Eva Savelsberg

Ten years of Bashar al‑Asad and No Compromise with the Kurds

Eva Savelsberg and Siamend Hajo


In July 2000, 34‑year-old Bashar al‑Asad was sworn in as the new Syrian head of state. His inauguration raised hopes for change in the West and beyond. Admittedly, as the son of the deceased Hafiz al‑Asad, he stood for continuity, but at the same time, the young London-educated technocrat was nevertheless considered capable of opening up the country. These hopes remain unfulfilled, for Arab as well as for the Kurdish population of the country.

Since January 2009, there were at least 283 cases in which Kurds were detained for political reasons. The charges and convictions registered since 2009 primarily invoke Article 288 (joining a political or social association of an international character without prior approval), Article 307 (inciting racial and sectarian strife) and Article 336 of the Criminal Code (participation in demonstrations). Sympathizers and members of Syrian‑Kurdish parties are frequently charged on the basis of Article 288. These parties are still illegal, although all they demand are reforms within the framework of the existing system. Torture while in custody is routinesince 2009, a total of 49 Kurdish cases have been reported; at least one person died as a result of torture. Members and sympathizers of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a branch of the PKK, are especially affected.[1] Though the number of people who have been placed under a travel ban for political reasons is unknown, this measure is frequently used to discipline members of the opposition.

Moreover, none of the pressing Kurdish problems have been solved under Bashar al‑Asad. For example, approximately 300,000 stateless Kurds still live in Syria. Their right to education, a free choice of career, property, and freedom of movement are severely limited. The majority were born in Syria, thus according to the law they are entitled to Syrian citizenship.[2]

Instead, new problems have been created. With the passage of Decree 49 in September 2008, the sale of inner-city land in border regions became subject to official approvala measure which, due to its selective application by the intelligence agencies, has had a harsh impact on al‑Hasakah province in particular. By June 2009, inner‑city building activity in the city of al‑Qamishli, the largest in al‑Hasakah province, are said to have declined by approximately two‑thirds. In a city where the construction industry and the real estate market are two major economic factors, this is an alarming development.

In addition, Decree 49 affected the population of al‑Hasakah at a time when the economy was already under severe strain as a result of weather‑related agricultural losses. After years of drought, the situation of large portions of the population already poor compared to the rest of the country was so precarious that the loss of work and income prompted by Decree 49 seriously threatened not only the existence of many unskilled laborers and craftsmen, but also that of engineers and attorneys. Consequently, it can be assumed that Decree 49 has broughtand still bringsabout an increase in internal migration.[3]

The most serious confrontation between Kurds and Syrian security forces to date also took place during Bashar al‑Asads tenure. In March 2004, sometimes violent mass demonstrations began in al‑Qamishli and spread to all of Syria.

The catalyst for the demonstrations was a soccer match between the al-Jihad team from al-Qamishli and al-Futua, the Arab team from Dayr al-Zur on March 12, 2004. The inability of local security forces to separate rival fans in the stadium and the a journalists mistaken announcement of the deaths of children in the stadium. The resulting pandemonium caused widespread unrest. An angry crowd consisting not only of Kurds but also of Muslim and Christian Arabs gathered in front of the stadium and provoked the deployment of additional security forces who cracked down on demonstrators killing seven Kurds.

During the mass demonstrations and funeral marches on March 13, the outrage over the alleged deaths of the children was transformed into anti‑Syrian, Kurdish‑national ralliesreflected in pro-Kurdish slogans, the carrying of Kurdish flags, and the violence against symbols of state rule. Tens of thousands of people took part in public protests, and the demonstrations spread from al‑Qamsihli to other cities in al‑Hasakah province, to Afrin (Jabal al‑Akrad) and to Ayn al‑Arab (Kobani), to Damascus and Aleppo.[4] It took the Syrian security forces more than a week to fully restore order.

