppo governorate, also has a significant Kurdish population, perhaps best known for resisting the long siege by ISIS. The northern countryside of Aleppo governorate, alternatively known as Şehba, also has a significant Kurdish population. Kurds mainly live in the rural countryside. The main towns are Manbij, Al-Bab and Azaz, while also containing important smaller towns such as Qabasin, Al-Ra'i and Jarabulus.

Sometimes the Kurdish inhabited areas of Northern Syria are called "Kurdistana Binxetê" in Kurdish, which means Kurdistan below the border. Referring to the Syrian-Turkish border.

Many Kurds live in the large cities and metropolitan areas of the country, for example, in the neighborhood of Rukn al-Din in Damascus which was formerly known as Hayy al Akrad (Kurdish Quarter), and the Aleppo neighbourhood Sheikh Maqsood.[26][27]

Kurdish settlement in Syria goes back to before the Crusades of the 11th century. A number of Kurdish military and feudal settlements from before this period have been found in Syria. Such settlements have been found in the Alawite and north Lebanese mountains and around Hama and its surroundings. The Crusade fortress of Krak des Chevaliers, which is known in Arabic as Hisn al-Akrad (Castle of the Kurds), was originally a Kurdish military settlement before it was enlarged by the French Crusaders. Similarly, the Kurd-Dagh (Kurdish Mount) has been inhabited by Kurds for more than a millennium.[28]

In the 12th century, Kurdish and other Muslim regiments accompanied Saladin, who was a Kurd from Tikrit, on his conquest of the Middle East and establishment of the Ayyubid dynasty (1171–1341), which was administered from Damascus. The Kurdish regiments that accompanied Salidin established self-ruled areas in and around Damascus. These settlements evolved into the Kurdish sections of Damascus of Hayy al-Akrad (the Kurdish quarter) and the Salhiyya districts located in the north-east of Damasacus on Mount Qasioun.[29] The Kurdish community's role in the military continued under the Ottomans. Kurdish soldiers and policeman from city were tasked with both maintaining order and protecting the pilgrims’ route toward Mecca. Many Kurds from Syria's rural hinterland joined the local Janissary corp in Damascus. Later, Kurdish migrants from diverse areas, such as Diyarbakir, Mosul and Kirkuk, also joined these military units which caused an expansion of the Kurdish community in the city.[30]

During the Ottoman period (1516–1922), some large Kurdish tribal groups both settled in and were deported to areas of northern Syria from Anatolia. The largest of these tribal groups was the Reshwan confederation, which was initially based in the Adiyaman region but eventually also settled throughout Anatolia. The Milli confederation, which was documented in Ottoman sources from the year 1518 onward, was the most powerful tribal group and dominated the entire northern Syrian steppe in the second half of the 18th century. The Kurdish dynasty of Janbulads ruled the region of Aleppo as governors for the Ottomans from 1591 to 1607 and were allied with the Medici of Tuscany.[32] At the beginning of the 17th century, districts of Jarabulus and Seruj on the left bank of the Euphrates were settled by Kurds.[33] In the mid-18th century, Ottomans recognized Milli tribal leaders as iskan başi or chief of sedentarization in Raqqa area. They were given taxing authority and controlling other tribes in the region. In 1758, Milli chief and iskan başi Mahmud bin Kalash entered Khabur valley, subjugated the local tribes and brought the area under control of Milli confederation and attempted to set up an independent principality. In 1800, the Ottoman government appointed the Milli chief Timur as governor of Raqqa (1800–1803).[34][35][36]

The Danish writer Carsten Niebuhr, who traveled to Jazira in 1764, recorded five nomadic Kurdish tribes (Dukurie, Kikie, Schechchanie, Mullie and Aschetie) and six Arab tribes (Tay, Kaab, Baggara, Geheish, Diabat and Sherabeh).[37] According to Niebuhr, the Kurdish tribes were settled near Mardin in Turkey, and paid the governor of that city for the right of grazing their herds in the Syrian Jazira.[38] These Kurdish tribes gradually settled in villages and cities and are still present in Jazira (modern Syria's Hasakah Governorate).[39]

