Unrest in Syria Inspires New Wave of Kurdish Activism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 22

Syrian anti-regime protesters in Tlabiseh, Syria on May 27.

As the momentum of opposition demonstrations targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gains in the face of an increasingly violent crackdown by the state, questions are emerging as to the survivability of a regime widely considered to be among the most autocratic in the region.  Like others in the Arab world toiling under decades of authoritarianism, Syrians are protesting the absence of democratic freedoms, disregard for human rights and widespread corruption pervading their society.  As legitimate grievances engendered over time define a discourse of dissent, underserved segments of Syrian society, including persecuted ethnic minorities such as the sizeable Kurdish community, are also finding their voices (al-Jazeera, April 8).  Encompassing all corners of the country, the unrest in Syria has reached the northern and northeastern provinces where most of its ethnic Kurdish minority population reside, particularly in Aleppo, al-Raqqa, and, especially, al-Hasakah province, which borders Kurdish-dominated regions of Turkey and Iraq.  Kurdish neighborhoods and towns across other parts of Syria are also witnessing displays of dissent.  

The specter of Kurdish nationalism continues to haunt governments in the region that rule over restive Kurdish populations, namely Turkey, Iraq and Iran, as well as Syria.  Initially, there was little evidence to indicate that Syrian Kurds were expressing their grievances amid the current uprising through an ethno-nationalist lens analogous to the calls for autonomy or independence by Kurds in Turkey and Iran, which are experiencing Kurdish insurgencies, or Iraq, where Kurds enjoy a quasi-independent status guaranteed through Iraq’s federalization. Most Syrian Kurds appear to be venting their ire against the state as Syrians, not Kurds.  At a rally in the town of al-Amouda, located in al-Hasakah province, protestors chanted “God, Syria, freedom, and that’s it,” a play on a popular Ba’athist chant, “God, Syria, Assad, and that’s it.”  Protestors also carried Syrian flags and banners reading “Respect for the heroes of freedom” and “We are all Syria” (Alliance for Kurdish Rights, April 1).  Yet there have been instances where Kurdish grievances were articulated through a Kurdish nationalist discourse.  At a March 20 rally during celebrations marking the festival of Nowruz (Persian New Year) that is traditionally commemorated by Syrian Kurds (though repressed by authorities) in the largely Kurdish city of al-Qamishli (also in al-Hasakah province), demonstrators brandished Kurdish flags while leading chants of “long live Kurdistan” (Alliance for Kurdish Rights, March 22).

Given these trends, the manner in which political instability in Syria impacts the position and expectations of Syrian Kurds and, more broadly, the larger question of Kurdish nationalism in the Middle East, warrants closer examination.   

Western Kurdistan

The Middle East is in the throes of a reinvigorated Kurdish nationalism following the establishment of what, in essence, represents a semi-independent Kurdish state that emerged under the auspices of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.  Depending on the political leanings of the sources – demographic data regarding Kurdish minorities are often heavily politicized – as many as 30 million Kurds live as marginalized ethnic minorities who experience social, cultural, linguistic, and political discrimination in a transnational territory spread over Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria or, as Kurdish nationalists like to call it, “Greater Kurdistan.”  In this context, the territory occupied by Syrian Kurds is considered “Western Kurdistan” or “Syrian Kurdistan.”  The Kurdish population in Syria is estimated to number between one and a half to two million out of a total of around 22 million Syrians, making it the largest non-Arab minority in one of the region’s most ethnically and religiously diverse countries.  Kurds in Syria are forbidden to use the Kurdish language in education and other official venues. Other expressions of Kurdish identity are either prohibited or strongly circumscribed to satisfy the regime.  Kurds also are also among the poorest communities in Syria and influential Kurdish figures are subject to arbitrary arrest and torture (al-Jazeera, May 9).  Most Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but the community includes significant numbers of Alawites, Shiites, Christians and adherents of other smaller sects. Syrian Kurds also share ties with familial and tribal networks that extend over the borders into Turkey and Iraq, as well as a sense of transnational Kurdish identity.
Tensions between the Syrian state and the Kurdish community, while modest in scale compared to the experiences of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran in terms of the amount of bloodshed over the years, are nevertheless real.  A series of incidents in recent years is illustrative of the hostilities simmering below the surface in Syrian society in regard to the position of the Kurdish minority.  For example, in March 2004 a heated exchange between rival Kurdish and Arab football fans in al-Qamishli took on political overtones as Kurds reportedly brandished Kurdish flags and chanted slogans praising U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. Subsequent clashes between the fans prompted a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces that left 36 dead and hundreds injured, most of them Kurds.  The incident prompted Kurds to organize across Syria, leading to further clashes between Kurds and the security forces and attacks by Kurds against symbols of the state.  This period of hostilities represented the largest display of domestic disorder witnessed in Syria in decades (Asia Times, April 9, 2005; Christian Science Monitor, March 17, 2004).  Less dramatic displays of unrest among Kurds have also prompted clashes with Syrian security forces in Kurdish neighborhoods of major urban centers such as Damascus and Aleppo.   

