The Plight of the Kurds in South-West (Syrian) Kurdistan


by Moustafa Rechid

Vice-President, Kurdish PEN Centre


Ladies and gentlemen!

First of all, I should like to express my gratitude to the organisers of this meeting for having invited us to speak about the situation of the Kurdish people in what is known as Syrian Kurdistan, although we prefer another term - South-West Kurdistan. I appreciate this wonderful opportunity to elaborate the problems we have and denounce oppression we suffer from the totalitarian Syrian regime.

Esteemed guests!

The Kurds are one of the most ancient peoples in the Middle East. The 40-million-strong Kurdish nation belongs to the four major regional nations together with the Arabs, Persians and Turks. As you may know, until the World War 1, our homeland Kurdistan had been divided between the Ottoman and Persian Empires. After the war, Kurdish lands from the Ottoman Empire were given to the three new states, that is, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. South Kurdistan, then referred to as the Mossul Vilayet, because of its oil reserves was attached to the newly-created Iraq. Another part that had been located south of the train line Berlin-Baghdad became a part of Syria, another new-born state. The borders between these state were chiefly based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Since then these names of two diplomats, an English and a French one, are being implied whenever the Kurds are dissatisfied by unjust borders. Unfortunately, these two gentlemen paid no attention to the ethnic composition of these regions and draw these borders simply using a pen and a ruler. One is able to see their drawings on the current political map. Thus, the Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Syrian state and attached to it a part of our homeland.

The Kurds live in the northern part of Syria, in the border region between Syria and Turkey on the one hand and Syria and Iraq on the other. Nevertheless, the Kurds have always been  playing an significant role in Syrian history. Many aristocratic and well-to-do Kurdish families occupied  major positions in Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. It is known that a lot of families in the district of Horan and even some Druzes are of Kurdish origins. The experts of Syria could attest that until 1958 a big number of important Syrian politicians came from these families. I could limit myself with mentioning the Defence Minister Yusif al-Azma (during the French arrival), Ibrahim Henano (a patriotic symbol of anti-French resistance), Muhammad Alî al-Abid (the President of the Syrian Republic in 1936) as well as other Presidents Husni al-Zaim, Fawzi Silo and Shukri al-Quwatli. There were a number of other important politicians including Muhsin Berazi, Reshad Bermeda, Rushdi al-Kikhiya, Tawfiq Nizameddin and the famous Jumblat family of Lebanon. It would be only correct to agree with the President of Syria Mr. Bashar al-Asad saying to Al-Jazeera TV that „the Kurdish nation is one of the basic elements of Syrian society”.

During the World War 2, when Syria and Lebanon had been occupied by the French, who were assisted by the British troops eager to support General De Gaule, many Arabs started to defy France and the UK by displaying sympathy with the Nazi Germany. As a result, in 1942 the educated Arab nationalists, following the notorious example of the National-Socialist Party of Germany, created the Arab National-Socialist Party widely known as al-Baath. Before long, the Baathist ideology and political structure became dominant in Syria and Iraq. The main reasons of such an unfortunate development were:

1)           The Baath strengthened nationalist emotions amongst the Arabs by promising to create a pan-Arab Union. That made people believe that the Baathists were able to contribute to the positive changes in Arab economies and social life;

2)           The West European states and the USA, fearing of the Soviet influence in the Middle East penetrating through local Communist parties, wanted to come along with the Baathists.

After the Baathists came to power in Syria and Iraq, they carried out the following policies: in foreign relations they moved between the West and the Soviet block whereas in the domestic affairs they realised many National-Socialist principles.

1958 was the year of important changes in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the policy of  Arabization was applied to state symbols, organisations and even chemistry and mathematics. Thus, tThe name of Syrian Republic was changed to the Syrian Arab Republic,  the national anthem became the Syrian Arab National Anthem, the Syrian Army was renamed to the Syrian Arab Army with the TV acquiring the title of the Syrian Arab TV.

