Syria and the Kurds – cool heads must prevail

Tharwa Editorial

The recent tragic developments in Syria’s northernmost city of Qamishli, and the ensuing spillovers into other townships and cities, deserve more than simple condemnations of alleged wrongdoers, agents provocateurs, and/or the authorities, local or national. If these events are to be truly contained so that they are not repeated in the future and so as to avoid the slightest hint of the possibility of foreign intervention and any recourse to spiteful and vindictive rhetoric and measures, certain basic issues related to the living conditions and status of Syria’s Kurdish population need to be seriously addressed.

Foremost in this regard are the issues emanating from the country’s longstanding arabization policy vis-à-vis its Kurdish population, including the creation and maintenance of Arab settlements inside the Kurdish territories, neglecting to develop the basic social, educational and economic infrastructure of these territories, prohibiting the use of the Kurdish language in the public space, including schools and government buildings, denying the Kurds the right to play an active role in local administration, and sealing the records of over 200,000 Kurdish residents who, thus, remain without identification cards and are in effect deprived of the natural benefits of citizenship.

Unless these issues are seriously addressed, the recent developments that the country has witnessed might, unfortunately, prove a mere dress rehearsal for what could be lying ahead.

This blunt statement of the facts and their potential consequences is intended to introduce a much needed note of sobriety into the decision-making process on all sides, and is dictated by the fact that one of the main concerns of the Tharwa Project is conflict prevention in a region that has witnessed, and is still witnessing, more than its fair share of conflicts, if fairness is the right concept to invoke here. For this, clarity of purpose and goals is one of the main mechanisms that need to be deployed.

The riots that took place over the last few days have already generated much hostility among the majority Arab population of Syria, especially in the southern and western parts of the country where people have traditionally been kept in the dark regarding the way the Kurds have been treated. Indeed, the riots seemed quite incomprehensible to most of them and have posed a severe test to the fragile sense of security that they have maintained ever since the dark period of the late 70s and early 80s. Consequently, the Arab population at this stage seems more inclined to support government crackdown against the Kurdish population more as an expression of their desire to avoid a relapse into the violence and mayhem that the country has long witnessed, and that neighboring Iraq is currently witnessing, than as an expression of some racial prejudice vis-à-vis the Kurds. Nonetheless, this attitude still bodes ill for future relations between the Arab and Kurdish citizens of Syria.

Moreover, the various statements that have so far been issued by Syrian officials in connection with the riots seem to assign the whole blame for this development, prior to any investigation of the matter, independent or otherwise, solely on the Kurds and on alleged foreign dabbling in Kurdish milieus. This is definitely not the right way for Syria’s government to appease the mounting Kurdish sense of frustration and anger vis-à-vis the status quo.

Furthermore, some (though not all) officials have referred more often in their statements to Arab causalities and neglected any mention of the much higher Kurdish death toll (around 40 according to conservative local estimates). It is indeed as if the Kurds represent some kind of foreign presence in the eyes of these officials, so that their suffering and loss do not merit any consideration or mention. This attitude will only contribute to the growing feeling of alienation of the country’s Kurdish population and could further inflame an already too volatile situation.

Obviously then, and if the Syrian government truly desires to move beyond the immediate containment of the situation through the adoption of various security measures, most of which tend to raise even more problems on the long run, a clearer more comprehensive policy needs to be adopted.

Over the next few days and weeks, and in addition to undertaking a full investigation of the events and their immediate causes, of course, the following civic measures are recommended:

  • A series of visits by high-ranking officials to afflicted Kurdish territories coupled with meetings with local officials and representatives of the Arab and Kurdish populations.
  • Guidelines should be issued to local and national officials as well as leaders of the official press on how to respond to the current situation in a manner that avoids stereotyping, prejudgments and further alienation of the Kurdish population.
  • Organizing community meetings between Arab and Kurdish inhabitants of the affected areas in order to alley fears, rebuild trust and create further understanding of the Kurdish situation, concerns and aspirations. (Many Syrian civil society activists have already launched a number of activities along these lines, including a recent visit by a delegation of Syrian civil society activists and representatives of carious civil and human rights organizations to the city of Qamishli in an effort to reconcile the different parties and defuse the situation. Still, efforts made by the Syrian government in this regard could have greater resonance as they would signal an official change of attitude with regard to the way the country’s Kurds are treated, and would imbue the existing regime with some much needed legitimacy in the eyes of its Kurdish electorate).

 These are only immediate measures, of course, and cannot be considered as substitutes for an effective handling of the core issues noted above, whose resolution constitutes the only practical and viable answer to Syria’s own Kurdish Question.

 Indeed, Syria needs to become a state of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnic, sectarian or religious affiliations – a development that promises to reinforce the stability and national unity of the country and make it more capable of effectively responding to the requirements of the constantly changing geopolitical realities of the region and the world. This will also effectively shut the doors in the face of any possible foreign and external intervention in the internal affairs of the country.