The demographics of this area underwent a huge shift in the early part of the 20th century. Ottoman authorities with the cooperation of Kurdish troops (and to a lesser degree, Circassian and Chechen tribes) persecuted Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Upper Mesopotamia and were granted their victims' land as a reward[verification needed].[40][page needed][41] Kurds were responsible for most of the atrocities against Assyrians, and Kurdish expansion happened at the expense of Assyrians (due to factors like proximity).[42] Kurdish as well as Circassian and Chechen tribes cooperated with the Ottoman (Turkish) authorities in the massacres of Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Upper Mesopotamia, between 1914 and 1920, with further attacks on unarmed fleeing civilians conducted by local Arab militias.[43][44][41][45][46]

In 1936, there French forces bombarded Amuda . On 13 August 1937, in a revenge attack, about 500 Kurds from the Dakkuri, Milan, and Kiki tribes attacked the then predominantly Christian Amuda[47] and burned the mostly Assyrian town.[48] The town was destroyed and the Christian population, about 300 families, fled to the towns of Qamishli and Hasakah.[49]

In other parts of the country during this period, Kurds became local chiefs and tax farmers in Akkar (Lebanon) and the Qusayr highlands between Antioch and Latakia in northwestern Syria. The Afrin Plateau northwest of Aleppo, just inside what is today Syria, was officially known as the "Sancak of the Kurds" in Ottoman documents.[50] The Millis revolted against the Ottoman government after the death of their leader Ibrahim Pasa and some of them eventually settled for the most part on the Syrian side of the newly drawn Turkish-Syrian border of 1922.[51][52]

The immigration of some Kurds to Syria began in 1926 following the failure of the rebellion of Saed Ali Naqshbandi against the Turkish authorities.[53] They were granted citizenship by the French mandate authorities.[54][41] During the great war, Kurdish tribes attacked and sacked and villages in Albaq District immediately to the north of Hakkari mountains. According to Lieutenant Ronald Sempill Stafford, large numbers of Assyrians and Armenians were killed.[55]

Following World War I, the victorious Allied powers and the defeated Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sèvres of 10 August 1920. The treaty stipulated that Ottoman Kurdistan, which included Kurdish inhabited areas in present Syria, was to be given autonomy within the new Turkish Republic, with the choice for full independence within a year. The Kemalist victory in Turkey and subsequent territorial gains during the Turkish War of Independence led to the renegotiated Treaty of Lausanne of 24 July 1923, which made no mention of a future Kurdish state. The majority of Ottoman Kurdish territory was given to Turkey and the rest was divided between the newly established French Mandate of Syria and British Mandate of Iraq.[56]

Provisions of the Treaty of Sèvres for an independent Kurdistan (in 1920).

Kurdish immigration waves to Syria's Jazira province started in the 1920s, especially following the failure of the Sheikh Said rebellion against the Turkish authorities and in subsequent years.[53] The number of Kurds settled in the Jazira province during the 1920s was estimated at 20,000 people.[57] Sir John Hope Simpson reports that the JAzira province had 100,000 inhabitants, among which 20,000 were Kurds.[58]

Under the French Mandate of Syria, newly-arriving Kurds were granted citizenship by French Mandate authorities[59] and enjoyed considerable rights as the French Mandate authority encouraged minority autonomy as part of a divide and rule strategy and recruited heavily from the Kurds and other minority groups, such as Alawite and Druze, for its local armed forces.[60] Between December 1931 and January 1932, the first elections under the new Syrian constitution were held.[61] Among the deputies there were three members of the Syrian Kurdish nationalist Xoybûn (Khoyboun) party from the three different Kurdish enclaves in Syria: Khalil bey Ibn Ibrahim Pacha (Jazira province), Mustafa bey Ibn Shahin (Jarabulus) and Hassan Aouni (Kurd Dagh).[62]

