- Syria is one of the four Middle Eastern states containing parts of historical Kurdistan. More than a million Kurds live in Syria, many of them descended from grandparents who crossed the frontier to escape Turkish repression after the failure of the Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925. As a result, many Kurds in Syria have been denied Syrian citizenship and thus lack the most elementary rights. This lack of citizenship also makes it particularly difficult to estimate their numbers.Although much larger Kurdish populations exist in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, the Kurds in Syria constitute as much as 9 percent of the total population and thus represent the largest ethnic minority in Syria. They are concentrated in three noncontiguous parts of northern Syria: Kurd Dagh and Kobani (Ain al-Arab) in Aleppo province and the northern part of the province of Hasaka. The latter is part of Jazire and is contiguous to Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan in the area the French called le Bec de Canard, or the Duck's Beak. Qamishli is the largest city here and is situated just across the Turkish border from the city of Nisibin.The repressive Baathist Party under Hafez Assad (and since 2000 his son Bashar) has ruled Syria since 1970. Along with Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, Syria strongly opposes the establishment of any Kurdish state because it would be a threat to its existing territorial integrity. At times, all four states have worked together to prevent such an eventuality.Nevertheless, as have the other three states, Syria has also not hesitated to use the Kurds against the other three, Turkey especially. Indeed, for many years Syria gave the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) what might justifiably be called a strategic alliance. As early as 1979, Syria provided a haven for Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK. All through the 1980s and up to October 1998, the Syrians allowed the PKK to maintain military camps on their territory or territory that Syria controlled in Lebanon. The Mahsun (Mazlum) Korkmaz Military Academy in the Bekaa Valley was probably the most famous example. From Syrian territory, the PKK could also raid into Turkey and then retreat to a safehouse. (Over the years, Syria also provided considerable logistical aid to the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan PUK, both as a tool against Iraq and as a way to play the Iraqi Kurds off against each other so that they could not form an independent state.)There were many reasons for Syria's support for the PKK. Water was probably the main one, as Turkey controlled the flow of the Euphrates River into Syria. As Turkey's Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP), or Southeast Anatolia Project, of harnessing the rivers to the north neared completion, Syria used the PKK as a bargaining tool in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a more favorable guaranteed annual water quota from Turkey. Smoldering animosities concerning the Turkish annexation of Hatay (Alexandretta) province in 1939 also led to the Syrian willingness to support the PKK. Some believe that the PKK kept the lid on Syria's Kurds in return for its Syrian bases. Whatever the reasons, a dialogue of the deaf occurred between Turkey and Syria over the situation for many years. With the collapse of Syria's Soviet mentor and because of Turkey's new strategic understanding with Israel, however, Turkey finally was able to force Syria to expel Ocalan in October 1998. This then led to Ocalan's capture in February 1999. Since then relations between Turkey and Syria have gradually improved.After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the rise of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, the ethnic Kurdish position in Syria has begun to change. In March 2004, Kurdish rioting broke out at a football match in Qamishli. Renewed rioting occurred a year later in Aleppo following the killing of Maas-houq al-Haznawi, an outspoken Kurdish cleric critical of the regime. Within days of becoming the president of the KRG in June 2005, Massoud Barzani demanded that the Syrian Kurds be granted their rights peacefully. In October 2005, an emboldened domestic opposition consisting of numerous disparate groups issued a Declaration for Democratic National Change. Among many other points, this declaration called for a just democratic solution to the Kurdish issue in Syria, in a manner that guaranteed the complete equality of Syrian Kurdish citizens, with regard to nationality rights, culture, learning the national language, and other constitutional rights. Thus, by 2010, the Syrian Kurds were showing increased signs of national awareness due to the developments in the KRG but remained much less successful in implementing them than do their brethren in Iraq and Turkey.
Historical Dictionary of the Kurds. Michael M. Gunter.
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