x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Syria is accused of persecuting Kurds

A report by a human rights group says that conditions have deteriorated for the minority but an independent analyst disputes this claim.

Kurdish residents of Jebel Aruz, an illegal housing settlement on the outskirts of Damascus.
Kurdish residents of Jebel Aruz, an illegal housing settlement on the outskirts of Damascus.

DAMASCUS // Conditions have deteriorated for Syria's Kurdish minority in the past year, with increased restrictions on cultural and political activities and deepening poverty, according to a Kurdish political activist in Damascus.

Abu Juwan, a member of the outlawed Democratic Union Party (PYD), said Kurds, together with other Syrian pro-democracy campaigners, were experiencing pressure from the authorities. "There is increased strictness on the political, social and cultural life of the Kurds. Across the world there is a greater awareness of human rights and improvements are being made. But we find the opposite happening in our country. It affects everyone, in particular the Kurds," he said.

"We are also seeing larger numbers of Kurds slipping below the poverty line. This issue is a problem for all of Syrian society, Arabs and Kurds, but serious poverty among the Kurdish is certainly going up." His comments came as an international human rights group issued a report accusing Syria of persecuting its Kurdish population, detaining political activists and banning peaceful public meetings, including cultural celebrations.

The report, released on Thursday by New York-based Human Rights Watch, was based on interviews with 30 Kurdish activists who had been released from prison, and 15 relatives of Kurdish campaigners still in jail. It said Syria had "maintained a harsh policy of increased repression" against the Kurds despite a recent political rapprochement between Damascus and the West, ending years of diplomatic isolation.

"The repression is part of the Syrian government's broader suppression of any form of political dissent," the report said. "But it also presents certain distinguishing features, such as the repression of cultural gatherings because the government perceives Kurdish identity as a threat." Kurds make up 10 per cent of Syria's 20 million population. Turkey, Iran and Iraq also have Kurdish minorities. Syria's Kurds say they have suffered discrimination for decades and an estimated 250,000 have not been granted citizenship, severely limiting their access to education and jobs. Most Syrian Kurds do have citizenship and those without are, according to the authorities, the descendants of refugees from Turkey and Iraq, something the Kurds dispute.

An independent Syrian political analyst said that, although the country's Kurds did have real grievances, their general situation was not as bleak as some claimed, and was similar to that facing most Syrians. "The vast majority of Kurds have the same rights as the rest of us," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject. "There are Kurds conscripted into the army, they are in the police, the security forces; they can go to university, they hold down government jobs, they claim government subsidies.

"There is poverty among the Kurds, but there is poverty among the Arabs, many Syrians share in that." Kurds are not allowed to teach in the Kurdish language in government-run schools, where classes are conducted in Arabic, but they are able to speak Kurdish in public. There are also Kurdish members of parliament and Kurds in top government positions, including a minister and deputy minister. "Kurds are put in jail for political reasons, but if you look at the state security court, most of the trials and sentencings are against Arab Islamists," the analyst said. "Most of the recent arrests of civil society figures are not Kurds."

Concern among the Syrian authorities about the Kurds, who mainly live in the drought-hit north and east of the country, with a sizeable population in Damascus, has increased since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iraq's Kurdish minority has become increasingly powerful, carving out an autonomously governed region in areas rich in oil resources. Iraq's Kurds also have their own well-equipped military force, independent of Baghdad's control, and Iraq's Arabs fear the Kurds are intent on independence.

The United Nations is currently mediating between the Kurds and Arabs, primarily over who should control oil-rich Kirkuk. US military commanders have said they fear the two groups would already be at war if not for a US military presence keeping them apart. Damascus is anxious to avoid a repeat of Iraq's experience, according to the Syrian analyst. "The authorities think that any concessions made to the Kurds will not be enough," he said.

"They look at Iraq and see that every concession leads to a request for more. There were promises to ease up on the Kurds, but the Syrians have been watching Iraq closely and see the Kurds there as expansionist, anti-Arab and pro-independence." According to the Human Rights Watch report, the most serious incident in Syria took place in 2004 when Kurds clashed with security forces, a confrontation that left 25 people dead and 100 injured. The unrest began after fights broke out between Kurdish and Arab supporters of rival football teams in Qamishli, on the Syrian border with Turkey. It was seen by the government as an attempt to violently challenge its power and in response it clamped down hard. Thirty-six people were killed and 169 injured in rioting and the subsequent fallout, according to the report, and almost 2,000 Kurds were arrested, many of them later released. Some of those who were detained claimed to have been physically or psychologically tortured. At least 15 high-profile Kurdish political figures remain in prison, including Meshal al Tammo, who was jailed for three and a half years in May on charges of "weakening national morale". Arrests and detentions continue, the most recent on November 15, when three Kurds were sentenced to three years each for membership of a banned political party.

There is no specific law permitting political parties in Syria, meaning all opposition parties are seen as technically illegal. Article 288 of the penal code makes it an imprisonable offence to join a political or social organisation without government permission. Emergency laws, in place for decades, also give the authorities sweeping powers of detention and trial, and are frequently invoked. Abu Juwan, of the PYD in Damascus, said as many as 150 Kurds are currently on hunger strike in Adra prison, protesting against their detention and the incarceration of other political prisoners.

"The hunger strike began on October 30th and since then we've not had any contact with them because they are being denied access to lawyers or family visits," he said. "They are demanding improved conditions, an end to the emergency law and for the release of all prisoners of conscience." According to Abu Juwan, who spent 12 years in a Syrian jail for political activism, there are 300 Kurdish political prisoners in Adra, half of them from the PYD. Nationwide, he said, there were approximately 600 Kurds in prisons for political reasons.

In its report, Human Rights Watch urged the international community to raise the Kurdish issue during diplomatic engagement with Damascus. "Ignoring the treatment of Kurds in Syria will not make the problem go away," it said. Abu Juwan said he did not believe Brussels or Washington would seriously put human rights for the Kurds on their agenda. "We would hope the international community could put some constructive pressure on Syria," he said. "But I don't really believe the EU or the US are too worried about human rights."

Insisting Syria's Kurds did not want independence, just equality and the right to freedom of expression within Syria's borders, Abu Juwan said activists would continue their campaign, despite the difficulties. "If there is to be change in Syria, it will have to come about from our peaceful activism inside the country and that is what we will keep trying to do." @Email:psands@thenational.ae