The atmosphere was created when only people shouting Arab nationalist slogans were accepted by the state. Everything Arabic was regarded as more precious than anything else. However, this could not and did not change the mosaics of Syrian society. The Kurds remained the second largest group in Syria and other sizeable minorities continued their existence such as Aramaic-speaking Christian groups (embracing Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans), Turkomans, Circassians, Armenians and Jews. The official ideology did in no way fit a multi-linguistic and multi-religious Syrian society.

During the short-lived  Union of Syria and Egypt, the Arab Socialists nationalised banks, factories and the whole private sector. In accordance with the official ideology, the Arabs were regarded as better citizens than non-Arabs. It may be seen on only one example: the Syrian state took away the land possessions of the Kurdish land-lords to give them not to the Kurdish peasant, but to the Arabs brought in from other regions.

In 1962, the Syrian government under the supervision of the Baathist official Muhammad Talab Hilal started a racist actions against the Kurds which may be sum up in the following way:

1)           The Kurds living within 10-15 kilometres distance from the Turkish border had to be replaced by the Arabs. Thus, the Kurdish inhabitants who resided there for hundreds and thousands of years were forced to leave and the Arabs from other regions came and took their land and belongings.

2)           The number of Kurds had to be decreased at any cost.

A ) An emergency census was conducted in 1962 and around 150,000 Kurds were deprived from Syrian citizenship. Several generations of these Kurds are now stateless. To compare the Syrian population was 5 million in 1962 with 17,5 million nowadays, we may assume that the number of the stateless Syrian Kurds increased from 150,00 to 500,000 people. The stateless Kurds are deprived of every right, including the right of possession of land, they cannot build a house, they are not treated in to the state hospitals and are banned from visiting hotels.

B) The Syrian state creates barriers for the social and cultural  development of the Kurds while encouraging them to leave Syria in order to become refugees in Europe or elsewhere.

3)           The Syrian state methodically obliterates the traces of Kurdish names and identity: Kurdish cities and villages receive new Arab names, the Kurdish language and publications are illegal with the Kurdish children banned from bearing their original names and forced to have Arab ones.  

4)           Those Kurds who preserve their identity are not allowed to make carrier in civil service or the army. To illustrate it, the people with Kurdish self-confidence will never become generals or fly military airplanes.

Between 1963 and 1970, the Baathists enjoyed power but the power struggle between various clans and grouping did not disappear. One dictator had been replacing another until 1970, when General Hafiz al-Assad succeeded in establishing the total control over the state apparatus and army. To keep his power, al-Assad created three competing security organisations, namely, the State Security Office, the Political Security Office and the Military Security Office. These three organisations prevented any form of political and economic changes in the country.

To be fair, there has been a period of democracy in Syria, albeit a very short one: between 1954 and 1957. Up to the nowadays the whole population is being oppressed. Yet, it is the minorities who face more discrimination and are being persecuted. The Syrian regime is no friend of human rights and freedom of press. As sad as it can be, but the outside world is apparently aware of 10 per cent of the things which took place in Syria.

The Damascus regime and the gone tyranny of Saddam Hussein have the same ideological premises, although they may dislike each other. The reason of the latter is that the Syrian and Iraqi Baathists competed of being better Arab nationalists. Faced with the real threat to their political grounds, the Syrian authorities are currently doing everything possible to bring the Iraqi Baathists back to the power in Iraq.

After the Iraqi Constitution was signed on the 8th of March, 2004, and gave the Kurds an official status within the Iraqi Federation, the Syrian regime lost the sense of reality. The Syrian Baathists are afraid that one day the Kurds in Syria and their language will ascend to an official level, similar to that in Iraq. In such a hostile atmosphere the state security personnel contributed, if not provoked, the dramatic events started on the 12th of March. You might be aware of the consequences of the attacks against the Kurds: tens of them being killed, hundreds being wounded and thousands being still detained. Every day one group of the Kurds is being arrested and another released. There are wide-spread tortures aimed even at the teenagers between 12 and 17 years old. Some people have been killed and buried by the police while the relatives have no information about this. Let me tell you only one example. A Kurdish mother wanted to see and kiss her killed son before he would be buried. When she approached him to kiss his chin, she saw that his chin had been cut off. There are other cases of the killed Kurds whose eyes were smashed. These are not horror stories re-played in Alfred Hitchkock’s films; unfortunately these are realities of the Kurds in Syria.