A Question of Citizenship

Kurdish immigrants from neighboring Turkey made their way to Syria from the 1920s to the 1950s to escape poverty and seek out the fertile but uncultivated farmland available in al-Hasakah province. In 1962 Syrian authorities revoked the citizenship of 120,000 Kurds in al-Hasakah on the grounds they were not born there.  The rise of Arab nationalism also placed Kurds in a difficult position in relation to the authorities in Damascus, with Kurds being viewed as a threat to Syrian unity and sovereignty. [1] Known locally as al-ajanib (“the foreigners”), the Kurds in Syria lacking citizenship number as high as 300,000 today. Treated as foreigners by the state, Kurds lacking citizenship are forbidden to own property, enroll in state universities, work in public sector jobs, or obtain a Syrian passport to travel abroad.  Some tens of thousands among this community, known as al-maktoumeen ( “the hidden”), lack even basic identification cards, making it impossible to receive health care  and other services available even to the Kurds who lack citizenship.  Seizing the opportunity to vent their frustrations amid the upheaval, Syrian Kurds remain in the forefront of anti-government demonstrations.  Syrian Kurds in Lebanon (a popular destination for Syrian guest workers) have taken to the streets of Beirut and other cities in a show of solidarity with their fellow Kurds back home (Kurdish Globe [Erbil], May 28).  In an effort to mollify Kurdish protestors, President al-Assad issued a decree on April 7 granting Syrian nationality to Kurds lacking the required credentials.  In a related move designed to curry favor with the Kurdish community, 48 Kurdish political prisoners were also released from prison after being detained for over a year for political activities (al-Jazeera, April 8).

In spite of the regime’s systematic efforts to suppress Kurdish identity in Syria, until the late 1990s the regional geopolitics of the time dictated that Damascus support Kurdish nationalism against Turkey. Syria provided extensive operational and logistical support for the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers’ Party – PKK), a militant group that has oscillated between calls for independence and autonomy for Turkish Kurds.  Much has been said of the friendly shift in Syrian-Turkish relations in recent years.  At one point, however, these countries had a contentious relationship.  Territorial disputes stemming from Syria’s claim for Turkey’s southern Hatay Province as well as disagreements over Turkey’s water usage (the construction of a network of dams along the upper Euphrates River reduced Syria’s access to vital water resources) characterized relations between Syria and Turkey for decades.  Turkey’s alliance with Israel, Syria’s regional archrival, was also behind Syrian support for the PKK.  

Syria’s support for the PKK was such that Damascus turned a blind eye to the group’s recruitment of thousands of Syrian Kurds.  With little regard for the plight of Syrian Kurds or their attachment to Syria, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan boldly suggested that Syrian Kurds would consider moving back to Turkey – presumably after the establishment of an independent state, or at least, an autonomous Kurdish region within Turkey. This position meshed perfectly with Syria’s policy of highlighting the “foreignness” of many of its Kurds in its efforts to suppress Kurdish identity. [2] Tensions reached their peak when Turkey threatened to invade Syria in 1998 over the latter’s support for the PKK.  The marked improvement in relations between the former rivals is best seen in the development of bilateral security relations.  Having abandoned its support for the PKK, Damascus is now actively cooperating with Turkey to root out the group.  In a recent example of Syrian-Turkish cooperation, Syrian authorities extradited two PKK members wanted for alleged involvement in militant activities to Turkey in May (Today’s Zaman, May 19). At least 125 alleged members of the PKK have been handed over to Turkey by Syria since 1998 (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], May 19; Anatolia News Agency [Ankara], May 26).  
A Spillover Effect

Facing a steady rise in attacks by the PKK, Turkey has expressed concerns over the deterioration of order in Syria, especially in its Kurdish regions, and the potential impact on the PKK and the trajectory of Kurdish nationalism more broadly.  

