Vol. 6 No. 4 | Table of Contents
MEIB Main Page | April 2004 |
The Kurdish Reawakening in Syria
by Gary C. Gambill
Syrian President Bashar Assad has finally managed to suppress the wave of Kurdish riots that erupted throughout the country in mid-March, but the young dictator was deeply unsettled by his country's worst outbreak of ethno-sectarian violence in two decades. Although fueled by popular frustration in the Kurdish community, the riots were not an entirely spontaneous eruption, but a politically timed initiative to pressure the Assad regime in the face of heightened Syrian-US tensions and Iraqi Kurdish political gains.
Kurds are a predominantly Sunni Muslim, non-Arab ethnic group with a distinct language and history dating back thousands of years. Prior to the twentieth century, most Kurds were ruled by a patchwork of autonomous principalities subject to the Ottoman Empire and Persia. After World War One, the Kurds were divided among four independent countries. Today, an estimated 20 to 25 million Kurds comprise roughly 18% of the population in Turkey, 23% in Iraq, 10% in Iran, and 10% in Syria, with much smaller minorities in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Lebanon.
Unlike their brethren in Turkey and Iraq, Syria's roughly 2 million Kurds inhabit several non-contiguous regions. Around 30% of the Syrian Kurdish population lives in the highlands northwest of Aleppo, known as Kurd Dagh (Mountain of the Kurds). The Ain al-Arab (Kobani) region, where the Euphrates enters Syrian territory, is home to roughly 10%, while 40% lives in the northeastern half of the Jazeera governorate. The remainder is settled in urban neighborhoods around the country, such as the Hayy al-Akrad (Quarter of the Kurds) suburb of Damascus.
Most Kurds in Jazeera are descended from refugees who fled across the border from Turkey in the 1920s, while the inhabitants of Kurd Dagh trace their lineage back many centuries; Hayy al-Akrad is said to have been...