In the mid-1930s, there arose an autonomist movement in the Jazira province among Kurds and Christians. Its Kurdish leaders were Hajo Agha, Kaddur Bey, and Khalil Bey Ibrahim Pasha. Hajo Agha was the Kurdish chief of the Heverkan tribal confederation and one of the leaders of the Kurdish nationalist party Xoybûn (Khoyboun). He established himself as the representative of the Kurds in Jazira maintaining the coalition with the Christian notables, who were represented by the Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Gabriel I Tappouni and Michel Dôme the Armenian Catholic president of the Qamishli municipality. The Kurdish-Christian Coalition wanted French troops to stay in the province in case of Syrian independence, as they feared the nationalist Damascus government would replace minority officials by Muslim Arabs from the capital. The French authorities, although some in their ranks had earlier encouraged this anti-Damascus movement, refused to consider any new status of autonomy inside Syria and even annexed the Alawite State and the Jabal Druze State to the Syrian Republic.[63]

In 1936, there French forces Bombarded Amuda. On 13 August 1937, in a revenge attack, Kurdish tribes sided with Damascus and about 500 men from the Dakkuri, Milan, and Kiki tribes led by the Kurdish tribal leader Sa'ed Agha al-Dakkuri attacked the then predominantly Christian Amuda[64] and burned the town.[48] The town was destroyed and the Christian population, about 300 families, fled to the towns of Qamishli and Hasakah.[49]

Osman Sabri and Hamza Diweran along with some Kurdish politicians, founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) in 1957.[65] The objectives of KDPS were promotion of Kurdish cultural rights, economic progress and democratic change. Following their demands for the recognition of the Kurdish cultural rights, the Party got suppressed by the United Arab Republic and the possession of Kurdish publications or music was enough to be sent to be detained.[66] KDPS was never legally recognized by the Syrian state and remains an underground organization, especially after a crackdown in 1960 during which several of its leaders were arrested, charged with separatism and imprisoned. After the failure of Syrian political union with Egypt in 1961,[66] Syria was declared an Arab Republic in the interim constitution.

On 23 August 1962, the government conducted a special population census only for the province of Jazira, which was predominantly Kurdish. As a result, around 120,000 Kurds in Jazira (20% of Syrian Kurds) were stripped of their Syrian citizenship even though they were in possession of Syrian identity cards.[67] The inhabitants who had Syrian identity cards were told to hand them over to the administration for renewal. However, many of those Kurds who submitted their cards received nothing in return. Many were arbitrarily categorized as ajanib ('foreigners'), while others who did not participate in the census were categorized as maktumin ('unregistered'), an even lower status than the ajanib; for all intents and purposes, these unregistered Kurds did not exist in the eyes of the state. They could not get jobs, become educated, own property, participate in politics, or even get married. In some cases, classifications varied even within Kurdish families: parents had citizenship but not their children, a child could be a citizen but not his or her brothers and sisters. Those Kurds who lost their citizenship were often dispossessed of their lands, which were given by the state to Arab and Assyrian settlers.[68] A media campaign was launched against the Kurds with slogans such as Save Arabism in Jazira! and Fight the Kurdish Menace!.[69]

These policies in the Jazira region coincided with the beginning of Barzani's uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan and discovery of oilfields in the Jazira province of Syria. In June 1963, Syria took part in the Iraqi military campaign against the Kurds by providing aircraft, armoured vehicles and a force of 6,000 soldiers. Syrian troops crossed the Iraqi border and moved into Kurdish town of Zakho in pursuit of Barzani's fighters[70]

Syrian policies in the 1970s led to Arabs resettling in majority Kurdish areas.[71] In 1965, the Syrian government decided to create an Arab cordon (Hizam Arabi) in the Jazira region along the Turkish border. The cordon was along the Turkish-Syrian border and 10–15 kilometers wide,[72] stretched from the Iraqi border in the east to Ras Al-Ain in the west. The implementation of the Arab cordon plan began in 1973 and Bedouin Arabs were brought in and resettled in Kurdish areas. The toponymy of the area such as village names were Arabized. According to the original plan, some 140,000 Kurds had to be deported to the southern desert near Al-Raad. Although Kurdish farmers were dispossessed of their lands, they refused to move and give up their houses. Among these Kurdish villagers, those who were designated as alien were not allowed to own property, to repair a crumbling house or to build a new one.[73] In 1976 the further implementation of the arabization policy along the Turkish border was officially dropped by Hafez al Assad. The achieved demographic changes were not reverted,[72] and in 1977 a ban on non-arabic place names was issued.[74]

