The Kurdish Cry

Baathist oppression lives on in Syria.

March 25, 2004.

By Nir Boms & Erick Stakelbeck

While the anti-government riots that raged throughout the Kurdish-populated areas of Syria for much of the past week and a half appear to have subsided as of Monday, the recent unrest may prove to be the calm before the storm for Syria’s Kurdish pro-democracy advocates.

On March 21, amidst banners condemning the continued repression of Kurds by Syria’s ruling Baath party, some 50 protesters assembled in front of the Syrian embassy in Washington, D.C.

The embassy demonstration came as fires still burned on the outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Qamoshli, leaving Syrian president Bashar al-Assad with perhaps his worst political crisis since taking office in June 2000.

According to Kurdish sources, between 50 and 70 opponents of the Assad regime were killed and more than 200 injured by local police and the Syrian army during riots that swept through Qamoshli, Hasakah, Dirik, Amouda, and Ras el-Ein, all Kurdish-majority cities in northern Syria. In addition, as many as 1200 Kurds were reportedly detained or arrested during the uprising, although many have since been released.

The riots capped more than a week of protests that began with the detainment on March 8 of several pro-democracy advocates, as well as an American diplomat stationed at the U.S. embassy in Damascus. Syrian security officials seized the diplomat while breaking up a pro-democracy march organized by the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in front of the Syrian parliament building.

Although Syrian officials issued an apology to the United States for the diplomat’s brief detainment, no admission of guilt appears forthcoming from the Baath party regarding the events that would soon follow.

The mayhem began on March 12 during a soccer match in Qamoshli, a city of 200,000 near Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey. Fans of the visiting Fituwya club – based in the city of Dar el-Zur, near the Syrian-Iraqi border – threw stones at supporters of the hometown Al-Jihad team and chanted Baathist slogans, such as “Long live Saddam Hussein!” Al-Jihad supporters responded by chanting “Long live Barazani!” (in honor of Iraqi Kurdish Leader Massoud Barazani) and “Long live democracy!”

This exchange of angry words led to an all-out brawl between the two sides, during the course of which three young children were trampled to death inside the stadium.

The riots eventually spread from the stadium to the Qamoshli streets, where Syrian police reportedly killed at least 15 Kurds. A group of Kurds responded by taking over a government building, only to relinquish it when Syrian army troops and helicopters arrived.

The uprising soon spread from Qamoshli to the nearby city of Amuda, where protestors destroyed statues and murals of Bashar al-Assad.

The unrest also touched the Syrian capital of Damascus, albeit on a smaller scale, as a number of impromptu pro-democracy demonstrations were held by protestors as a show of solidarity with the rioters. In response, riot officers were stationed around Damascus University and in a predominantly Kurdish suburb nearby. Additionally, the Kurdish quarters of Damascus, Aleppo, and Haleb were subjected to a curfew.

The behavior of Syrian riot police led U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli on March 14 to urge Syria “to refrain from using increasingly repressive measures to ostracize a minority that has asked for a greater acceptance and integration into Syrian life.”

But events only escalated following Ereli’s statement, as Syria sealed off its borders with Iraq after Iraqi Kurdish fighters threatened to enter the country if the violent clashes between Syrian security forces and Syrian Kurds were not brought to an end.

Reverberations from the uprising were also felt in Europe, where 60 Kurds took over the Syrian consulate in Geneva on March 15 in what they said was an attempt to draw attention to “the massacre of Kurdish civilians being carried out by Syrian army and police forces.” Just two days before, another group of Kurds had stormed the Syrian embassy in Brussels to protest the Baath party’s brutal crackdown on the rioters.

The measures used by Europe’s Kurds have only drawn more attention to the Syrian Baath party’s ongoing human-rights abuses at a time when Assad is looking to strengthen Syria’s ties with the European Union.

The Kurds comprise approximately 10 percent of the Syrian population but enjoy very limited rights in Syrian society. They are not allowed to study the Kurdish language or form political parties, and more than 150,000 of them are denied Syrian citizenship.

For the Kurds, as for many Syrians, the horrific sights and sounds that accompanied the recent riots in northern Syria were all too familiar. In 1982, Hafez Assad – the deceased father of Bashar – responded with overwhelming force to an uprising by the radical Muslim Brotherhood group in the central Syrian city of Hama.

Using special-forces units, helicopters, tanks, and heavy artillery, the Syrian army massacred anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 men, women, and children in its efforts to root out Muslim Brotherhood influence.

Reached by cellphone last week, a Kurdish activist who was present during the Qamoshli riots drew a parallel to the carnage of Hama. “I don’t know what will come next,” he said. “I am afraid that no one will come to our aid. If there is no pressure from the outside, this will be a prelude to another massacre just like in 1982.”

As their cousins in Iraq and Iran have done in the past when faced with persecution by totalitarian governments, the Kurds of Syria – joined by other members of the emerging Syrian opposition – are asking for the world’s intervention. Time will tell if their pleas fall on deaf ears.

Nir Boms is a fellow at the Council of Democracy and Tolerance and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Erick Stakelbeck is head writer for the Investigative Project.

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