KSA sponsored panel at MESA

Kurds in Syria: Past, Present, and Future
Kurdish Studies Association sponsored panel
Middle East Studies Association annual meeting
Denver, CO

Sunday, 18 November 2012 at 2pm (see MESA program for location details)

Christian Sinclair, University of Arizona, Organizer
Shayee Khanaka, University of California – Berkeley, Chair

This panel brings together scholars from various disciplines to shed light on the situation of the Kurds in Syria–the largest minority in the country, yet the smallest population of Kurds of the major Middle Eastern states with Kurdish minorities–by examining the past, discussing the present, and pondering the future.

Since March of 2011 Syria has been embroiled in a bloody conflict that will see, at some point, significant changes for the Kurdish minority in that country. Should the revolution succeed, Kurds may have an opportunity to become equal partners in a post-Ba’ath, post-Assad Syria. Equality for Kurdish citizens of Syria has long been debated in many arenas, including cultural, political, linguistic, and economic. The push for equality and rights has been the cornerstone of the Kurdish struggle in Syria. In that context, this panel will explore questions pertaining to the relationship Kurds have had with the state beginning in the late Ottoman period, continuing through the French Mandate, independence, and the Ba‟ath party era. By examining Kurdish demands over these periods, we will try to envision a Syria in which Kurds are not forced to conform to Arab cultural and linguistic norms.

Kurds themselves are a disparate group in Syria – ideologically, culturally, and geographically – but do share the common goal of creating the space in which to express their Kurdish identity. This includes groups that may be considered to be on the fringes of Kurdish society, such as the Yezidis.
Some questions that come to mind for this panel are: How have Kurds maintained their cultural identity under Ba’ath rule? What were some of the assimilationist policies propagated in the post-UAR period? How effective have Kurdish political parties in Syria been at representing Kurdish aspirations? What type of role may Kurds play in a new Syria? Will Kurdish political parties be legalized and have the ability to represent Kurds in a new government? What might a new Kurdish-Arab relationship look like given past animosities?

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Identity building among Yezidis from Syria: Discourses of history, homeland, and exile
Sebastian Maisel, Grand Valley State University

This paper reviews the analytical concept of identity and community building among the Yezidis of Syria over the past 100 years. The paper argues that a historical context of space and territory is crucial to understand how Yezidi identity evolved as a distinct minority tradition and unique set of social and cultural practices which has allowed the evolution, development and survival of this ethno-religious community on the fringes of Kurdish society. Since the late 19th century the changing political configuration of the region brought about new ideas of religious diversity, ethnic identity and political community. These ideas had far reaching repercussions on the construction of Yezidi identity, on the interaction with the states which ruled the Yezidi peoples and on the relationship with other minority groups. Of particular interest is the contested relationship between the Yezidis, Sunni Kurds and Western Christians during the late Ottoman Empire. Its legacy is crucial to understand the position of the community in the political sphere of emerging nation states such as Turkey, Iraq and Syria. The French mandate system encouraged the process of identity building among minority groups. Thus the paper analyzes how the two separated Syrian Yezidi communities were affected by this process. It shows that the dynamics of the community‟s self-definition and representation has changed within this short amount of time and led to the embracing of new political concepts of “us” versus the “others”. They also shaped new ideas of space and territory, which are widely discussed and resulted in new definitions for imaginative concepts such as “homeland”, “patriotism” and “exile” during the Ba‟thist rule over Syria. Sources evaluated for this study include interviews with Yezidis from different social and religious groups, educational levels, and regional backgrounds. In addition to the oral narratives, official Syrian, German, and Yezidi documents were analyzed to supplement the empirical data.

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Kurdish-State relations in Syria: A precarious balance
Matthew Flannes, US Department of State

With uprisings engulfing much of Syria beginning in the spring of 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Assad reverted back to numerous longstanding justifications for its rule. One such rationalization was the protection and advancement of minority rights in the ethnically and religiously divided country, a claim that was supposedly demonstrated by the decision in April to grant statehood to thousands of stateless Kurds in the northeast. Yet Kurdish-state (and Kurdish-Arab) relations have been anything but cordial in the past decade, with the al Qamishli massacre in 2004 and the recent death of Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo bringing the relationship to its lowest historical point.

In order to understand the history and trajectory of Kurdish-state relations in Syria, I will analyze how the social, political and economic status of the Syrian Kurds has been altered by the rule of Bashar al-Assad, beginning with the nadir of the 2004 Kurdish uprisings. I will argue that the regime has traditionally been caught between espousing religious and ethnic pluralism as a mechanism for justifying minority Alawite rule, and suppressing Kurdish political rights in order to keep rivals at bay. Indeed, this tension came to a breaking point with the 2011 uprisings and the presence of mass protests in the Al-Hasakah Governorate.

