Syrian Kurds May Soon Be Recognized May 6, 2005 20:43:41 GMT -5
Post by Bozur on May 6, 2005 20:43:41 GMT -5
After Decades as Nonpersons, Syrian Kurds May Soon Be Recognized
By KATHERINE ZOEPF
Source: New York Times
RAS EL AIN, Syria, 28/4 2005 - Saleh Osso, a Kurdish plumber, has tried to live as far outside the reach of the Syrian government apparatus as possible. Since Mr. Osso, 34, is stateless - one of perhaps 200,000 Kurds living in Syria who are denied citizenship - that has been fairly easy to accomplish.
He has no right to own property, to travel abroad or to send his four children to high school. Officially, Mr. Osso scarcely exists.
It was a surprise, therefore, when the mayor of Mr. Osso's district visited him at home two weeks ago and began to ask probing questions about his family.
"He asked how many children I had and about whether my brothers were married or not," Mr. Osso recalled. "He stayed for about half an hour, asking so many questions and writing everything down.
"I finally asked him, 'Why are you counting us?' " Mr. Osso continued. "He said, 'It's so that you people may become citizens.' "
Though there has been no official announcement, and Syrian officials would not comment on the subject, speculation that President Bashar al-Assad is planning to do something about the "Kurdish problem," as the issue of Syria's stateless Kurds is known, has been circulating widely in recent weeks. It has generated discussion among foreign diplomats and human rights activists and cautious hope among the nation's marginalized Kurdish population.
Now, reports that government officials in the heavily Kurdish northern province of Haseke on the Turkish border have been quietly taking a census of stateless families seem to be adding heft to the rumor.
Stateless Kurds in three towns inHaseke - Ras el Ain, Tell Tamir and Amude - told a reporter that government agents had been going from house to house in recent weeks, gathering information about Kurdish residents' registration status. In some cases, stateless Kurds said, there have been two visits: one from a local official collecting census data, followed days later by a visit from a political security agent who verified the information.
The reports come at a moment when international pressure has pushed Syria into withdrawing its troops from Lebanon and the United States is challenging it, along with other Arab governments, to be less autocratic.
Meanwhile, Kurds across Syria's eastern border, in Iraq, are coming into political power in the new government there, while Kurds to the north, in Turkey, are being granted new rights under pressure from Europe.
About 1.5 million Kurds live in Syria as the country's largest ethnic minority, and also its most historically troublesome. Their very difference presents a living challenge to the militant Arabism of the dominant Baath Party.
Kurdish parties, although illegal, are among the country's best-organized opposition groups, a fact that became clear in March of last year when, within hours, the parties organized a series of demonstrations across Syria to protest what they called police brutality against Kurds demonstrating in the northeastern town of Qamishli.
In 1962 the government stripped thousands of Syrian-born Kurds of their citizenship. They and their descendants carry laminated orange identity cards that testify to their statelessness. International human rights groups estimate their numbers at 200,000; tens of thousands of other Syrian-born Kurds lack even the orange cards and are known as maktoomin (those who are muted).
But the estimates are rough. Syrian Kurdish leaders say the total number of stateless Syrian Kurds is about 300,000. The government says the number is about 150,000.
In the past the government has repressed expressions of Kurdish identity in a variety of ways, forbidding the publication of books or newspapers in Kurdish, for example, and jailing Kurdish leaders without trial.
But recently Syrian policy has seemed to ease.
On March 30, 312 Kurds who were imprisoned after the demonstrations last year in Qamishli were released under a presidential amnesty. On April 6, when the Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was chosen as president of Iraq, Kurds living in Damascus played the Kurdish national anthem without official interference in a street celebration, an act that Syrian Kurds say would have been unthinkable a year ago.
But giving citizenship to stateless Kurds would be far more meaningful. Some experts on Syria believe that President Assad may be contemplating doing so as a good-will gesture, a way to partly pre-empt the international pressure to democratize that is likely to follow Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.
"There are people close to the president who would like to see the Kurdish problem resolved quickly," said Joshua Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma who is living in Damascus. "They know it makes Syria look bad."
The Syrian state is clearly doing its research first, because giving citizenship to the stateless Kurds could open up a host of practical problems. Kurds who were denied degrees because of their stateless status, for example, or whose family property was seized in 1962 might well begin clogging the courts to seek compensation.
But Ammar Abdulhamid, the director of the Tharwa Project, an organization based in Damascus that monitors minority rights issues in the Arab world, said he had conducted a survey and believed that most Syrian Kurds were willing to accept a clean-slate approach: citizenship without immediate reparations.
"The Kurds just want basic rights," Mr. Abdulhamid said. "They're not thinking about accountability for the past. Ideally, along with citizenship, the government would set up a committee that would systematically look into some of these other demands."
Despite the possibility of technical problems, Mr. Abdulhamid added, the Syrian government has compelling political reasons to offer citizenship to stateless Kurds. The government fears that a domestic Kurdish separatist movement may be growing, he suggested, and that disenfranchised Kurds could be manipulated by outsiders to destabilize Syria.
"The situation for the Kurds has really eased in Iraq and Turkey," a Western diplomat said. "The Assad regime probably realizes that the best way to weaken any separatist sentiment is to give the Kurds more of a stake in the country."
But according to Faisal Badr, a Kurdish lawyer based in Damascus whose wife is stateless, most Syrian Kurds harbor no separatist ambitions and, citizenship decree or no, their leaders will continue to push for change within Syria.
"The vast majority of us want our problems to be solved within the framework of the Syrian nation," Mr. Badr said. "Giving citizenship to the Kurds would be a positive step, but it's still very partial. We want to see democracy in Syria."