While Turkey was able to count on Syria to work to prevent its territory from being used by PKK guerillas in operations against Turkey, the ongoing turmoil gripping Syria is preoccupying Damascus with far more pressing matters.  Making matters worse for Turkey, the unrest in Syria has occurred against the backdrop of threats issued by the PKK to sow chaos across Turkey through a campaign of violence, terrorism, and public unrest in the run-up to general elections scheduled for June 12 (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], February 19).  There is evidence that the PKK is exploiting the tumult in Syria to bolster its operations.  On April 1, Turkish forces clashed with PKK guerillas in southern Hatay province, killing seven militants.  Turkish forces also seized a cache of arms and explosives, including rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, and plastic explosives.  The guerillas reportedly infiltrated the border from neighboring Syria (Hurriyet [Istanbul], April 1).  Turkish authorities also claim to have foiled two other attempts by the PKK to infiltrate the border from Syria in January and February (Today’s Zaman, May 15).  Furthermore, the PKK was implicated in an attack against the security convoy accompanying Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the northern city of Kastamonu on May 1, which left one dead and two wounded (al-Jazeera, May 4).  An explosion at a bus stop in Istanbul on May 26, which left eight injured, was also blamed on the PKK (Today’s Zaman, May 26).    

In addition to the Syrian crisis potentially strengthening the PKK’s capacity to operate within Turkey by providing a staging area and logistical hub for planning and mounting attacks, Turkey is also wary of the impression that an emboldened Syrian Kurdish community could leave on its own Kurdish population amid a renewed push by Kurdish nationalists to ramp up the pressure on Ankara.  The PKK is watching events in Syria closely.  Lamenting the loss of its onetime ally due to Syria’s rapprochement with Turkey, PKK founding member Cemil Bayik referred to Syria as a “province” of Turkey in a statement published on the PKK’s official website (PKKOnline.com, October 15, 2009).  Most recently, the PKK has called on Syria to negotiate with the Kurds.  Murat Karayilan, the group’s acting commander, proposed that Syria provide autonomy for its Kurdish community and recognize Kurdish identity, while adding: “If Kurds revolt [in Syria] it would have much more effect” than the revolts in the Arab community (eKurd.net, March 31).

In light of the threat posed by the PKK, a lesser but nevertheless pressing concern for Turkey stems from the prospect of al-Qaeda-style militants exploiting the instability in Syria to mount attacks against Turkey.  Turkish authorities recently announced they had uncovered a plot by al-Qaeda to attack southeastern Turkey’s Incirlik Air Force Base, a major hub for U.S. and Turkish air forces. Authorities suggested the attacks were to have been executed by two Syrian militants (Today’s Zaman, April 6; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, April 22).

As the protests and counter-protests persist across Syria, Kurds appear determined to continue to agitate for greater rights as both Syrians and Kurds.  Overtures by the state aimed at appeasing Kurdish anger are not likely to have much of an impact.  

With the PKK having upped the ante in its campaign against Ankara while demonstrating a growing interest in the plight of Kurds in Syria during the current turmoil, events in Turkey may also come to shape the course of events for Kurds in Syria.  Syria’s Kurds have not yet opted for organized violent resistance to achieve their goals, even while participating in militant actions involving Kurds outside of Syria. However, while there is no evidence to suggest that Kurds in Syria are prepared to take up arms along the lines of their kin in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, the further breakdown of order in Syria coupled with harsher crackdowns and greater militancy in neighboring Kurdish communities may prompt a recalibration of Kurdish activist strategy in Syria.


1. David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 473-74.
2. Ibid., p. 479-80.