BAGHDAD — It's the worst domestic unrest in Syria in two decades. Over the weekend and into Monday, Kurds rioted in several Syrian towns adjacent to Iraq and Turkey, prompting swift intervention by Syrian troops.
At least 14 Kurds died in riots which began Friday in Qamishli during a brawl between Kurdish and Arab soccer fans. The violence reportedly began when Arab fans began chanting support for Saddam Hussein. According to diplomats in Damascus, Syrian security forces fired on the crowd, killing six people. Three children were trampled to death in the ensuing panic. Rioting the next day killed five people in Hasake, a town of Arabs and Kurds 50 miles south of Qamishli.
Violent outbursts by Syria's Kurdish minority reinforces concerns that recent political gains by Kurds in Iraq will embolden Kurds in neighboring lands to seek greater recognition. Some analysts see Kurdish ambitions for independence as a regional powder keg. Kurds have been a significant minority in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran since the early 1900s, when Kurdish lands were divided as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.
The US-led war in Iraq was opposed by Syria and Iran, in part due to the potential ramifications of a resurgent Kurdish community in Iraq's north. Turkey, a regional ally of Washington, was also worried about the way the war's aftermath would impact its own Kurdish population.
Recent developments in Iraq have done little to dispel those concerns. Kurds in Iraq have enjoyed near autonomy for the past 12 years under a US and British protective umbrella. And Iraq's interim constitution, passed last week, formally recognized Kurdish control over three provinces in northern Iraq, prompting jubilant Kurds to take to the streets in Iranian cities.
The growing influence of Iraqi Kurds has apparently struck a chord with Syria's Kurdish population. Violent demonstrations such as the one over the weekend rarely happen in Syria, where the ruling Baath Party maintains tight control over signs of dissent.
"We have noticed that the Kurds have become more vocal in the past two years," says a European diplomat in Damascus. "They see developments in Iraq as an opportunity to press for more rights."
After the riots began, Syrian troops sealed off Qamishli, imposed a curfew, and closed the town's border crossing into Turkey. Despite an increased military presence in northeast Syria, 11 people were reportedly killed in clashes Monday between Arabs and Kurds. A Kurdish tribal leader was among five people killed during fighting in Ras al-Ain. Six people, including four police officers, died when Kurdish groups attacked a police station in Ammouda, according to Reuters.
Syria's state-run broadcasts said the violence had damaged "the stability and security of the homeland" and were the fault of "some intriguers" who had adopted "exported ideas," an apparent reference to Kurdish nationalism.
A statement released in Damascus by the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party called on Kurds to "exercise maximum self-restraint ... not to be dragged into these harmful and useless acts, and to halt their demonstrations."
Of the 1.3 million Kurds in Syria, some 225,000 are designated as "foreigners," carrying only a red identity card for domestic travel. Another 25,000 are categorized as "unregistered." They are forbidden to own property and travel abroad. Syria's Kurds were subjected to an "Arabization" policy in 1962 that stripped citizenship for some 120,000 of them. In the early 1970s, thousands of Arabs settled in Kurdish villages along the Turkish frontier. Kurdish place names were replaced by Arab names and the Kurdish language was banned from schools.
Restrictions on the Kurds gradually eased under Syrian President Hafez al-Assad who died in 2000. In September 2002, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became the first head of state ever to visit Hasake. Kurdish residents hoped the visit marked the beginning of a new approach by the government toward the Kurds.
"Nothing has happened at all since then," the diplomat says. "There are no signs that the issue is being dealt with."
But Syria's Kurds insist that they are not seeking autonomy from Damascus. Instead, they say they want the full rights enjoyed by other Syrian citizens. They are demanding "recognition of the Kurdish identity and culture," wrote Saif Badrakhan, US representative of the Kurdistan National Congress, on a Kurdish website. Specifically, the Kurds want education in the Kurdish language, human rights, an end to Arabization and forced assimilation policies, and an end to treatment as second class citizens, says Mr. Badrakhan.
Syria is under intense pressure from Washington over its backing of militant anti-Israel groups and its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. President Bush is expected soon to announce sanctions against Damascus.
Analysts say that Damascus will have little tolerance for outbursts of domestic unrest while dealing with the challenge posed by Washington. Less certain is whether the Syrian government will appease the Kurds with greater recognition or mount a crackdown against dissension.
"It's time that the Kurds who were born in Syria are recognized as Syrian nationals by law," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at Damascus University. "We should give the Kurds their legitimate rights."