On the crime of Patriotism

Kurdish Demonstration in Syria

(Kurdish demonstration in Syria)

The Kurds, located in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq are natural allies of the US, as illustrated by the relative stability of Iraqi Kurdistan

Nir Boms and Elliot Chodoff ( Omedia, 5/12/2008)

Karam Ibrahim Yousef, a Syrian blogger and a journalist, made a mistake that might cost him his life. He took the wrong picture.

Yousef took some pictures of the Newroz, the Kurdish New Year celebration, which began in the last week of March, coinciding with the Spring equinox. For Kurds, who number about 40 million in the Middle East, Newroz is celebrated in memory of Kawa, a blacksmith who killed an evil tyrant after the latter murdered thousands of young Kurds and drank their blood in the belief that he would live forever. Newroz, a symbol of strength and independence, is not particularly liked by the Syrian regime.

Residing largely in the underdeveloped northeast, Kurds number about 1.5 million of Syria’s 18.5 million people. Approximately 300,000 Kurds are considered stateless foreigners and are denied Syrian nationality along with the rights to vote, own property, go to state schools, or attain government jobs. This situation has generated tensions that have escalated in the last few years following the rising regional power of Kurds in Iraq along with calls for restoration of Kurdish rights emanating from Turkey. In the last significant round of riots in 2004, over 30 Kurds were killed and more than 160 injured following clashes against the background of a soccer match between a local Kurdish team and Arab visiting soccer team. Human Rights Watch reported the use of live ammunition by state police forces even during a large funeral procession.

The recent riots in the northern Kurdish town began earlier in March, in the week preceding Newroz and the Arab summit hosted in Damascus. At least 15 people were reported killed and more than 100 wounded in riots between Kurdish and Arab soccer fans.

The Newroz celebrations that took place on the weekend of March 21 began with Syrian security forces using water hoses and tear gas to disperse Kurdish celebrators dancing around a fire near Dawar al-Hilalaya in the western part of Qamishli. Mr. Yousef was shotin the head while taking pictures of the Kurdish celebrations and he is still in critical condition.

In at attempt to prevent further escalation, the Syrian army has moved some 10,000 soldiers into five cities in the country’s Kurdish-dominated region. This may have helped to suppress tensions on the ground, but it did not help to solve one of the most crucial yet underreported problems in the Middle East.

“The Massacre was a Syrian reaction to democratic and peaceful struggles of the Kurdish people in Syrian “ said Sirwan kajjo, a Syrian Kurdish journalist from who added that recent events were just another example of the “brutal policy of the regime in Syria against the Kurds”

In its latest human rights report, the U.S. State Department says that throughout 2007, the Syrian government “discriminated against minorities, particularly the Kurds.” Kurds are restricted in speaking and teaching the Kurdish language, and security services subjected Kurdish citizens to mass arrests throughout the year.

The Kurds are not the only group persecuted in Syria. Other individuals or members of groups who dare to criticize the Syrian regime are subjected to a similar fate. The number of political prisoners in Syria is estimated at 3000, a number that appears to grow with every passing week. Firas Saad , a Syrian blogger, was sentenced to 4 years in prison last week for “disseminating false information that could weaken the nation’s morale.” Fifty nine year old Mohamad Dak al-Bab, a member of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria has been held “for questioning” for over a month following a series of articles he wrote in Arabic in which he criticized the government and the Syrian information minister.

But the larger question, associated with both the human rights issue as well as the Kurdish issue, is one of policy. While events in Africa and other regions in Asia draw western media and policy attention, issues such as the Kurdish are generally relegated to the back pages of the media and the back burner of governments.

The Kurds, located in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq are natural allies of the US, as illustrated by the relative stability of Iraqi Kurdistan. Nonetheless, Syrian political prisoners are hardly mentioned in public addresses or in private meetings of US diplomats, and their difficulties, as well as the strategic advantages offered by their geographical position and ethnic distinction, are invariably ignored.

American foreign policy – which prides itself in supporting moral principles, the defense of democracies and the right of self-determination – should be much clearer when it comes to these issues. It should also show its allies that someone is at least paying attention to their plight.

Nir T. Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East and a senior fellow the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Elliot Chodoff is a military and political analyst for MidEast: On Target.

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