The Kurdish Question in Syria: A General Approach

Badrakhan Ali

28 May 2012

[The following article was translated into English by Christine Cuk.]

Kurdish inhabited area of Syria. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Kurdish issue in Syria has a history and trajectory that are different from sectarian problems in the region. It is not a sectarian problem, as the Kurds are not a sect of Arabs or a special Islamic group. They belong to a people that are forty million strong and are distributed over a number of countries, and they are the largest national group in both the region and the world that is deprived of a political counterpart to its existence: an independent state. The aspects of the region’s Kurdish question differ from the revival of sectarian problems in Arab-Islamic society.

A problem often mentioned is that it is impossible and impermissible to talk about a Kurdish people and a Syrian people in one state, and the assumption is that there are a Syrian people, or one Arab Syrian people, and that’s all; thus, there may not be two peoples in one state.

This theoretical argument assumes that there is a deep national state in Syria, that it has attempted integrated social engineering in its sphere, and that the state has arisen on this basis. But if one were to invoke the current or historical tangible reality (and not the previous argument), one would notice that in the Kurdish situation one faces a different reality, since Kurdish national identity has not been subjected to extermination or incorporation into the national identity; rather, it has retained a deep-rooted particularity. The occasional integration of Kurds into Damascene or Hama society, for example, do not come close to the truth of the problem, since the essence of the Syrian Kurdish issue assumes a concrete form only in those areas where the inhabitants speak only Kurdish and understand themselves only as Kurds, in terms of a national-civic identity.

The Kurdish issue has not crystallized in Syria as a general problem of the state and Syrian society, as it has in neighboring countries, because the Kurdish regions exist on the periphery, distant from the larger cities, centers of politics, and power struggles. The Kurds who are integrated into Syrian society (in Damascus, Hama, and Aleppo) have participated extensively in politics and have held high positions in the army and government, but only as Syrians, and only before the Ba’ath’s seizure of power and the exclusion of Kurds from all top positions, especially in the army and the diplomatic and political corps. On the other hand, the Kurdish nationalist sentiments that have sprung up in the period of nationalist enthusiasm have found other channels for expressing themselves: namely, the symbolic and political interaction with the political movement and struggle of the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey. Syrian Kurdish society was confused with respect to identity and affiliation, and was pulled to its national centers and historical cities outside the borders of the new Syria.

A general problem did not arise, but the issue of their identity was very much present in the Kurdish mind, and thus inflamed nationalist sentiments, as they remained confined within their respective borders. The problem became more acute with the nationalist and authoritarian policies undertaken at the time of Syrian-Egyptian unification in 1958, despite the well-known and open personal position of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser—inspiration of the pan-Arabists at that time—on the Kurdish question, especially in Iraq (some of them attribute this position to his conflict with Iraq’s leaders and the conflict between Cairo and Baghdad for regional influence).

As authoritarian oppression and societal deprivation of politics and freedoms increased, the Kurds’ share of them doubled, within the limits of the regimes’ underhanded policies. In addition, other factors played a part in keeping the Kurds relatively apart from the general political movements of the time. The most important of these was the relationship of the strong Hafez al-Assad regime with the two main Kurdish parties in Iraq and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (in Turkey). These relationships represented a real paradox: depriving the Syrian Kurds of the most basic of their rights (such as denationalization and the prohibition of their language and culture), while supporting the Kurdish movements outside Syria. In addition, there was the Syrian political forces’ marginalization of Kurdish issues, Kurdish particularity, and Kurdish demands, and the absence of Kurds from the political sphere, along with the removal of democratic freedoms in the country.

An organized Kurdish political movement was established in the summer of 1957 as an accumulation of nationalist, cultural, social, and political activities. These activities extended from the beginning of the century, around the revolutions that broke out in Kurdistan during the struggle for independence from the Ottomans and later against Ataturkist fascism, to the modern day, with the struggle of the Kurds of Iraq and Iran for self-rule.

However, this movement limited its goals from the beginning to securing Kurdish rights in Syria within the framework of a democratic Syria, and within its territorial integrity. To present, no call for Kurdish independence from Syria has been issued. This silence, coupled with an absence of bloody clashes (with very few exceptions) with the central authority, and the generally good social relations with the rest of the components of Syrian society gives the Syrian Kurdish movement a peaceful character, and has made it possible to solve outstanding Kurdish problems. The absence of a tumultuous and bloody history during the Kurdish conflict with successive authorities has two contradictory effects: The first is the non-emergence of a substantial Kurdish problem in Syria, and the second is the potential to build on this peace in order to find solutions to this problem and related issues.

Syria is indebted to its Kurds, as they have never harmed their country, or its citizens, despite long years of marginalization and exclusion. The Kurds contributed (with well-known effectiveness) to Syrian independence from French occupation, building the national state (before the eras of exclusion), and they did not adopt sectarian or national-chauvinist positions. They did not throw a single rose on a policeman, an intelligence element, or a single Arab citizen, including those whom the authorities settled in Kurdish regions after good agricultural land was expropriated from its farmers and original Kurdish owners and granted to Arab citizens who were brought from outside the governorate (from al-Raqqah and Aleppo).

The Kurdish question has been fair and just, both before and after the breakout of the popular uprising. It must be treated, on a number of levels, as a basic issue of social justice on the Syrian level. In the political sphere, it will be a present and strongly pressing issue with two dimensions: adherence to the unity of the state and its public nature, and the aim of strengthening it in exchange for the powerful Kurdish request for constitutional and legal provisions to ensure collective (and not only individual) equality. This is a theoretical and practical problem faced by Syrian social and political thought. The task within the cultural and epistemological fields is to provide all political sides (forces, parties, youth activists…) with concepts that spring from reality first and foremost, and putting these realities in an epistemological framework.

The basic issue is the creation of a new concept of citizenship and equality, one that opens these concepts up to new horizons that have emerged from the history of forming the modern Syrian state over the last century, and from a reality of truly existent pluralism, which is neither imaginary nor incidental.

[This article was orginally published in al-Hayat.]

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