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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Kurds in Syria

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Syria Facts
Area:    185,180 sq. km.
Capital:    Damascus
Total Population:    16,673,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Kurdish people of Syria exhibit some factors pointing to increased risk for rebellion. They are somewhat geographically concentrated and have a regional base in northeastern Syria. Additionally, they have faced high levels of government-led discrimination and repression in recent years. However, Syrian Kurds lack the political organization of their kindred in Turkey and Iraq. Organized rebellion, therefore, remains unlikely at this point; however, less organized forms of violence, such as the riots that erupted in Qamishli in 2004 and 2005, are more likely.

Syrian Kurds have a moderate risk for protest, primarily due to longstanding cultural restrictions. However, such protests are unlikely to become sustained protest movements, due to consistent and relatively effective repression by the Syrian government.

Kurds in Syria remain at a high risk of government repression if they choose to become politically active. All Kurdish organizations remain banned in Syria, as are expressions of Kurdish nationalism.


Analytic Summary

The Kurdish people make up about 10 percent of the population of Syria, with 40 percent living in the northeastern sections of Jazeera governorate in northern Syria (GROUPCON = 1). Some Kurds have started moving into the larger cities to seek employment, but many still live in the mountainous north-east. The main distinctions between the Kurdish people and the majority Sunni Muslims in Syria are language, cultural beliefs and holidays (CUSTOM = 1; LANG = 1). They share the same religious beliefs and are of no different racial stock or noticeable racial difference than the majority Sunni-Arabs. (BELIEF = 0; RACE = 0).

Within Syria, Kurds are disadvantaged in many ways. Successive governments have pursued forced Arabization policies. A majority of Kurdish people are considered non-citizens or some lower level form of citizen. They do not receive equal education, health services, right to organization or the right to equal legal protection (POLDIS06 = 4). Also, they have lower levels of income and face societal discrimination in access to lands, jobs and higher education (ECDIS06 = 4).

Throughout the 1980s there was a system of forced resettlement by the government and competition for land. During the 1990s, the forced resettlement tapered off but the competition and disposition of their lands remains an issue. Between 1995 and 1999, the Kurdish area of Syria experienced a drought, causing some demographic stress. The drought exacerbated the steady, low-level migration to urban areas and external migration.

Kurdish grievances include equal legal protection under the Syrian constitution, better education and economic opportunities and the cessation of Arabization policies. This would allow them to speak their language and practice their cultural customs. Like Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, there is also some support for an autonomous region (POLGR06 = 3; ECGR06 = 1; CULGR06 = 1).

The Kurdish people within Syria are not highly organization because of the mountainous region they live in and because Kurdish political parties are banned in Syria. Fifteen Kurdish political organizations do exist covertly.(GOJPA0406-3). Kurds in Syria have not suffered from intracommunal conflict in recent years.

The Syrian government’s policies of Arabization and oppression of the Kurdish people are still in place. In 2004, fighting between fans of rival football teams escalated into ethnic riots in Qamishli, resulting in the deaths of more than 30 people and hundreds more injured (CCGROUPSEV104 = 5). In 2005, following the abduction and murder of a prominent Kurdish cleric, Sheikh Muhammad Mashuq al-Khaznawi, protests erupted and turned violent when local Arabs attacked protesters and Kurdish shops (CCGROUPSEV205 = 5). Protests took place in each year from 2004 to 2006 (PROT04-06 = 3), centered on government treatment of Kurds, on the Qamishli riots and on the death of al-Khaznawi. Government repression of civilians occurred in 2004 with the torture and arrests of innocent civilians in wake of Qamishli riots (REPGENCIV04 = 4). In 2004 and 2005 non-violent Kurdish protesters were killed by Syrian government forces, and in 2006 Kurds celebrating the Kurdish New Year were arrested (REPNVIOL0405 = 5; REPNVIOL06 = 3). Kurdish rioters were killed in 2004 and arrested in 2005 (REPVIOL04 = 5; REPVIOL05 = 3).



Collelo, Thomas, ed. 1987. "Syria: A Country Study." Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress., accessed 8/3/2009.

Gambill, Gary C. 4/2004. "Kurdish Reawakening in Syria." Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. 6:4., accessed 8/3/2009.

Human Rights Watch. 2005. "Syria." World Report., accessed 8/3/2009.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

Lowe, Robert. 1/2006. "The Syrian Kurds: A People Discovered." Middle East Programme Briefing Papers. 6:1. London: Chatham House., accessed 8/3/2009.

McDowall, David. 2004. A Modern History of the Kurds, Third Edition. London: I.B. Tauris.

Mckiernan, Kevin. 2006. The Kurds: A People in Search of their Homeland. New York: St. Martin's Press.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Syria. 1999-2006.

Yildiz, Kerim. 2005. The Kurds in Syria: The Forgotten People. London: Pluto Press.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006