In March 1986, a few thousand Kurds wearing Kurdish costume gathered in the Kurdish part of Damascus to celebrate the spring festival of Newroz. Police warned them that Kurdish dress was prohibited and they fired on the crowd leaving one person dead. Around 40,000 Kurds took part in his funeral in Qamishli. Also in Afrin, three Kurds were killed during the Newroz demonstrations.[75] After the protests, the Syrian government prohibited the Newroz festivities and established a new holiday on the same day, honoring the mothers.[76]

After an incident in a football stadium in Qamishli, 65 people were killed and more than 160 were injured in days of clashes starting from 12 March. Kurdish sources indicated that Syrian security forces used live ammunition against civilians after clashes broke out at a football match between Kurdish fans of the local team and Arab supporters of a visiting team from the city of Deir al-Zor. The international press reported that nine people were killed on 12 March. According to Amnesty International hundreds of people, mostly Kurds, were arrested after the riots. Kurdish detainees were reportedly tortured and ill-treated. Some Kurdish students were expelled from their universities, reportedly for participating in peaceful protests.[79]

The Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria was formed to represent Syrian Kurds based on two major conferences, one at the US Senate in March 2006 and the other at the EU parliament in Brussels in 2006. The Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KNAS) seeks democracy for Syria and supports granting equal rights to Kurds and other Syrian minorities. They seek to transform Syria into a federal state, with a democratic system and structure for the federal government and provincial governments.[citation needed]

Following the Tunisian Revolution and the Egyptian Revolution, 4 February 2011 was declared a Day of Rage in Syria by activists through Facebook. Few turned out to protest, but among the few were Kurdish demonstrators in the northeast of the country.[80] On 7 October 2011, Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo was gunned down in his apartment by masked men widely believed to be government agents. During Tammo's funeral procession the next day in the town of Qamishli, Syrian security forces fired into a crowd of more than 50,000 mourners, killing five people.[81] According to Tammo's son, Fares Tammo, "My father's assassination is the screw in the regime's coffin. They made a big mistake by killing my father."[82] Since then, Kurdish demonstrations became a routine part of the Syrian uprising.[83] In June 2012, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group, announced Abdulbaset Sieda, an ethnic Kurd, as their new leader.[84]

Protests in the Kurdish inhabited areas of Syria evolved into armed clashes after the opposition Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC) signed a cooperation agreement on 12 July 2012 that created the Kurdish Supreme Committee as the governing body of all Kurdish controlled areas.[85][86][87]

Under the administration of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, the People's Protection Units (YPG) were created to control the Kurdish inhabited areas in Syria. On 19 July, the YPG captured the city of Kobanê, and the next day captured Amûdê and Efrîn.[88] The KNC and PYD afterwards formed a joint leadership council to run the captured cities.[88] By 24 July, the Syrian Kurdish cities of Dêrika Hemko (Al-Malikiyah), Serê Kaniyê (Ra's al-'Ayn), Dirbêsî (Al-Darbasiyah) and Girkê Legê (Al-Ma'bada) had also come under the control of the People's Protection Units. The only major Kurdish inhabited cities that remained under government control were Hasaka and Qamishli.[89][90]

In 2014, Kurds along with Assyrian and Arab populations in the region declared the cantons of Cizîrê, Kobanê and Efrîn to be parts of autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.[citation needed]

Kurdish-inhabited Afrin Canton has been occupied by the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army since the Turkish military operation in Afrin in early 2018.[91] Between 150,000 and 200,000 people were displaced due to the Turkish intervention.[92]

On 9 October 2019, Turkey started bombarding Kurdish-controlled regions of Syria for a planned invasion called Operation Peace Spring.[93]

International and Kurdish human rights organizations have accused the Syrian government of discriminating against the Kurdish minority.[94][95][96] Amnesty International also reported that Kurdish human rights activists are mistreated and persecuted.[97]

The Kurdish language is the second most spoken language in Syria, after Arabic.[98]

The Kurds often speak the Kurdish language in public, unless all those present do not. According to the Human Rights Watch, Kurds in Syria are not allowed to officially use the Kurdish language, are not allowed to register children with Kurdish names, are prohibited to start businesses that do not have Arabic names, are not permitted to build Kurdish private schools and are prohibited from publishing books and other materials written in Kurdish.[99] In 1988 it was prohibited also to sing in non-arabic language at weddings or festivities.[100] But this is no longer enforced due to the civil war.