Demonstrations of this magnitude had never before occurred in the history of the Syrian Kurds. The sheer number of demonstrators and the fact that the unrest encompassed all of Syrian Kurdistan was new. The reaction of the Syrian state was accordingly harshthe number of those killed or arrested was unparalleled in comparison with earlier events. At least 32 persons were killed by security forces, the number of people arrested was said to be about 2 000.[5]

Hopes were high that after the uprising in al‑Qamishli, a new Kurdish movement would develop. These hopes were not fulfilled. However, it seems that the Kurdish political partiescurrently 13 for a population of approximately two million finally understood that they can only work more effectively if they cooperate. In December 2009, after exhaustive discussions, the Kurdish Political Council in Syria, a union of eight Kurdish parties, was founded and subsequently organized coordinated moments of silence and comparable activities.

The Kurdish policy of Bashar al‑Asad does not differ significantly from his fathers strategy towards this minority during the 1990s. Those Kurds who openly stress their Kurdish identity are persecuted, while non‑political, Arabized Kurds have nothing to fear. It is likely that the Kurdish opposition could be included in the existing system if the Syrian government were to invest in Kurdish regions such as the Jazirah, to naturalize stateless Kurds, and to provide for cultural rights. There is considerable evidence to show that Kurdish parties would be willing to accept such a deal and forgo the fundamental democratization of Syria.[6] So, why is Bashar al‑Asad uninterested in appeasing significant parts of the opposition? One possible explanation is that in his view, the Arab identity of Syria is the last ideal left to unite the country. Currently, neither pan‑Arabism nor socialism plays a significant ideological role. Another possible explanation is that, above all, the security apparatus, not the president, is interested in the ongoing conflict with the Kurdish population. The security services right to exist is closely linked to the existence of enemies of the systemexternal as well as internal. Finally, thousands of Syrian pounds are paid by the relatives of each Kurdish political prisoner to get them out of prisons and detention centers. Arresting and releasing people have become a lucrative business for members of the secret services.


Eva Savelsberg is a sociologist and researcher at the European Centre for Kurdish Studies in Berlin. She is an expert on Syria and Iraq and published several articles on these subjects. Currently she is finishing her PHD on Kurdish nationalism in Syria under the French Mandate. She can be reached at: mail@kurdologie.de. Siamend Hajo is a political scientist and researcher at the European Centre for Kurdish Studies is Berlin. He is an expert on Syria and Iraq and director of the website www.kurdwatch.org, an independent internet portal that reports on human rights abuses against the Kurdish population in Syria. He can be reached at: Siamend@kurdwatch.org.

[1]Human Rights Violations since 2009, KurdWatch, http://kurdwatch.org/statistics/statistics_en.html (accessed January 31, 2010).

[2] Stateless Kurds in SyriaIllegal Invaders or Victims of a Nationalistic Policy?" KurdWatch, Report 5, March 2010, http://www.kurdwatch.org/pdf/kurdwatch_staatenlose_en.pdf (accessed January 25, 2011).

[3] Decree 49Dispossession of the Kurdish Population? Commentary on the Political Implications and Economic Consequences of a Decree, KurdWatch, Report 6, July 2010 http://www.kurdwatch.org/pdf/kurdwatch_dekret49_nivisar_en.pdf (accessed January 25, 2011).

[4] The Al‑Qamishli Uprising: The Beginning of a New Era for Syrian Kurds? KurdWatch, December 2009, http://www.kurdwatch.org/pdf/kurdwatch_qamischli_en.pdf (accessed Jan. 25, 2011).

[5] The Qamishli riots were followed by the murder of the Kurdish Shaykh Xeznewi in May 2005. In all probability, this murder can be credited to the Syrian intelligence service. More deaths occurred in connection with various Noruz festivities, most recently in March 2010 in al‑Raqqah, when Syrian security forces fired into the crowd. A number of deaths of Kurdish recruits to the Syrian Army remain unexplained thus far. However, due to the lack or reliable data before 2009, it is difficult to sayas some authors dothat we face an increase in arrests and prison sentences for Kurdish political activities since 2004. See for example Rober Lowe, The serhildan and the Kurdish national story in Syria, in Robert Lowe & Gareth Stansfield , The Kurdish Political Imperative (London: Chatham House, 2010), 161-179.

[6] Discussion with representatives of Kurdish parties, Cairo, January 2225, 2009.