To protest such deadly attacks, the Syrian Kurds demonstrate in Europe. Although the Damascus regime is anxious of following the fate of the Iraqi state criminals, there should be no doubt that the Syrian authorities are not afraid of the Kurds. These Kurds constitute 16 % of the country’s population with a part of them having already left South-West Kurdistan to move to other regions of Syria. The Kurds are keen to use democratic and non-violent methods of struggle. It is an open secret that they lack a better coordination to be able to seriously demand human rights for them and other citizens of the country. The Syrian opposition under the name of civil society group is unfortunately still weak. Against such a background, the Syrian Kurds and other democratic forces are simply not capable of turning Syria into a modern and democratic state. What we really need is backing from democratic forces from abroad. The oppressive Assyrian Empire, the cruelty of Nero and Caligula during the late period of the Roman Empire, the Third Reich of Hitler, the regimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – all of them were destroyed from outside forces.

Let me demonstrate the importance of the outside interference. One and a half years ago, a Syrian Kurdish poet Marwan Osman together with his friend were detained after staging a peaceful demonstration in Damascus. The Syrian state court accused them of separatism and was going to jail them for 15 years. Then, the Kurdish PEN Centre, where I am a Vice-President, informed other PEN Centres of such threat to our member Mr. Marwan Osman and the 69th PEN International Congress in Mexico, 2003, adopted a special resolution demanding his unconditional release. Our colleagues from the English PEN Centre organised an impressing campaign by collecting 202 signatures from the famous English writers and sending a protest letter to the Syrian President and other officials. The English PEN Centre encouraged the involvement of the UK diplomats and that compelled the Syrians to drop their absurd charges and release Marwan Osman together with his friend. I want to use this occasion to thank the English PEN Centre and the PEN International for their invaluable help.

It must be underlined that the Kurdish voice alone is not sufficient. In order to stop killings, attacks and tortures against the Kurds in Syria, I bet you for help. Only your support can make Syria more democratic and only with your support the Kurds can obtain their democratic rights.

Let me be frank with you. We are well aware of the fact that Syria has a very important  geo-political and psychological place in the Middle East and the Arab World. If this country starts democratic changes, it will influence the whole region. Our hopes are:  

A)         With regard to the Syrian state:

1)    Military and dictatorial rule and one-parts system must be abolished;

2)    The State Constitution must reflect the religious and ethnic mosaic of Syria, guarantee the rights of women and multi-party system;

3)    Peaceful relations with all its neighbours and respect for international law.

4)    The State Constitution and other laws must provide that Arabs and Kurds are main nations and refer to the rights of other minorities;

5)    Economic liberalisation and removal of socialist plan economy with its heavy bureaucracy inherited from 1960s and 1970s;

6)    New functions for central power, regions and local governments. The regional and local governments must be elected and deal with local issues;

7)    Independence of courts and freedom of opinion and mass media;


B)         With regard to the solution of the Kurdish issue I refer to the statement of the President Bashar al-Assad who stated that a wrong policy towards the Kurds of the last 40 years must be corrected:

1)    The outcomes of the emergency census of 1962 must be abolished and the Kurds must get back their Syrian citizenship;

2)    The Kurds must be allowed to return to their villages which are now illegally occupied by the Arabs. Those Arabs are also victims of the ill-fated policy and it is the duty of the state to facilitate their return to the native villages;

3)    The policy of Arabization of historical names of cities, villages and personal names must be reverted and corrected;

4)    In the Kurdish regions, the Kurdish language must become the second official one alongside Arabic;

5)    The Kurdish language and culture shall be free in other regions of Syria, too: especially at the universities and in mass media;

6)    There must be no discrimination against the Kurds as well as other minorities in the army, government, education, social and  political life.


Ladies and gentlemen!


We see how the new communication facilities, cultural, political and social contacts bring the nations of the world together. The people speak of the “world village”. I can compare it with the ship in the sea. If some harm the ship, it will disturb everyone. Only by taking care of the ship, we are to survive as a humanity.

 Thank you for your attention.