As war looms, the voice of Kurds is heard in Syria

250,000 Kurds in Syria are struggling for legal rights and recognition.

A yellowing scrap of paper wrapped in Scotch tape, along with a faded black and white photograph, is the only document proving that Massoud Omar exists.

Mr. Omar is one of about 25,000 Kurds in Syria who are classified as maktoumeen - or "unregistered." It means that he cannot own any property, so his house and clothing shop are registered in other people's names. He cannot travel abroad. His marriage to his wife, Salaam, is illegal under Syrian law, and his four children simply do not exist officially at all.

Other Kurds do not fare much better. Other than the maktoumeen, another 225,000 out of about 1.7 million Kurds in Syria are categorized as "foreigners," holding only a red identity card for domestic travel. But the prospect of a war in neighboring Iraq appears to have spurred the Syrian authorities to reassess their 40-year suppression of Kurdish identity.

The Kurdish population of neighboring northern Iraq is expected to gain some form of autonomy in the wake of a US-led invasion to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. And Damascus fears that Syria's own Kurds may be inspired by the achievement of their brethren in Iraq to begin agitating for self-rule in their area of northeast Syria adjacent to the Iraqi and Turkish borders.

One Western diplomat in Damascus described the Kurdish question as a "time bomb." "I think the authorities are very concerned about the Kurdish issue," says Ibrahim Hamidi, who writes on Syrian affairs for the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper. "If the situation changes in northern Iraq, it will inspire the Kurds here, so I think that the authorities are going to start being nice to them."

The Syrian regime's concerns are reinforced by the fact that the Kurds populate the country's wealthiest province, source of most of Syria's oil and gas. The Kurds live in the flat fertile plain between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers - known locally as Al Jazeera or "The Island." The endlessly level skyline is broken only by small man-made hills and villages of single-story mud-plastered houses which seem to merge effortlessly with the natural landscape. Tractors and trucks laden with bulging sacks of soft white cotton clog the arrow-straight roads. The district is Syria's largest cotton-growing area.

Two months ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid a rare visit to Hasake, the principal town in the area, in an apparent attempt to appease the disenfranchised Kurds. "The message from the president is: 'Yes, we will look into your problems, but don't use this as a card to press for more,' " says a Damascus-based analyst. Most Kurds, however, say that their goal is citizenship and not autonomy.

"Our problem is very different from that of the Kurds in Iraq," says Ahmad Barakat of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party. "Their aim in Iraq is to get a state of their own. But in Syria, we just want our culture and freedom as Syrian nationals."

The repression of the Kurds began in 1962, with a controversial census undertaken by Syria's ruling Baath party in which some 120,000 Kurdish Syrian nationals were stripped of their citizenship overnight. Their offspring were also classified as foreigners or maktoumeen, swelling the population of dispossessed to around 250,000 today.

Damascus justified the measure as an attempt to differentiate between Syrian Kurds and illegal Kurdish immigrants who had crossed the border from neighboring Turkey. The Kurds say it was simple discrimination based on the Arabist ideology of the Baath Party. Thousands of Arabs were resettled in the early 1970s on confiscated Kurdish property in a narrow strip along Syria's border with Turkey. The Arab arrivals were given better state facilities, such as schools and clinics, fostering a climate of resentment among the local Kurds.

Ten miles east of Qamishly lies the tiny Kurdish village of Tannouriye, a typical collection of mud houses. A few hundred yards further down the road is Tannouriye Jdeideh, or "New Tannouriye," a substantially larger Arab village with a modern school.

The new village was built on property once owned by Kurds. Their land gone, many Kurds left their homes to find menial labor in Aleppo or Damascus. Others have tried to emigrate illegally to Europe.

The names of Kurdish villages and shops were changed into Arabic. Kurdish is banned from being taught in schools and it is illegal to publish in the language. Parents were pressured to give their children Arabic rather than Kurdish names.

"The authorities wanted to erase the Kurdish identity," says Fawaz Kano, a member of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party. "They wanted to make a physical barrier between the Kurds of Syria and the Kurds living in Turkey. So they took our land and dumped the Arabs along the border."

Some restrictions were eased in 1970 when Hafez al Assad, the former Syrian president, assumed power. Kurds can speak their language in public, receive school education, and watch Kurdish singers on Syrian television.

In the residential outskirts of Qamishly, there is little obvious indication of a tight security presence. Small children chase each other through the narrow dusty streets. Women, wearing the traditional robe and head scarf of the Kurds and sporting thick butter-gold bracelets and earrings, sit in the brilliant sunshine in front of their homes, chopping vegetables and chatting.

But despite the pastoral scene, residents say that security remains powerful in Qamishly as well as in other Kurdish-populated towns and villages. "We are afraid to speak to people, afraid to speak in the streets. We are always worried that someone is listening to us," Mr. Omar said. The small bookshelf in the Omar's sitting room is filled with Arabic-language books.

Mrs. Omar says that she and her husband keep their culture alive in secret. "We teach our children Kurdish at home and read Kurdish-language books that have been published in northern Iraq," she says.

After 40 years of waiting, the Kurds are reluctant to pin too much hope on the possibility that their status will soon be improved as a result of a possible war in Iraq. Some say they have faith in the young reformist-minded Syrian president. Others say they expect no change in the immediate future. "We have to build our lives on reality, not on dreams," Mr. Barakat says.

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