I will then analyze the current Kurdish-Arab relationship in Syria, focusing particularly on the minority’s rapport with the Sunni Arab majority and its Shi’a counterparts. In doing so, I will argue that the traditionally tense relationship between Kurdish and the Sunni Arab population has been drastically altered by their mutual opposition to the Assad government. It will also be necessary to briefly examine Syria‟s regional alliances, particularly with Turkey and Iraq, in order to understand how both the state and the Syrian Kurdish population have used cross-border alliances and resources to strengthen their respective positions. In total, this paper will analyze the Kurdish component of the 2011 Syrian uprising in detail in order to determine how the regime‟s policies regarding ethnic and religious minorities may guide its response to the ongoing protest movement calling for its overthrow.

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Old borders, new concepts: Some remarks on how to respect Kurdish national rights in a unified Syria
Eva Savelsberg, Europäisches Zentrum für Kurdische Studien (EZKS)

In November 2011, the Syrian National Council issued a draft of a political program. The paragraph concerning the Kurdish question reads as follows: The constitution guarantees national rights for the Kurdish people and a resolution to the Kurdish question in a democratic and fair manner within the framework of the unity of Syrian territory and people, as well as the exercise of rights and responsibilities of equal citizenship among all citizens.
I will, first of all, present an overview about the positions of the Syrian-Kurdish political parties concerning the future of the Syrian Kurds – positions currently ranging from “cultural autonomy” to “self government.” At the same time, all Syrian-Kurdish parties lack a clear concept of how national Kurdish rights should be implemented in a future Syria.

Secondly, I will argue that Kurdish national rights and Syrian unity do not necessarily contradict each other. For many decades, it was common to suppose that self-determination can only be fulfilled through separatism, secession and independent statehood. Thus, the right of the Kurds to self-determination was believed to be in direct conflict with the political unity and territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. However, today it becomes increasingly clear that secession and separatism are not the only ways to fulfill the right of a people to self-determination. Many democracies across the world have developed legal and constitutional arrangements that respect and safeguard the autonomy of more than one national or linguistic group. This was a response to the fact that often state-borders do not overlap with national and linguistic border. I will discuss this approach, known as intra-state self-determination, as a way to fulfill the national rights of Syria’s Kurds within a unified Syria.

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Assimilation and Arabization: Language and linguistic identity amongst Kurds in Syria
Christian Sinclair, University of Arizona

The exclusion of non-Arab identities in Syria was institutionalized with the creation of the Syrian Arab Republic. Syrian independence from France was won in the context of Arab nationalist discourse. The Kurds, while not the only non-Arab minority in Syria, make up the largest non-Arab minority at 10% of the population, and are perceived as the gravest threat to the state given the history in Turkey and Iraq. Beginning in 1956 a succession of Arab nationalist regimes came to power in Damascus and began suppressing the Kurdish minority. The current revolution in Syria may provide a turning point for Kurdish identity. Until now, Kurds have been an excluded group in all social, economic, and political aspects of life. They have had to give up Kurdish in favor of Arabic and accept Arab cultural and political values and goals. In a post-Assad Syria, Kurds may gain acceptance as an official minority group.

Anti-Kurdish repression grew harsher after the demise of the UAR in 1961. The following year, the government carried out a special census in Jazirah and revoked the citizenship of some 120,000 Kurds who could not prove that they had been resident in the country since 1945. A media campaign was launched against the Kurds with slogans such as “Save Arabism in Jazira!” and “Fight the Kurdish threat!” Kurdish land was seized, the government began replacing Kurdish place names with Arabic names, and they resettled thousands of Arabs into Kurdish areas bordering Turkey and Iraq. The situation worsened after a 1963 coup brought to power the Ba‟ath Party, which had been militantly anti-Kurdish since its inception in Syria in the mid-1940s. Ba‟athist ideology is based on socialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism and offers no space for a strong, non-Arab minority group. Consequently the party put into effect draconian Arabization policies, which including harsh penalties for using the Kurdish language. Today, the language is still officially banned, though one Kurdish-language school has now opened in Aleppo.

In a new Syria, will Arabization and assimilationist policies end and allow Kurds the official space to be Kurdish? This paper explores the past policies affecting Kurdish linguistic identity and offers insights on Kurdish aspirations in a new Syria, one that is not built on a forced conformity of Arab identity.

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