The Kurds in Syria Part I

By | August 30, 2021

The Syrian Kurds have lacked fundamental rights throughout the modern history of the Syrian Republic. During the ongoing civil war, Syrian Kurds have established some autonomy in the areas where they are in the majority.

The Kurds in Syria are more dispersed and less organized than the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, countries located in Middle East according to Syria’s Kurds live mainly in the northern and northeastern parts of the country. Smaller groups have been there for many generations while others were incorporated when today’s Syria gained its borders after the First World War. Many Kurds fled to Syria to escape persecution in Turkey from the early 1920s until World War II. Before the civil war broke out in 2011, it was estimated that 8-9 percent of Syria’s inhabitants, or about two million, were Kurds.

All Syrians are officially counted as Arabs. For a long time, the existence of the Kurds was not recognized as an ethnic group. The Ba’ath party, which took power in Syria in 1963, wanted to unite all the Arabs into a single nation and introduced special laws that made it difficult for the Kurds. More than 100,000 Kurds were deprived of their Syrian citizenship and subsequently discriminated against in various ways. Kurds who lacked citizenship could not own real estate, marry, travel abroad or have formal employment. Kurdish was not allowed to be used as a language of instruction or in newspaper texts and books, and it was illegal to celebrate Kurdish holidays.

After the turn of the millennium, the number of stateless Syrian Kurds had grown to perhaps 300,000. After the unrest in 2004, the authorities promised that the stateless Kurds who were “real Syrians” would receive citizenship, but there were few concrete results.

Civil war

In connection with the unrest that erupted in Syria in the Arab Spring of 2011, President Bashar al-Assad issued a  decree  granting citizenship to residents of the Hasaka region in eastern Syria. The decision concerned Kurds in particular, but in practice it is believed that only about 6,000 have actually been granted citizenship. Nevertheless, support among the Kurds for the revolt against the regime was relatively weak. The reasons were Kurdish distrust of the Sunni Arab majority and the Turkish government’s open support for the Syrian National Council, which spearheaded the uprising. The Syrian Kurds are already deeply suspicious of the Turkish state for its harsh treatment of the Kurds in Turkey.

As the uprising developed into an open civil war, the Syrian Kurds began to organize. In October 2011, eleven organizations joined the Kurdish National Council (in Kurdish abbreviation ENKS) which would work for Kurdish autonomy in the north and northeast. The model was the Kurdish regional government in Erbil in northern Iraq.

Alongside the ENKS, there was also the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which was formed in 2003. Its armed branch, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), is closely linked to the banned Turkish PKK movement.

ENKS and PYD entered into a formal collaboration in July 2012 in what was called the Kurdish Supreme Committee with a joint armed movement. According to the agreement, all areas conquered by the Kurds from the Syrian state would be administered jointly by ENKS and PYD. Over time, however, the PYD / YPG has come to dominate overall and is now the strongest organization with superior fighting power.

Under PYD’s leadership, the Kurds have achieved a high degree of autonomy in large parts of northern Syria. In 2014, the Kurds declared three autonomous cantons in the north and in March 2016, the Kurds announced that they had established a federal system, the “Northern Syrian Federation – Rojava”. Since then, the administration has opened representative offices in cities such as Moscow, Stockholm, Prague and Paris.

The Battle of Kobane

In September 2014, the Syrian Kurds were exposed to their most serious threat to date, when the extremist jhadi movement Islamic State (IS) launched a rapid offensive against the Kurdish territories. More than 60 villages were conquered in a short time and more than 160,000 Kurds fled into Turkey. However, the Kurdish militia offered strong opposition to IS in the border town of Kobane.

The battle of Kobane gained strong symbolic significance for the resistance against IS, which shocked the whole world with its brutality. The Turkish government was criticized for its unwillingness to support the Syrian Kurds, but under international pressure allowed the so-called Free Syrian Army and Kurdish forces from Iraq to reach Kobane via Turkish soil. American planes bombed IS positions around the city and dropped food and weapons on the encircled Kurds.

After four months of fighting, the Kurdish forces in January 2015 managed to drive IS out of Kobane and also retake villages in the area. In February 2015, Kurdish forces launched a months-long counter-offensive, which resulted in the expulsion of IS from the northern provinces of Hasaka and Raqqa. This meant that two of the three Kurdish cantons east of the Euphrates River could be united.

The Kurds in Syria 1