There are also some "nawar people" (gypsies) who speak Kurdish and call themselves Kurds in some regions.[101]

In 1962, 20 percent of Syria's Kurdish population were stripped of their Syrian citizenship following a very highly controversial census raising concerns among human rights groups. According to the Syrian government, the reason for this enactment was due to groups of Kurds infiltrating the Al-Hasakah Governorate in 1945. The Syrian government claims that the Kurds came from neighboring countries, especially Turkey, and crossed into Syrian borders illegally. The government claims that these Kurds settled down, gradually, in the region in cities like Amuda and Qamishli until they accounted for the majority in some of these cities. The government also claims that many Kurds were capable of registering themselves illegally in the Syrian civil registers. The government further speculated that Kurds intended to settle down and acquire property, especially after the issue of the agricultural reform law, in order to benefit from land redistribution.[99] However, according to Human Rights Watch, the Syrian government falsely claimed that many of the Kurds who were the original inhabitants of the land were foreigners, and in turn, violated their human rights by stripping them of their Syrian citizenship.[102]

As a result of government claims of an increase in illegal immigration, the Syrian government decided to conduct a general census on 5 October 1962 in the governorate with claims that its sole purpose was to purify registers and eliminate the alien infiltrators. As a result, the verified registrations of the citizens of Syria were included in the new civil registers. The remaining, which included 100,000 Kurds, were registered as foreigners (or "ajanib") in special registers.[99][103] Many others did not participate in the census through choice or other circumstances; they are known as "maktoumeen", meaning "unrecorded".[103] Since then, the number of stateless Kurds has grown to more than 200,000.[104] According to Refugees International, there are about 300,000 Kurdish non-citizens in Syria; however, Kurds dispute this number and estimate about 500,000. An independent report has confirmed that there are at least 300,000 non-citizen Kurds living in Syria.[103]

According to the Human Rights Watch, by many accounts, the special census was carried out in an arbitrary manner separating members of the same families and classifying them differently. HRW claims that some Kurds in the same family became citizens while others became foreigners suggesting an inaccuracy in the Syrian government's process; HRW also alleges that some of the Kurds who had served in the Syrian army lost citizenship while those who bribed officials kept theirs.[102] Stateless Kurds also do not have the option of legally relocating to another country because they lack passports or other internationally recognized travel documents. In Syria, other than in the governorate of Al-Hasakah, foreigners cannot be employed at government agencies and state-owned enterprises; they may not legally marry Syrian citizens. Kurds with foreigner status do not have the right to vote in elections or run for public office, and when they attend universities they are often persecuted and cannot be awarded with university degrees.[103] non-citizens Kurds living in Syria are not awarded school certificates and are often unable to travel outside of their provinces.[103]

In April 2011, the President signed Decree 49 which provides citizenship for Kurds who were registered as foreigners in Hasaka.[105] However, a recent independent report has suggested that the actual number of non-citizens Kurds who obtained their national ID cards following the decree does not exceed 6,000, leaving the remainder of 300,000 non-citizens Kurds living in Syria in a state of uncertainty.[103] One newly nationalized Kurd has been reported as saying: ‘I’m pleased to have my ID card .... But not until the process is completed will I truly trust the intentions of this action. Before my card is activated, I must have an interview, no doubt full of interrogation and intimidation, with State Security. Citizenship should not be a privilege. It is my right.’[103] According to one researcher, the Kurdish street perceived the measure of providing citizenship as 'not well-intentioned, but simply an attempt to distance Kurds from the developing protest movement of the Syrian Revolution.'[106]