Of the more than 2 million Kurds in Syria, the largest concentration resides in Hasakah province, which is 70 percent Kurdish. The other major concentration is in the district of Efrin in the northwest, where their numbers have doubled over the course of the civil war. These areas are commonly referred to by Kurds as Rojava (western Kurdistan). Kurds also comprise a significant minority in both Damascus and Aleppo.
Hasakah is strategically important, containing the majority of the country’s oil resources and functioning as the agricultural heartland. With the capture of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border and Yarubiya on the Iraqi border, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG), now control most of Syria’s oil resources and its means of export.
The Democratic Union Party was forged out of an alliance with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Between 1980 and 2012, some 5,000 Syrian Kurds were killed fighting with the PKK against the Turkish government. Today, the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People in Syria number more than 15,000, nearly 10 percent of them women.
Since 2011 a three-front war is being fought in Syria, where workers, farmers and their allies are pressing for greater democratic and political rights against the Bashar al-Assad government.
At the center of the war is the grinding conflict by rebel groups under the banner of the Free Syrian Army against the weakened Syrian military, which has been propped up by local pro-government paramilitaries and Hezbollah forces sent from Lebanon and backed by Tehran. Recently pro-Assad forces made gains, with a ground offensive in the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo that followed a campaign of air and artillery bombardments and sieges aimed at starving the population.
The second front is being fought by reactionary al-Qaedist Islamist groups — primarily the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the al-Nusra Front — seeking to wrest territory and control over resources amid the fray, particularly in areas under sway of rebel groups and Kurdish militias. While they have gained ground in some regions against the former, battles against the Kurds have been largely unsuccessful.
The third is the Kurdish fight for control of the regions where they predominate, which has made steady progress.
The Kurds were oppressed under the six-century reign of the Ottoman empire and have faced more of the same since that empire fell at the end of the first World War. At that time, victorious powers of London and Paris carved the region into what are now Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel — consciously dividing the Kurds within imperialist-drawn borders and denying them a homeland. The capitalist rulers of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria maintained the second-class status of the Kurds after the end of colonial rule in the Middle East following World War II.
History of Kurds in SyriaIn 1962, the Syrian military regime stripped 120,000 Kurds of Syrian citizenship, declaring them “foreigners living in the country.” They and their descendants were forced to carry red ID cards identifying them as foreigners, without the right to own land. Use of the Kurdish language was restricted.
In 1963 the Baath party came to power, declaring Syria “an Arab country,” and defining Kurds as “refugees displaced from Turkey.” After Hafiz al-Assad came to power in 1970, the regime began a policy, which continued under the rule of his son and current president Bashar al-Assad, providing incentives and special privileges for Arabs to move to Hasakah province in an effort to weaken Kurdish influence.
The biggest shift in favor of the Kurdish struggle for national sovereignty came as an unintended consequence of the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iraqi Kurds took advantage of that conflict to carve out an autonomous region there under the Kurdish Regional Government.
These developments inspired Kurdish fighters throughout the region. In 2004, dozens of Kurds were killed by Syrian government forces in the suppression of an uprising in Qamishli, a city on the Turkish border in Hasakah province.
When protests against Assad swept across the country in 2011, Kurdish youth joined in. PYD cadres who had been driven out of the country by Assad’s repression and were encamped with Turkish PKK fighters, returned to Syria. They largely stood aloof from the unfolding protests. But these developments opened the door to a new rise of Kurdish national struggles.
“It is our right to self-determination in the Kurdish areas,” Redur Xelil, PYD spokesman, said in a Nov. 11 Reuters article. “We’re not asking for separation, simply the right to manage our affairs.”
“The Kurds in Rojava will continue with the autonomous governance until a new Syria emerges. In that new Syria, Kurds want to be recognized and accepted,” Kurdish journalist Amed Dicle wrote in Jadaliyya, an online magazine of the Arab Studies Institute based in Washington and Beirut. “If in this new Syria a regime happens to emerge that denies the Kurds their dignity and rights in Syria, such as Al-Nusra or the current regime, Kurds will enter a new period of struggle.”
On Nov. 7 thousands of Kurds in Turkey demonstrated waving the Kurdish national flag near Nusaybin on the Syrian border where the Turkish government is building a wall to separate the two Kurdish communities. Turkish forces dispersed them with tear gas.
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